Shostak looks back on 20 years of branding experience, having worked both for international companies and creative agencies. His numerous management and Vice President positions at Cisco, Arnold Worldwide, Young & Rubicam and SapientNitro have provided him with extensive branding expertise and a 360-degree perspective on the craft of marketing. In his current role as Senior Vice-President and Chief Marketing Officer at Economical, one of Canada’s leading insurance companies, he has been building a new and innovative insurance brand, Sonnet, in close cooperation with John Rocco, Marketing VP at Sonnet. In this 101GreatMinds interview, Shostak talks about his passion for music, it’s shifting role in digital marketing and the collaboration with creative agency Johannes Leonardo.

Reese: Michael, you’re a musician, right? Tell me a little bit about your musical background.

Shostak: I grew up with the love of music as a kid, I played the guitar, I loved the Beatles – classic story. My friend and I put together a band when we were 13 years old, I started playing in bars when I was 16 and continued through university. I was pretty proficient in it and until my mid-20s, that was going to be my career. I loved everything about it – the writing, performing, recording, touring… After university, the band I was playing in at the time almost got signed by a record label. Unfortunately, things fell apart, so I decided to do my MBA just in case I needed a fall back. It was through that MBA course in Marketing, Arts and Media Administration that I got exposed to marketing. I thought that, if the music thing didn’t pan out, I could work in the music business. I did some short stints at big music labels and hated it. To me, it was like selling my soul to the devil. I decided that I’d much rather work in an industry that’s still creatively driven and allows me to pursue a life-long passion for music.

Reese: Wow. I’m impressed. So, as a passionate musician with more than twenty years of marketing experience: How important is music in branding?

Shostak: I remember seeing Todd Rundgren speak at a conference years ago, and the one thing he said that stuck with me was “People don’t select music based on an artist or a genre, they pick it based on mood”. Mood as a designing factor for the music that people choose in the moment – if you translate that to advertising, that’s really the essence of it. You can certainly do a lot with film and story-telling, but music is the one thing that wraps it all. It’s the difference between a great film score and a bad one – it can make all the difference in setting the right tone, the right mood, the right interpretation of the story.

Reese: Can you put the importance of music and visuals into a percentage?

Shostak: I’d almost say they’re fifty-fifty. You need a good story that is authentic to who you are as a brand. At the end of the day, it’s a commercial that is there to serve a purpose and not just for the creative sense. But music can help elevate it to another level.

Reese: Most of the people I’ve interviewed agreed on the fact that music in brand communication is often an afterthought and that that we, as an industry, should treat it with more respect. Would you agree?

Shostak: What resonates with me is that music is an afterthought. And not because we don’t feel it’s important, but because it’s almost become an assembly line process where, as a final step, you go, “Oh, and now we need a piece of music”. I guess it’s just become the way things are done over the years, but there’s probably a better way to do it.

Reese: The song “What’s the best that could happen” in Sonnet’s “Balloon” spot was written exclusively for the commercial. Could you draw back the curtain on the process and the collaboration with Johannes Leonardo?

Shostak: Yes, that’s the one example that we approached differently. We were working on a launch campaign for which we had to produce 5 or 6 pieces. Sonnet’s Marketing VP, John Rocco, and I were on a shoot for one of the TV commercials in LA when Leo from Johannes Leonardo approached us and said, “Listen, we have this idea for a song and, on spec, we had a couple of composers demo up a song. We think it’s a brilliant piece of music that we could animate.” He literally had his iPhone in the parking lot and played us the song. And – because you asked about what went on behind the curtain – I was a bit skeptical at first about whether that made sense for us as an insurance. But it was Leo’s passion and vision for creating a piece of content to dimensionalize our new brand in a unique way that won me over.

Reese: So, what can we, as an industry, do to get better at using music in advertising, to treat it with the respect it deserves?

Shostak: I like to think of it in terms of film. You can’t separate a great film from a great soundtrack, whether it’s Star Wars or The Godfather. There’s a soundtrack and there was a lot invested in that music to elevate the power in the story. To me, creating a piece of content to connect with the consumer is no different. Why wouldn’t you invest in music as an extra layer to elevate the story? So, if you think to get someone’s attention in an auditory sense, then why wouldn’t you pull them in on the great musical content to help support your story?

Reese: How is the role of music going to change in the next 5 years?

Shostak: It’s going to become crucial. The smartphone has made music so much more accessible. People are used to music being a part of an experience, they create soundtracks for their moments. So, if you as a brand are not thinking of that as part of your brand identity, you’ll miss out.

Reese: You’ve worked with many great directors for your TV spots. What was the intention behind that?

Shostak: The one thing that the world of digital has done for us is that we’ve forgotten the craft of storytelling. If you believe in the power of storytelling to be important to your brand building over time, then to me, things like working with the best directors and using great music for our commercials just need to be part of that. To tell the story in the most impactful way, you have to think about it as a multidimensional experience. I think that’s the way modern brands will thrive. Maybe it’s arrogant but we hope that, in building the new brand of Sonnet, we can help set a higher bar for our peers. We want to prove that good marketing can be done even in a state-old category like insurance. It’s still early in the days for us, but things feel like they are turning out the way we’d hoped because we’ve invested in all the components – and music has been a key part of it every single time.

Reese: Is there a Sonnet spot where the music specifically elevates the power of the story?

Shostak: To me, the “Bride” spot is a great example of the power of music. It tells a very powerful story, it’s subtle, it’s provocative, perhaps controversial. We had already approved a near-final version of the edit with an orchestrated, very cinematic piece of music. Three or four days before it hit the traffic, our Johannes Leonardo agency partner Leo called us up and said, “Listen, we want to change directions here. The story is not coming through the way we want it and the problem is the music.” They literally went without even getting our approval and commissioned an indie band to do an original piece for those last five seconds of the spot. And he said, “Before you say no – listen to this”. Then he played this version that was 180 degrees different, from a cinematic piece to an indie piece and John and I were blown away. We would have never asked for it and would have never guessed that it would work, but it took a spot that was serious with a message that was important but uplifting. If you had asked me whether there was anything wrong with the music, I would have said “No, it’s great”, and Johannes Leonardo had enough insight and vision to say, “Wait, something’s not working well here”, flipped and brought it to us. And they took a risk on it, we could have said no. That’s what a great agency partner is.