As the Worldwide CEO of Brand Union, Toby Southgate manages all of Brand Union’s international teams and collaborates with other WPP agencies in an effort to continue to build truly global client brands. Southgate has been with Brand Union since 2008, and has held a number of roles within the agency, including managing director of Brand Union Middle East, CEO of Brand Union UK and most recently, CEO of the Americas. In his latest role, he helped grow the agency’s footprint facilitating the acquisition of Epigram, a Brazilian branding, identity and communications agency in 2014. Southgate has been a key player in the agency’s business development over the last eight years, bringing in major clients like The Coca-Cola Company, Shazam, GlaxoSmithKline and CBRE. A man not unfamiliar with the inside of an airplane, Southgate has lived in six different countries. He was born in London and educated at Millfield School and The University of Edinburgh, where he studied economics and history.
Reese: You don’t have an audio department at BrandUnion, is that correct?
Southgate: Correct. We’re not a huge business. Having everything in-house would be out of scale for us. We’re part consulting function, part creative agency.
Reese: Why is it that a lot of brands are so arbitrary when it comes to their audio? They’re very disciplined visually, but sonically, they’re all over the place. Why is that?
Southgate: I think brands have always cared about semiotics – the visual codes of recognition, and these are largely driven by color. If you think of a green beer – that’s Heineken. If you think of a red and white soft drink – it’s Coke. Very few brands have succeeded at the sonic equivalent. Maybe Intel… the Intel “ping” is a sonic code. What brands haven’t done is to create music that has become popular in contemporary culture. Brand historically invest in those visual codes and equities first.
Reese: But our ability to remember a melody is way more advanced than our ability to remember visuals. In the late stages of their illness, Alzheimer patients still recall songs from their childhood. We’re not doing music justice for what it does in the process. It’s something most of my interviewees in the first edition of the book acknowledged.
Southgate: I’m sure they would also acknowledge that the world in which they work is now on a device, a machine, more than it is on broadcast TV or in print. In an environment where you can influence through sound and audio, and through music, the creative product has changed a little, but it hasn’t been a revolution to the point where they’re thinking about sound and music first. I just finished reading the autobiography of Moby, the musician. He’s an artist, a thinker, overall just a very creative person – but the thing he ultimately became famous for is when he made an album that sought commercial success. He chose to license every single track from the album, specifically for the purpose of licensing for advertising, TV content, a movie soundtrack. Does that mean he was abandoning his artistic integrity? Was it a business decision? I wonder if there’s a classic battle between creativity and art.
Reese: There is, but it has changed compared to twenty or thirty years ago, when producing music for advertising was seen as “selling out.” That’s in the past. Today, it works - look at Red Bull, look at Coca-Cola, and their collaboration with musicians. Horseshoeing an audio logo on top of your brand, a 5-note motif, that’s in the past. I often compare brands to people. I think a brand’s behavior is comparable to a human being’s behavior – the style, the way they move, the way they talk, and, of course, the way they sound. That’s important for a brand. A brand has its own unique DNA.
Southgate: It also has to do with heritage… the brand and the business have to recognize the value and importance of authenticity and credibility. That’s what connects with the contemporary consumer.
Reese: It’s like Adidas’ relationship with Run DMC… the band didn’t get paid by Adidas for their song “My Adidas.” There’s honesty to that relationship, and that is very hard to reproduce. A simple endorsement deal won’t achieve that, because with endorsements, the brand is just looking for a quick credibility transfer from the artist to the brand. Consumers don’t want that anymore.
Southgate: I agree. In the past, things could be, in some ways, fudged over and glossed over. But we’re in a world of complete transparency now - you can find the answer to any question you like. There’s no hiding place anymore. So consumers become more alert to authenticity and credibility. You can find out immediately where a brand has come from. What is the Rudi Dassler story? What is the Adi Dassler story? What is the Mark Parker and Nike story? Where did these people come from, why are they able to build and lead relevant and interesting brands and businesses?
Reese: With that in mind, what do you think is going to be important for brands in the future?
Southgate: Loyalty is hard to earn. And consumers are more fickle and are more willing to experiment than ever before. They have more choice. So what we do to help brands succeed in the future is to help them understand a couple of major themes. One of them is how they can get comfortable with ambiguity. You can’t predict whether a brand will still be relevant, still be growing, still be attractive in the future. But if brands and businesses are comfortable acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers, that they don’t know what future holds in detail, but that they are ready with authenticity and credibility to lead organizations through periods of unpredictable change – that is very powerful. Also, a brand has to be able to define why it exists. Take, for example, Blake Mycoskie. He founded “Tom’s” shoes, and invented the “buy one, give one”-mentality - where you buy a pair of shoes from “Tom’s”, and they give a pair of shoes to a child in need. Versions of that model have been taken over by other companies. There’s an authentic purpose to the mission of that brand. Brands and businesses, even in toxic categories, need to have relevance for culture. It’s about how you connect to the world around you. You need to build a relationship with the humans and the audiences and the organizations you choose to align with, and take accountability and responsibility for your choices. You have to be prepared to be judged by your successes or failures, and also willing to adapt to change and reiterate much faster than organizations have been able to in the past. Then you can build a relationship that is relevant to the consumer.
Reese: When a client comes to you, would you advise them to be as disciplined sonically as they are visually?
Southgate: That’s an interesting question. My “dream client” conversation would be one where the client is open to seeing his brand and his business as a collection of almost unlimited experiences. Any brand you choose to engage with today, you do so on your own terms. You choose the purchase channel. You choose the mode of usage. You choose the frequency of purchase. And my agency’s view is very simple: Brands are defined by the experiences they create for people. By default, most of our clients first want to have a conversation about visual equities, visual assets, and control. But we have to be able to extend the conversation into all the other experiences that they may or may not have considered. Those experiences no longer sit in a function called “marketing.” It’s what I call the consumer journey, the audience journey - an audience that includes your shareholders and also every single employee of the brand, by the way. Brands live inside organizations, and that is just as important as their outside existence. The potency of unifying an organization around its core purpose, its core ambition, is very indicative of a powerful and unifying thought, that is likely to influence and take people on a journey.
Reese: When you act in your role as a brand consultancy, how do you respond to clients asking about what they should do about their audio? Have you been asked that question before? What are the main challenges?
Southgate: Well, one is the challenge of appreciation: Audio is an asset of value, which brands and organizations could and should invest in. And then there’s an issue of quantum and cost – how do you create audio assets that can become as as important and relevant a component as your brand experience and your visual assets? These things don’t often get considered together. Everyone in your previous book will have an experience of using an audio asset while pitching an idea, and the connection between words, pictures and music are incredibly powerful and delicate, but then nobody appreciates the cost of taking care of the music part properly. Whether you’re originating content, because you need something that can stand up alongside licensed content and become as relevant or resonant for you, or the pure cost of licensing something that is recognizable. My wife is a sound engineer, and she was constantly briefed by advertising agency as follows: “I want to use X piece of music, but I can’t afford the licensing, so I want you to create something that sounds a bit like it.” Which is of course utterly destructive to a brand experience. People know. The reaction is “oh, is that an Iggy Pop track? No, it’s a crap, tinny, instrumental-on-a-keyboard version of an XX track”.
Reese: It’s like promising lobster and then delivering crabmeat imitation.
Southgate: Exactly! That’s a great analogy. But I also think it’s an example of the transparent flow of information that I mentioned. If you as a brand or a brand owner are discovered as having ripped off a piece of music by The Rolling Stones, or the XX, or Calvin Harris, then that’s a negative experience for your consumers. Wherever you sit along that brand’s engagement journey, you’re not going to have a good opinion.
Reese: That’s why I’m saying that brands should team up with these artists, and create a soundtrack that fits the brand.
Southgate: I wonder how many artists became successful because they were pushed by organizations or brands. We’ve all sat in restaurants and hotels beforehand, pre-Shazam, and asked: “What’s this music?” Now you Shazam it, and it’s instant gratification. But you also make a judgment on whether that’s a positive or a negative experience.
Reese: It’s also interesting to see that in other environments, like retail. You can steer how long people are staying, if they are going to buy anything, et cetera – just by the choice of music that you play.
Southgate: That’s interesting. You’re right. The world of communications is the wrong way round when it thinks advertising has to come first. If the first thing you address are the visuals and a tagline, you know, that’s trying to live in a house before you know what materials you’re going to use. Olfactory is hard to create and deliver, obviously. But it isn’t hard to deliver a piece of music, especially nowadays, as it exists electronically. It’s something the brand should own, and should think about.
Reese: We’re in the trust-building business. As a brand, I can’t buy your trust. And I can very quickly lose your trust. It’s comparable to lying - you can tell subconsciously whether I’m lying once my voice doesn’t match the expression on my face. Even if I’m a really good liar, there’s something you detect on a subconscious level. Likewise, as a brand, it’s really important to be consistent at the audio consumer touch points.
Southgate: That is a critical component of authenticity. Great brands are synonymous with and defined by experiences, and they understand that those experiences are a collection of sensations - whether they’re visual or audio, or olfactory – and that every single one of them has to be considered and has to be beautifully connected to the other. That’s success. They all have to be brilliantly designed, written, or brilliantly delivered through music. So that notion – brilliantly designed and beautifully connected – is a very potent driver for me for the organization we want to be and all the work we want to do for our clients. And I think that the unfortunate thing, as much as brands have become defined by visual assets, they have also become synonymous in our world with a logo, a badge. That’s as far removed from the future of powerful, effective, evocative, emotional connections with brands as I can imagine. So my desperate hunger for Brand Union is that all of our people and all of our clients think about that.