Author: Dan Hauck, ex-BBHer, now Planning Director at Sony Music UK

The title might sound a bit presumptuous, but that’s not the intention. Clearly, there are a huge number of things that music labels can learn from agencies, and indeed most labels are only starting to embrace things that have been commonplace in agencies for years.

Why should anyone listen to an industry that is in such obvious structural and financial turmoil? Well, partly because that’s exactly why the music industry is starting to embrace change where it once ignored it, happy to let the CD dollars roll in. Those days have well and truly gone, and that has brought a realization that if they don’t do something new, they might not be doing anything at all.

But mainly because the particular nature of the music industry has led to certain practices that I believe agencies can learn from. I’ve worked at Sony Music for a year now. We’ve tried to establish some of the basic principles of brand planning into the way in which marketing campaigns are created – proper understanding of audiences, an informed neutral approach to channel planning, artist/campaign propositions, creative briefs, full campaign evaluation etc etc.

In truth, some initiatives have worked better than others. There are factors unique to the music industry that can make planning for bands more difficult than for brands (incredibly short lead times, and the difficulty of working with a living and breathing product, to name two).

But there are also factors particular to this industry that lead a planner in music to a certain type of planning, one which I think can offer some interesting learnings for the discipline as a whole.

1. We have to respond to buying not just liking in real-time

The music industry is arguably more responsive to sales results than any other. Every single day the daily charts are circulated around the office, poured over and talked about. This can lead to some knee-jerk reactions (could you imagine a car brand killing spend on a model launch after 3 days!?), but it also offers a great resource for marketing personnel, giving an immediate measure of not only who likes a campaign (through views, friends, likes, posts etc) but also how many are buying. This allows you to adapt the emphasis of the campaign, and also to build in gateways up front for when different phases of the campaign will kick in (e.g. move into mainstream media once we hit 60k sales).

I’ve been in countless situations as a brand planner where the client has either been reluctant to share sales information, or doesn’t even have access to it themselves. Maybe as brand planners we need to make the case better to our clients that being on top of the hard data can lead to better results.

2.  We have to truly understand the specifics of our audience

Music is a fairly unique category in that almost every member of the UK population is a consumer, but tastes are incredibly varied (compared to, say, toothpaste). Audience demographics are therefore pretty blunt tools; an Olly Murs fan and AC/DC fan may be the same demographically but utterly different in their tastes and habits. So we’ve had to develop lots of ways to get under the skin of our audience; spying on gig crowds, our own music-based social network, a team of regional student journalists. Our biggest tool is a segmentation study that divides the UK population into 28 types of fans.

Looking back on my time as a brand planner, I’m embarrassed to admit that the ‘target audience’ part of my briefs often had the least time spent on them, sometimes just copied from previous briefs. Segmentation studies are understandably derided in agencies, and research is coming under attack from all quarters for leading to standardised work. But there are lots of ways of getting to know an audience, conventional and unconventional. By turning against research in the broadest sense, planning could lose the best tool it has to get to work that genuinely engages.

3.  We need to charm rather than tease

One thing that has struck me about music is how much time and effort goes into engaging certain individuals before the release of a record. Due to the power of radio as a medium, pluggers (and often the artists themselves) spend countless hours buttering up the decision makers at the key stations. Online promotion has become as important as offline and labels will now always give away tracks in the build-up to a key release (called ‘set-up’ tracks) to warm up fans before a release.

Typically on brand campaigns the most done prior to launch is a tease campaign for a couple of weeks. Brands (and therefore agencies) can arguably do more to charm rather than just tease the relevant individuals – product reviewers, cultural commentators, or existing customers – to get them excited and to maximize the buzz at launch. Should there be a ‘charm phase’ built into every plan?

4.  We have to think about how our ideas will move

Music is naturally viral – it’s something that people enjoy together, share with others, and use as an outward expression of their identity. The question for a music campaign is not if a release will spread, but how. We build a number of audience phases into all of our plans based on how – and how fast – we think it will propagate. So for a new guitar band we may start for single 1 in a group we call ‘Living It Live’ (indie-fans in their early 20s who regularly go to gigs), but will plan to move by single 2 and album into a more mainstream segment we call ‘White Collar Radicals’ (early 30s lads who live outside the big towns and love anthemic pub-rock). Each phase will have an associated set of media, and a message that is tailored for that group. This is not an exact science of course, and often a release will travel in an unexpected way, and we’ll have to react accordingly.

Thinking of a single target audience on a brand brief is almost like admitting at the beginning that your idea is not going to travel beyond a single group! At the very least there should be thinking around where an idea is likely to start, and where it’s likely to go next. It should go hand-in-hand with careful monitoring of the campaign as you’re going along, and the ability to adapt what you’re doing at the last minute

5.  We are concerned as much with tone as message

One thing I struggled with initially in music was the role of the proposition on the brief to creative teams. I quickly realised that the typical approach of identifying a message and then using communications to amplify and exaggerate it wasn’t relevant. The message is nearly always, in some sense, ‘the record is out now’. What really mattered was defining the right tone for the artist – based on what’s true to them, and what’s appealing to the audience – and then thinking about how to use channels in a clever way to convey this tone. The answer we got to was that we needed 2 propositions; the ‘Artist DNA’ that defines the artist and the ‘Campaign Mission’ that defines how we use channels to communicate it.

I’ve spent a lot of time as a brand planner frantically searching for the message the brand should communicate. Maybe that energy would have been better spent thinking about how the brand should feel. When this is combined with great thinking about channels then the brief becomes – ‘please convey this tone for the brand and here are some ways to use channels based on what we know about the audience’. Maybe that’s a more liberating brief for creative teams to work with?