By Eric Kuhn
Imagine your favorite film or television show without music. Now imagine an TV advertisement without any music. Music evokes emotions and plays a key role in creating memories.
When CBS' new President and Chief Marketing Officer Mike Benson wanted to create an ad, during the pandemic, reminding viewers that Fall TV was coming back, it's no surprise he turned to music first. Down the road from Benson's home office in Hollywood, singer and songwriter Rachel Platten (known for songs such as "Fight Song" and "Stand By You") was setting up her home studio and finding inspiration during these emotional times. The two came together to create an ad that wasn't actually about getting people to watch CBS, but instead to simply say, "thank you."
Watch magazine spoke with Benson and Platten about staying creative in a pandemic, the inspiration for the new song, and how this powerful and uplifting new branding campaign came together.
(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Photography by Anna Lee Media.
How have you both been able to stay creative during quarantine?
Rachel Platten: I am naturally creative. Songs flow to me all day long if I'm open to it. It's almost a matter of intentionally opening that channel in a way and being like, "Okay, I'm ready to start receiving songs." And when I do, it's almost like a faucet that turns on. But I have to get out of my own way first so that I can receive that inspiration. And that takes a lot of work.
But I've been able to stay inspired because this is an inspiring time for artists. Yes, there's the whole confusion and division and the fear that's all around us. That can easily get in the way of your art, but it can also fuel your art. I'm so emotional. When something happens that I need to process, the healthiest way for me to process it is through music. And I was able to do that a lot [during quarantine]. If I needed to cry, I'd be crying on the piano and letting songs pour out. They're not even necessarily for anyone else, but just for me to heal and let myself truly feel. So this has been an inspiring time for me actually!
Mike Benson: I'm listening to more music than I've ever listened to in the last five years. I'm going through and listening to old and new music. When I'm not on Zoom calls, I'm turning on the music. This weekend I put on a Frank Sinatra playlist and it was just these great old songs that I hadn't heard in years. That was inspiring to me. It's the same thing that we're seeing in the data around people wanting comfort food from a television perspective. It's why they're going back on Netflix and watching these old shows and episodes of Friends are doing so well, but also newer shows like NCIS, Blue Bloods, and Star Trek.
There's something for me with music that when I'm listening to old music or music that takes me back, it provides not only comfort but it's also inspirational for me, I'll get ideas. It's ironic, coincidental that you're talking to me about this but I'm just listening to music all the time. In fact, to the point where my wife is like, "Will you please turn the music off?!"
Photography by Paula Marshall.
How did the ad spot come together?
Benson: I have been pushing the team to look for new types of music that will resonate emotionally with the mood and the tone of the American audience. I really felt that a lot of marketing that we've been doing didn't really take into consideration the mood of the country. Not only how people are feeling about watching TV, but just living in a pandemic and stressful times with the political climate and social unrest. There's a lot of stress in the world right now.
As we think about the CBS brand and what we mean to our audience, [I wondered] how we might engage with them more effectively. We were looking for more emotional ways to connect with that audience. Our team found this Rachel Platten song that would work with a lot of the different shows and the images and the talent that we have. We really felt like it worked on multiple levels for us.
Platten: During quarantine I set up my recording studio at my house and learned how to produce again. This song was the second demo that I made on my own, with my own mic and my own piano. The demo was really rough, but [CBS EVP of Music] Amy Osler was brilliantly able to hear through that. She felt there was magic in there. Honestly, I don't even know that I would have released the song even though I was very proud of the message and I love it.
Have you ever collaborated with a television network before like this?
Platten: Not like this, not where they were involved early in the song process and then encouraged me to kind of take the song further because of what they wanted to do with it. I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of licenses on TV networks, but they were after the song was finished. This was the first time someone heard a very early demo and said, "This is special. And I have a vision for where I want to put this."
Why is music so important in advertising and in conveying an emotion? How do you think about merging music with visual?
Benson: Music in marketing is as important as the visuals themselves. Some people may say that music is important as the copy, the music can be the copy. Like the Rachel Platten song, the music is the copy for the message. So much of the images work to communicate emotion and storytelling, the tone and vibe of the song and the lyrics are the other 50 percent of that.
I've always fundamentally believed that if you use the right music, it is a shortcut to people's emotions. It gets them feeling a certain way more quickly. It's actually a more efficient way to emotionally connect with audiences rather than having to work really hard to explain it to someone. The right piece of music can get right to their heart.
Watch the CBS ad spot above!
What was your reaction when you saw both the music and the visuals coming together for the first time?
Platten: I cried. There is an image of a guy bungee jumping down a zip line right as I hit a high note. In an earlier version I think that lasted even longer. And you got to see the full swing of him going from mountain top to mountain top, and it was really powerful. The image was powerful on its own and then with my voice hitting the "We won't break" line moved me actually. I was really, really proud. It had also been a minute since I've seen a new song of mine on TV. "Fight Song" and "Stand By You" are used all the time, but this was a new song that I made myself in my home studio. It made me really proud.
As well it should! One of my favorite lines in the song is "Let's be bold, let's be brave." Being courageous is obviously something that I think we've all been thinking about in the past months. What do you want the listeners to feel when hearing your lyrics?
Platten: Permission to be themselves and almost a remembering who they really are. I think that's my goal with my music. And it always has been to spark that light inside of you, inside of all of us, that gets dimmed by the world that reminds us: "You are powerful, you are a creator, you are ultimately the person who can move mountains and you have a brilliant light to shine and it's unique." And that's what I hope people feel from the music and remember almost. Their power.
Photography by Anna Lee Media.
When you listened to that lyric, what did you want someone to take away from listening to this song and watching this ad?
Benson: I'm hoping they take away a few things. Number one, that CBS resonates with them. We understand you and that you are struggling with a lot of things right now, but also understand that you are strong and resilient. It's not only on an individual level, but other levels as well, such as family, community and country. I'm hoping that the audience sees this ad and says, "Okay, they understand me. They understand us. They are speaking my language."
But I also hope it's also inspiring too. That's the second part of this, that someone says, "Wow, you know what? That's pretty cool. I appreciate that. And it inspires me to stay strong in tough times." And the third part is this idea of authenticity. Do they start to see CBS as being more of an authentic brand, someone who is true to themselves and not full of hype, but speaking the truth, speaking in a way that is grounded and real. And as I said authentic, and I'm hoping that audiences can see the authenticity in what we're doing that we're not just hyping that we're "number one." What we're really doing is communicating that who we are and why we're valuable to the audience.
Talk about interweaving music and advertising!
Benson: The thing that I think was really nice about this piece is that we didn't set out to hard-sell anything. Rather, we wanted to relate to the audience and prove that we could go deeper than selling the next episode of any given show. We simply wanted to demonstrate that we are all part of something bigger and more unified, and we allowed the lyrics in the song to not only communicate the message, but effectively guide us in our mission to be bold and brave with our marketing.