How Leo Burnett’s Music Team Finds the Pitch-Perfect Band to Align With a Brand’s Message

Chris Clark and Alec Stern dish on rising stars Muddy Magnolias and what they listen for when they’re spinning tunes

With even the best copywriting and art direction, the right piece of music in a new campaign can make all the difference.

As with any piece of creative, a whole lot of strategy and a little bit of luck surfacing a song can help a campaign break through the wall of sound out there (and also help propel an act to the top of the charts). But what does it take to mix the right band with the right brand? Sometimes, it’s not about finding the superstars but those acts just on the cusp of stardom.

The impresarios in Leo Burnett Chicago’s music department have built relationships with emerging artists they feel share the same voice or values as the agency’s clients. The team invites its favorite artists to meetings with different teams or to perform as part of Leo Burnett’s Artist in Residence program, currently in its 10th year. The team’s musical matchmaking can elevate the cultural relevance behind the message in a brand campaign, helping to drive success for the client.

Leo Burnett’s music team, from left: Chris Clark, Jocelyn Brown, Alec Stern, Nick Keenan and Kalie Riemer

Case in point: With the massive success of P&G Always “Like a Girl,” it was essential to translate the authenticity of the program to creative work that features Always’ products, beginning with a spot for Always Infinity starring Team Canada goalkeeper Stephanie Labbie. With the star and message in place, the spot screamed out for a standout contemporary song delivered with swagger and confidence.

The music team suggested the song “American Woman” by rising stars Muddy Magnolias, but the title and lyrics made it hard to place the tune in a global ad. The music team and the creatives agreed to instead to come up with a new song, and because of their relationship with the band, pitched them the concept.

Chris Clark, Leo Burnett’s director of music, recalled the early conversations: “The band was very familiar with ‘Like a Girl’ and fans of the work, so the band spent the weekend in the studio composing new song ideas. Early the next week, they delivered the powerful, rhythmic anthem ‘Ain’t Gonna Stop Me Now,’ complete with a huge hooky vocal melody and fierce chorus.” Those qualities helped anchor the song to the brand’s overall message (you can see — and listen to — the spot, “Goalkeeper,” below).

“The most effective uses of music are the ones that demand attention, inspire the listener and clearly enhance what the brand or the concept wants to impart on the audience,” Clark said. “When you hear the booming, stadium-ready drums and vocal melodies of ‘Ain’t Gonna Stop Me Now,’ you’re essentially hearing the anthem of Always’ core audience.”

There’s also the level of trust other teams have for the music department that helps guarantee the music will work. “We’re able to articulate music in a way that is tangible for our internal teams and clients,” said Music Producer Alec Stern. “We know the unique truths we attribute to each of our clients, so we set out to find pieces of music that reflect those larger ideas, all the while living within the framework of the specific creative concepts. That’s the benchmark we shoot for.”

That trust extends to the musicians as well. “I think great people were working with great people,” said Kallie North, who along with fellow singer-songwriter Jesse Wilson forms Muddy Magnolias. “It was a perfect match. When you walk down the road in business, you don’t have to get discouraged when you come in contact with the wrong match. … We’re lucky, we found a good match right off the bat,” she said about the duo’s first experience working with an ad agency. “The personal touch is super-important,” added Wilson.

Working on “Goalkeeper,” especially writing the lyrics to “Ain’t Gonna Stop Us Now,” resonated with the artists. “It really connected with us as songwriters,” said Wilson. “Those are the types of processes we go through when we’re writing songs: ‘What do I feel, what do I want someone to feel when they hear this song.’ It’s not that far from our regular creative process.” Said North: “It was a fun break for us, to get to approach creating art in a different way.”

(The band’s new album, “Broken People,” comes out Oct. 14, and “American Woman” appears in this summer’s blockbuster “Ghostbusters.”)

More recently for Always, in a co-branded spot with Walmart, the team licensed the song “My Main” by up-and-coming Chicago female pop duo Celine Neon. “We are always looking for artists that clearly embrace the same values our brands stand for, so when we identify one, it’s really exciting for our team,” Clark said.

So is the goal to identify emerging artists to capture the most buzz? With the appearance of bands like Muddy Magnolias or After Romeo in spots for global brands, it can seem that way. While it makes sense to feature that big Beyoncé anthem in a Super Bowl spot, does recruiting a band on the verge add a coolness factor or help the bottom line during production? The short answer: It depends.

“If we just need a perfect lyrical complement to an idea, we’ll search the gamut of recorded music for whatever works best. If mass recognition is crucial, we know where to find the hits of past, present and predictable future,” Clark said. But if the brand is open to working with a breaking act, then “we’ll throw all of our favorite indie and unsigned bands into the mix and hope we make someone’s dreams come true with a huge, career-changing music usage,” he said with a laugh.

Added Stern: “At the end of the day, whether the artists are from Chicago or elsewhere, we are always looking for ways to give a louder voice to those we feel should be heard.”

Originally published at