16 April, 2008

Sounding off in Brazil

I was honoured this week to speak in São Paolo, Brazil, at the 22nd Semana Internacional da Criação Publicitària (International Week of Advertising Creativity). My hosts were Brazilian advertising legends and top guns from the Long Play agency, Prandini and Luna. (In Brazil, when you’re famous you become known by one name, usually your surname. I knew the custom from their footballers, but I never realised it happens in business too.) A more charming, hospitable and clearly highly effective duo it would be hard to imagine.

I spoke twice, once to a full house of 400 students in the afternoon and then at 10pm to the same number of industry professionals. The reaction was powerful and positive both times. The students asked about the similarities between the effects of music and the effects of drugs (nice to know students are the same everywhere!) and the professionals were interested particularly in how The Sound Agency works with - or in spite of - advertising agencies. I recounted some of our experiences and confirmed that for now we find it far more productive to deal directly with the client, because agencies simply don’t understand sound: they may pretend they do and try to marginalise our work, or they may see us as a threat and make it a power struggle. The best agencies, of course, are curious and open, wanting to learn. I’m sure that in 10 years every agency will have the skills we have in The Sound Agency and will design and create with sound just as they do today with form, colour, light and texture. However, for the time being, we have skills that they don’t and so we need buy-in at CEO, or at least CMO level in order to be effective.

Although Brazil has such a wonderful musical heritage, the use of sound in branding and in public spaces is currently somewhat chaotic. For example, standing in the customs queue at 7 am in São Paolo airport, I was assailed by three Samsung plasma screens suspended from the ceiling. Were they showing beautiful images of Brazil to the tune of some soothing bossa nova or some irresistible samba? No, the selected content to welcome visitors to Brazil was... Yo! MTV Raps. It would be hard to think of something more inappropriate in that place at that time.

It turns out that these screens are the norm. The city has a local ordnance banning outdoor advertising, which makes for a slightly surreal experience. Not only is it vast - some 18 million people live there and it stretches away in all directions as far as the eye can see - but the only visual messages you encounter there are from graffiti artists. No ads in bus shelters; no billboards; no poster sites. As a result, the digital signage industry has gone indoors, so screens are everywhere inside the buildings and the vehicles of São Paolo. Many have sound on, and I sincerely hope that my talk to the local advertising community has given them some food for thought about the implications in terms of arbitrary, incongruous and hostile soundscapes.

I do believe that by designing visual and auditory environments to work together, we can create a quantum leap in powerful and positive customer experience. But we need to start now, before the world ends up like that customs queue in São Paolo.

I made some good new friends in São Paolo and thoroughly enjoyed the trip. On the way back I was lucky enough to marvel at one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen: a vast, four-pronged thunderstorm in Northern Brazil at sunset, stretching from the ground to way above our cruising height of 35,000 feet. Splashed with golds and reds at the top, the cloud’s lower blackness was illuminated every few seconds from within by violent stabs of lightning. We changed course to avoid these potentially lethal monsters and I’m very glad I wasn’t underneath them. But from a few miles away they were possibly the most beautiful and dramatic things I’ve ever seen. I only enjoyed this because the in-flight entertainment system was broken. Makes me wonder what I’ve missed over the years outside the windows of other planes...