This is the full transcript of the December 2009 conversation I had with Steve Milbourne and Phil Clandillon, Creative Directors of Sony Music London, in their Kensington office. I interviewed them on behalf of The Music Network; you can read the published story here. [Note: if you're viewing this in an RSS reader, the video embeds might not work. I don't know why. Click through and view it on my blog.]
Andrew: The main reason I’m aware of your work is because of the few campaigns you’ve been behind in the last year, like AC/DC, Kasabian, Editors, and Calvin Harris. Those are the ones I’m aware of, but before we go into those, I thought I’d ask you how you got into the music industry, and why.
Steve [pictured right]: The reason I got into the music industry is because I’ve always loved music. From my early twenties, what I wanted was to get into the business side of it. Then I kind of got into the whole creative thing. I went to work at an indie label after graduating from uni, called Kitchenware Records, which is based up in Newcastle. They’re sort of big old indie from the ‘80s. I had lots of success in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, and then they sort of reformed the label. It was a new entity in 2003.
I went to work for them in 2004 at the exact same time they signed a band called Editors, which you know of. I got interested in their situation of not having any money to do anything with, so it was like I was given a band to work with and then I’d have to do the artwork, make a music video, do stuff online, make websites, and all that sorts of stuff with zero pounds to work with, which is quite good. I might have spent a few years just sort of honing all these skills that crossed a wide range of areas, from web programming to production and film, so it all kind of came in handy when I came to Sony about two and a half years ago, and then Phil came in. They brought us in separately but then we got put together as a creative team and that’s it.
Phil [pictured below left]: I’ve basically spent the last ten years doing half my work in the music industry and half in advertising, in sort of digital agencies. I started off doing digital work around TV and then interactive TV. Then the dot-com crash happened and there weren’t any jobs, so I came to London. I got heavily into the club scene at the time, and met some people that were running nights and things like that. I ended up getting an office in an online radio station, which is in the Truman Brewery, and basically electronic artists were coming in to do shows and DJ on the station. I just ended up getting freelance work through that and I worked for years for an outfit called Sancho Panza, who are most famous for Notting Hill Carnival, for doing a big stage at Notting Hill Carnival. They also did warehouse parties and things like that.
From there I got offered a job at a record label, Sanctuary Records, which is now part of Universal. I started doing web stuff for them and after about three years there I got kind of fed up with the record industry as it was then and went back to advertising stuff. I worked at a digital ad agency and then a larger advertising group after that.
About two years ago I decided it was a good time to go back to music. Sony came knocking so I came and met Steve and decided I could probably work with him, and that’s that. We kind of kicked it off from there, essentially.
Is Creative Director a very common role within labels? I’ve not really heard of it before.
Steve: Not particularly. We’re quite unique in what we do, with regard to the type of work that we do in the music industry, I guess. Essentially we run almost a boutique agency in-house and our clients are with various labels within the Sony umbrella. I don’t think the other labels do that.
What it means is we essentially take on various groups from the big labels in here, which are Epic, Columbia, RCA, Syco, which is Simon Cowell’s label, and then some smaller labels, as well – Jive, and Deconstruction. What we do is get a brief of a band that Sony Music want to promote this band or this artist, then we come up with the creative and sort of service them as our clients.
Phil: We sort of created the advertising creative time type model inside of the record label, which is kind of unique. There really isn’t anyone else doing that. The reason we can do it is because we’ve spent years gaining these skills of design, programming, video production, music skills in Steve’s case as well. We don’t do tons and tons of that stuff, hands on, but if we have to we can. When we’re commissioning the work we know what to go and get. It makes it easier for us to run a complex project because we’ve done it all in the past and we know how to do it, essentially.
Steve: A lot of that stuff gets really complex at times. It’s quite weird; the sort of stuff we do is often experimental. You’re kind of always sitting on the edge; “is this going to work or not? Am I going to waste loads of money?”
Phil: We’re always sticking our necks out, I guess, and one of the reasons we can do that is because what we do is very cost effective. It’s not as expensive as traditional advertising so it means we can do things that reach more people without spending as much money. That gives us a little bit of freedom to experiment and do more exciting things. To be honest, it generally goes fairly well, but if you do make mistakes it’s not the end of the world because you’re only talking about relatively small amounts of money.
Steve: Yeah, we haven’t had any that haven’t worked out, yet.
Phil: We presented all our work at a creative review conference, last week. A lot of questions we had from the audience were all about “This seems very risky. How could I sell this to the client if I was at an agency?” On the one hand our answer was you need the experience to be able to pull stuff like this off. If you don’t have the experience it will go wrong. The other thing is a lot of the stuff we do is designed to be shared. We don’t buy media. We don’t pay for advertising space, and in a way, as long as you’re doing something with good intentions, the worst thing that’s going to happen is it’s going to languish in the corner of the Internet somewhere and no one is going to see it. It’s not like putting a really inappropriate advertising campaign across London on billboards or whatever. It’s a totally different proposition. That allows us to take a few more risks, I guess.
Steve: Going back to your question about our job title; I guess it depends on what you term as Creative Director. I think that’s slightly misleading. That’s what our titles are, and it’s in the context of what we do. I guess other labels have got creative directors, but probably do different things to us. I think what other labels – I’m not aware of any other labels who’ve got a creative team, in-house, who do this sort of work that Phil and I do. There are other creative directors in this building who look after different things, like artwork, or styling, and stuff like that. That’s just a title. It’s more about what we do, really.
I mentioned the four campaigns of yours that I’m aware of: Kasabian, AC/DC, Editors, and Calvin Harris. I’m interested in how you run these as online marketing campaigns. Say, for example Kasabian ['Football Hero' video embedded below]; could you talk me through how that idea started and how it came across through the production?
Steve: We work closely with a consumer insight team here. I guess part of what is loosely termed “briefing process” is that the consumer insight team, every time there is an artist with an album coming out, they do a lot of market research on that artist, on the audiences for that artist, and we have this thing called the ‘Segment Bible’, which is the UK music market split into 28 segments of consumer, based on age, interests, everything from what brands they buy, where they hang out, how much money they spend. It’s very in depth actually, so when we take on an act to do the online campaign for, we get told who the applicable segments are, and we get the opportunity to speak to people within that segment. They come in and we can talk to them. With Kasabian it was kind of – we already sort of know about Kasabian quite well because it’s their third album and –
Phil: But there were some pretty obvious things coming out. With Kasabian, we were looking at – we have this thing called an artist DNA, which is a document that sums up everything to do with the audiences for that audience, what matters to them about the band, and so there were really strong themes coming out of that to deal with football, gaming, and the way they hung out with them, what they actually did, what they’re into.
Steve: It’s interesting, that audience actually cares more about football and gaming than they do about music. Music is sort of a secondary thing in their lives.
Phil: It was kind of sensible to try and reach them through those channels so we basically said let’s come up with a piece of content that –
Steve: Kind of seems really obvious but I guess it wasn’t like a eureka moment but it was like – Kasabian is sort of synonymous with football, especially here in the UK.
Phil: If their music is used on the titles of the iTV football program and stuff like that and they’ve been on the Sony Bravia ad with Kaka, the Brazilian and AC Milan footballer. And also, the band are fans of football. They’re fans of Leicester City.
Steve: They are big football fans. We kind of started off on this idea of doing something with football and then I guess that kind of progressed. We were thinking about loads of different ideas and kind of progressed into gaming.
Phil: I guess quite a lot of that stuff involves music as well, so that kind of came around to trying to build a giant game of essentially a Guitar Hero type game that people could play with footballs. That was the pipe dream, and from then on it was trying to make it a reality. It was quite a lengthy process in the end!
Steve: I think that we were sitting downstairs there, when we finally got exactly what we wanted to do. Especially, we knew we wanted to get some really cool, freestyle footballers to do it as well. We don’t know any, so then we had the whole process of finding out how we could build it, who we could get to play it, where we could build it, and all that sort of stuff.
Phil: Again, we always work with fairly tight budgets and that was the case with this, as well. It had to be doable for a reasonably modest sum of money so that was a challenge as well. We used the hardware, and the software was all open source and it was pretty low cost, all that stuff. There was a very big production on the day but it was only for a day. The R&D process was relatively inexpensive. Then it was a case of building it and seeing how it would go, essentially, and spending a whole day building, and filming it.
Throughout the whole process is there the risk that the thing wouldn’t work or the footballers weren’t good enough to make it work?
Phil: Absolutely, yeah.
Steve: I think so, but –
Phil: We kind of knew that it would be okay.
Steve: Just the experience, you minimize all the risks, so –
Phil: The hardware, the actual game we built wasn’t technically complicated.
Steve: No, it was one of the least technical things that we’ve done, really.
Phil: That was okay. We knew that was going to be alright so it really came down to would the footballers have enough time to practice, because it was something that wasn’t going to be easy to play.
Steve: And, just the logistics of them playing it, balls bouncing everywhere, and all that sort of stuff.
Phil: And the camera gear, as well, to be honest; there was a lot of expensive gear on the shoot and the balls were just flying everywhere. I was sure we were just going to smash everything.
Steve: Yeah, it was like – you can see in the film, there are the five footballers and each one of them has got a ball boy who is feeding them balls. Then, behind them are literally about 20 people shielding all of the cameras –
Phil: And jumping in front of the balls, saving something.
Steve: The cameras, and the monitors, and all that sort of stuff.
Phil: Yeah, the directors and monitors did get hit in the screen at one point, and it didn’t break. Luckily!
Steve: The thing is, and this is kind of what all our work is about; it’s an experiment and we’re not aiming to do things that are going to be perfect. What we want to do is to tell a story about how we did it, what we’re trying to do, and gear that towards an audience that is interested in that. No one is ever going to believe it if we made this –
Phil: It would be easy to fake –
Steve: … came in and faked it, and all the footballers play and get 100% and everyone is really happy. That’s not believable. To us, what we try and do is to create stories that people want to talk about. I think one of the main things that came out of the Kasabian one was most people said, “I’d love to have a go on that. It looks really difficult. It’s obviously difficult but how much fun is that.”
Phil: It’s like during the shoot, every time we’d stop the take and the footballers went off to have a drink or whatever, the whole crew was playing the game and we were creating just as much carnage ourselves as they were.
Steve: Most people we’ve spoke to since are like, “Where is it?” [laughs] We had to take it down, which was a shame.
Phil: As Steve says, it’s all about telling the story of what we’re doing. It’s not – we’re all about taking on ambitious experiments, trying to make them work, and documenting the process, and telling people about it. The way that works is it becomes an interesting story for people. They pass it on to their friends and it travels around naturally like that.
Steve: More importantly it becomes an interesting story for the type of people who we have an insight that they sort of might like that particular artist. Then it’s targeted marketing, essentially.
Phil: But it’s not that we’re pushing a message at people. We’re letting them spread it. It’s up to them. We’re not even expecting people to do it. It’s just if we create a piece of content that is good enough and interesting enough to those people, then they’ll naturally spread it around. That’s how your message gets out.
The way you describe it to me now, you knew that Kasabian fans were into football and gaming. It seems obvious that it was going to be a winner. I looked at it this morning. It was up to 800,000 views.
Phil: That’s been out for about a month now, so I think it’s still growing quicker than the AC/DC one did. [The Excel-based 'Rock N Roll Train' AC/DC video embedded below.]
Steve: That’s because it’s not the same segment as AC/DC. We sort of have an idea of population numbers of people in those segments.
Phil: There’s about 5 million, isn’t there?
Steve: 1.5 million in the UK. Then obviously our stuff sort of spreads around the world, as well. You can kind of get a good idea of whether you’re hitting the right people or not, and the amount of people in each territory that are hitting, and you get a good percentage on that from what you’ve spent to do it against how effective it’s been.
Beyond the view count, what are the metrics you use to measure the effectiveness of these campaigns?
Steve: We look at – I guess you could say a lot of people write stuff about what we do, and blog about it, and that’s one of the aims – to get people to share.
Phil: It’s less about the view count, to be honest – actually, those view counts, on average 70% of those views come from embedded videos and articles, and blogs and things. It’s much more about securing coverage in the right channels, that we know that the targeted audience reads. If ‘Football Hero’ pops up in the tech channels, the gaming channels, and sports channels, it could be newspapers, blogs, or whatever, then we know that we’ve done the job.
Steve: That one – most of the stuff that we’ve done often spreads out into traditional press, TV, and stuff like that as well.
Which is the ultimate, in many ways, wouldn’t it be? Obviously, your work is online based, but making that leap across is quite the achievement.
Steve: It’s quite interesting the way that you see it. It all transcends through various audience groups. When you read a newspaper, you’re kind of always reading yesterday’s news online. It’s like you pick up today’s newspaper and apart from the breaking stories, you could have read about all this stuff yesterday on Twitter, or blogs or stuff like that. It is interesting when you see – we don’t really press release what we do so it’s nice when you see a journalist has obviously seen it, and picked it up, and then written about it in the newspaper. It’s kind of cool.
Phil: Yeah, that’s kind of that natural spread. That’s what we kind of aim for. What we try and do is to earn our own media so that’s really the magic – getting in the right media and in the right place. If we did, then fine, that’s the job done sort of thing.
Steve: We believe that you shouldn’t have to pay for media, especially not online, because banner ads are really ineffective, and companies still spend a lot of money putting these banner ads on various sites.
Phil: Yeah, they’re utterly ineffective. I think it’s fair enough; if you want to advertise outdoors, for whatever reason, then you’re going to have to pay to get billboards. It’s as simple as that. But, if you want to advertise online, then it makes much more sense to me to try and earn your own media, in the editorial of sites, and stuff, rather than trying to buy ad space where no-one’s looking. And in order to do that, there’s no shortcut to it. You have to create content that people care about, essentially.
And as well as the content, the relationships with those people who write the content, I assume.
Phil: Oh, not necessarily. You’d be surprised.
Steve: I don’t think that’s as important because even the way that we sort of go about launching a campaign, we kind of experiment with a lot. Pretty much, our launch plan is to send it to a couple of blogs and –
Phil: Yeah, so in a particular area there might be a fanatical blog about something to do with electronics, or football, or something like that. Then we’ll send it to one of them and say, “We’ve made this thing. Do you like it? Do you want to cover it?”
Steve: One thing that we’ve sort of found is that generally bloggers and journalists want to kind of write their own content. They want to write their opinion on things and I think when you press release stuff, and you sort of bombard them with the copy, you tend to get a fairly uniform story but there’s not going to be much passion in it.
Phil: There is not much variety, so you get the same story everywhere. What we try and do is don’t even press release.
Steve: We just let people pick up on it because I guess if it’s good, people will do that. If it’s compelling, people want to share it. That just happens.
Phil: They’ll come to you with questions if they have questions, and you can answer them.
Steve: But you get people who write in about it for real, and you get people saying, “I’ve just seen this in Wired and here’s my opinion on it.” I guess people will talk.
So you guys didn’t really coordinate those placements?
Phil: Well, Creative Review, we’ll tell them what we’re up to. They don’t have to cover it, but we’ll tell them.
Steve: We’ve got a bit of a relationship with Creative Review, just in terms of we speak at some of their conferences and stuff like that.
Have you given any presentations lately?
Steve: We did Click two weeks ago.
Phil: Which is like a London digital industry, digital advertising conference run by Creative Review. Inevitably, you end up making some contacts, so next time we go back to – do you know Make Magazine, which is like a – we’ve got a great contact at Make, a real nice guy who’s interested in the technical side of what we do. We’ll tell him about what projects we’re doing and he’ll go, “Oh, I like this one, and I’ll write about this one,” or whatever. He’ll ask us some questions.
Steve: Yeah, but it’s not a formal thing. It’s more like conversation, only it’s the work that we’re up to at the minute. I think that it also depends on the type of project that you do because Creative Review, I guess will cover our stuff; it’s more of an industry thing. It sort of – because the projects vary quite a bit, you’re looking at different target audiences for it. We might not always have stuff that Make are going to cover, or Wired or people like that. It’s more about allowing self discovery in the channels of that audience.
Phil: When it came to Kasabian, we didn’t really know anyone in the gaming channels at all, but we didn’t have to worry about it – or football, but we didn’t need to worry about that. It just came up in all the major gaming sites, major football sites. It’s much more about making good content. You need to get it out there, at the same time. Once it’s out there, small waves –
Steve: I guess our theory is that if it’s good, and it’s compelling for people to share, it will do it anyway. If it doesn’t, then your content’s not good.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because it’s such a different way of thinking from the old way of spending on billboards, like you said earlier.
Steve: It’s like Phil said; instead of being a push model, it’s a pull model. Yeah, you’re exactly right; it’s completely different from just putting things in front of everyone’s faces. It’s allowing –
…the right faces, ones who will be interested in it, because it appears in those channels.
Phil: Yeah, so instead of pushing a message out and paying for media for it to be there, you are putting a piece of content out and hoping it will pull people to it, and that people will share it around. It’s totally about making the content compelling and tailoring it to the right audience. It would be difficult to be doing that without the targeting information.
Steve: We sort of talk about this a lot and talk about this with other people; I guess a lot of it is sort of digital creative agencies or creative agencies doing this type of content – I know a lot of people who do some really great work, and it’s really cool ideas, but I guess what we do which a lot of people don’t do is really think about who we’re targeting, rather than just having a cool idea. It’s having a cool idea for the right audience because it might be, sometimes, that we have to sell something to a bunch of 35-year old women, and it’s really easy to make assumptions and make mistakes when you’re making something that you think’s going to appeal to them. So having all this insight and artist DNA and stuff like that helps find something that you’ve got a good idea that they will be interested. They won’t feel like they’re being advertised to.
Phil: You’ve got to get out there and put yourself into their head essentially, and think, “Alright, if I was this type of person, what would I…” The actual people in the insight department will go as far to do this. They’ll spend a week in the life of a particular segment; they’ll consume the right media, go to the right things, so they’ll try to experience that person’s world so they understand it better.
A lot of people say, “That’s not very cool, targeting stuff, and consumer insight,” but what you’re doing is instead of filling the world with advertising which is generic, not aimed at anyone, and annoying for vast quantities of people, instead you’re trying to make something a certain type of person will be interested in. It will reach them naturally, through their friends, and the rest of them through channels they’ve been seeing, and the rest of the people just might see it. In a way, I would argue that type of advertising is more sensitive to end users than the current model of push advertising.
Steve: Yeah, and it’s interesting that it’s not really about numbers, either. It’s about quality of engagement and the people that you’re engaging.
Phil: Some of the segments have a very small active population so what we call the fanatical segments, which are really enthusiastic about music, and there’s not many of them. There might be 50,000 in the country.
Steve: If that’s who you’re aiming for, if that’s who you’re aiming a particular creative ad, in order to get something back out of it, then it’s not really about numbers; it’s about engaging those particular people.
Phil: So on the fanatics, we’ll look for smaller numbers, but engaging them for a longer period of time. The Editors project, that’s aimed at a fanatical segment, and that’s looking at smaller numbers. Something like 100,000.
Steve: But you’re looking at stupidly high engagement rates.
Phil: Yeah, like over 3 minutes per person, and an average of 4 tracks each across the application. That’s the opposite way of doing it. Some of the segments are, “Right, let’s go for a big audience, with low engagement.”
Steve: I guess it depends on the objectives of what you’re trying to do, and it really has to support the wider market and campaign for the ad, as well.
Phil: There will be other activity going on, posters and things like that, and events. Ideally, our activity will create a sort of buzz in the news at the same time as all that auxillary stuff is going around. Next time somebody’s buying some music, they’ll have it in their head that they’ve enjoyed this bit of content with that music in it.
You’ve had a few successes with these kinds of campaigns now. How do you think the label management view these kinds of campaigns? Are they starting to see more value, giving you guys a bigger budget to work with for these kinds of projects?
Steve: Kind of, I think it’s like anything; the music industry is very similar to the advertising industry as well. It sort of takes a long time to turn things around to new models, and to change the behaviors of old, in terms of something huge like advertising. Really, it’s about the way that people consume media, which is changing. Any big company that starts looking at new areas like that, it’s a bit like turning a super tanker. I guess it’s slowly but surely – we’ve kind of started rolling these campaigns out. We don’t spend enormous amounts of money, at all. In fact, anything but – it’s really modest sums, especially for the advertising world. It would be like pocket change.
I guess the labels and the company in general sort of do attach value to what we do because we’re kind of proving we don’t need to do media spend, that we get really good engagement rates, and that we’re making interesting content that people are interested in, that isn’t just a Kasabian album out now. I guess budgets are going up a bit, but then –
Phil: I think we may be seeing that over the last two years, they’ve gradually given us more freedom and more autonomy to do what we do. It isn’t directly giving us more money for our projects but they’ve made it gradually easier for us to do.
Steve: I think that’s like a trust. I think sometimes an artist or artist manager might kind of see on paper what we’ve proposed to do and kind of go, “Ew, that’s different,” and they’re very sensitive to how artists are perceived by the public and things like that. I guess when we do stuff they feel like they’re taking a bit of risk, as well, but I guess the more we do this stuff, the more people see that it actually works and we sort of do the artist good. I guess more freedom comes from having that trust.
Phil: I’d say that’s been the major change to the artists. It’s not like we’ve suddenly got tons of money to spend, but we do definitely have more freedom now and definitely have more trust from the managers and artists and people like that. That kind of comes back into the work, so that we can do better work next time around.
Steve: The other thing about budgets is sometimes having endless budgets stifles your creativity. I think it’s nice to be able to execute stuff within the budgets that we do, and execute it well. Often, it means that we are very hands on, but I guess that being hands on means we also sort of keep an element of control and ownership over what we do so we get it the way we want it. We don’t just have an idea, then pass it to someone else and say, “Go and make that.”
Phil: Under some extreme circumstances, we’ve actually been cleaning the floor after the shoot. If it has to be done, we’ll do it.
Steve: Exactly, and I think that’s good too, because you think, “What’s the best that I can achieve for this amount of money that I’ve got to spend, when I can’t actually just go in and pay for lots of people to go do it?”
Phil: It’s a bit like you’ll spend what you’re given, generally, so someone gives you fifty grand, you’ll spend fifty grand, but that doesn’t mean the work is going to be any better than if they’d given you twenty.
Steve: I guess one of the things, as well, is that because we’re kind like an internal agency, we’re not trying to make money out of anyone. We’re actually just spending what we need to spend to do the project. It might be sometimes that actually what we need to spend is half of the budget that we’ve been given, and in that case – brilliant. Often, it’s not. Often, we’re sort of sitting on the very edge of what we’ve got to spend because it’s often not very much, but –
Phil: Yeah, in theory, if we didn’t need the whole thing, we wouldn’t spend it, but in practice you’re talking about such small budgets that we do spend it all.
Steve: We’re working on a new project at the minute. It’s quite difficult. One of the guys that helped on the Calvin Harris project. ['Humanthesizer' video embedded below.]
Which other labels or teams in the industry are you aware of who do similar stuff to you guys? Do you think you’re unique?
Phil: There isn’t anybody doing what we do.
Steve: In the advertising industry, for sure.
Phil: There are some campaigns, like you might have seen the Oasis campaign –
Phil: Yeah, and that’s BBH in New York, an ad agency.
Steve: There are a lot of ad agencies that we really like the work of, and that we see doing really good work.
Phil: That’s who we see our peers as other people in the advertising industry, rather than –
Steve: Rather than the music industry. What we do is advertising for the music industry. That’s why we’ve got interesting projects to work with. We’re not trying to sell dog food. It kind of makes your job quite fun.
Phil: Less soul-destroying.
It does sound like a pretty awesome job, to get to be creative with artists’ work.
Steve: It is really cool, actually. We have a lot of fun.
Phil: Can’t complain.
Steve: We have loads of fun doing what we do. It sort of is cool to be able to have really creative ideas and then be able to execute them for products that you’re actually quite passionate about or even if not passionate about, just sort of is more interesting than something which people generally find mundane. I’m not hugely into commercial pop music, but when you’re doing something for a really commercial pop act, and you see the people that you’re engaging, they’re really passionate about it so it kind of makes what you do feel worthwhile, rather than sort of –
Phil: Trying to sell people something they don’t need.
Steve: Yeah, try to sell a product that people don’t have – don’t care about at all. It’s completely different and it does make the job sort of really worthwhile and really good fun to do.
Phil: I guess the other side of it is we’re always seeing R&D on new ideas, new technologies, and new things that we might develop and we have the freedom to be able to do that alongside our normal work, so that’s really good fun. We’re always tinkering with something, making something new, or trying to investigate how to do something.
That’s what I really enjoy, just getting my teeth into something that looks impossible and trying to make it happen. We’ll be trolling through the Internet, looking at writing programs, and drawing things, and trying to work out if we can make something work. It’s another fun side of it, what’s coming next, what are we going to do next.
I’ll leave it there. I’m out of questions. Could I grab a photo of you two as you are now?
View Phil Clandillon’s portfolio at: work.clandillon.com