Life@Kobalt: Scoring Super Bowl Synch Touchdowns with Julie Hurwitz
It goes without saying that a major highlight of the Super Bowl are its commercials. And, oftentimes, it’s the music that makes those coveted ad spots so memorable — even iconic. But it wasn’t always that way; the cache tied to synching everything from Top 40 pop songs to classic legacy ballads is a relatively recent phenomenon.
“When I first started, I was working at an ad agency, and it was not cool at all to be licensing songs for your ads,” says Julie Hurwitz, SVP, Commercial Sync at Kobalt. “I just really rode this wave of change from [commercials] meaning an artist is ‘selling out’ to licensing being really necessary for a band to get their music heard.”
This year, Kobalt clients had seven placements in Super Bowl commercials for brands ranging from Amazon to Doritos. Hurwitz and her team worked on the front lines to secure these placements, sometimes down to the wire, as she explains. Below, Julie shares with us the interesting process of how songs end up in perhaps the most sought-after ad spots of the year.
Q: Take me through a typical Super Bowl-commercial synch placement.
We start prepping for the Super Bowl as a team in, say, November, and we're very tactical about how we approach it. We look at who advertised last year, and we target those creative directors, music supervisors, and brands to see if they're advertising this year and if they’re open to pitches. We also keep an eye on the trade magazines, which update weekly about who’s buying ad slots for the Super Bowl. Everyone wants a Super Bowl commercial, so it's extremely competitive.
Even though we start working on these things very early every year, without fail, the day before the Super Bowl, songs are getting confirmed. It happens every single year. As it happens in advertising, a last minute opportunity arose on the Friday before the Super Bowl this year, and a synch for another spot wasn’t confirmed until Tuesday the week before.
People always think it's tied up way beforehand but it really isn't. Music is oftentimes the last addition because it's so easy to change the music in and out if it's a background vocal or background instrumental.
Q: Did you notice any trends in the briefs for the Super Bowl this year?
It was a bit less political this year than last year. Commercials often reflect what’s going on in our culture — especially Super Bowl commercials, because those have 100 million-plus people viewing them. Last year, they were very much about kindness, inclusivity, and not building a wall. This year, I feel like people didn't touch politics with a 10-foot pole. Very few brands really took a stand.
Musically, hip-hop was used a lot more than it has been in past years, which really does align with what’s happening culturally today
Does a songwriter get final approval if a brand wants to drastically change a song?
Sometimes, our songwriters really care about seeing the creative before they'll approve anything, and sometimes they don't. Every deal is different. Anything can happen. Things change all the time. We have to understand the nuts and bolts of the deal because our songwriter clients come to us not only to clear a song but to also advise them on the best use and the best fees.
What were some placements this year that stood out to you?
I think one of my favorites that I worked on was this somewhat peculiar song called “Adventures in Success” that I had never heard of before. They came to me to license it for a Squarespace commercial. It's like sort of a self-help, new-wave-meets-new-age song from the 1980s by an artist called Will Powers, who is actually a woman named Lynn Goldsmith, and our client. That was really cool! The song's kind of hilarious, and the video is very '80s, like the dawn of computer-era imaging. That was a random fun one.
I also worked on the Doritos commercial with Busta Rhymes and Peter Dinklage which I really enjoyed. The synch license for Busta’s rap from Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now,” obviously, had to be finalized long before they shot the commercial as opposed to waiting until the last minute. Things like lip-synching or a commercial where the song is a major part of the message generally are confirmed further ahead of time.
Q: What’s the philosophy behind placing a song in a Super Bowl commercial?
Brands are not particularly interested — for the most part — in helping an artist sell their single. They're interested in selling their car, or their television, or their diapers, or whatever product it is. Sometimes, they come to us wanting to know what the next single is, because they see it as a win-win to join the marketing dollars behind whatever the single's going to be and whatever their marketing dollars will be for their product, but oftentimes not. Just because we have a single… it doesn't always work that way.
I always like to say that I don't want to be a song killer by putting a song in an ad that's terrible. I come to this very much from, and I always have, the musician's point of view. I try to make the most money I can for the musician or the songwriter but also always make sure the song has an interesting use.