Active listening requires focus, the ability to move beyond ourselves and take in the world around us.
As a part of my Marketing Strategy Series, I’m talking with my fellow marketing pros at the top of their game to give entrepreneurs and marketers an inside look at proven strategies you might also be able to leverage to grow your business. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Steve Keller.
Steve Keller is Sonic Strategy Director for Studio Resonate at Pandora, the largest streaming music platform in the US. Prior to joining Pandora, Steve was the founder and CEO of iV, an audio consultancy based in Nashville that specialized in the strategy, content, research, and management necessary for successful audio branding initiatives. Steve is recognized as one of the foremost experts in the field of audio branding. Recent experiments include an examination of the relationship between sound and taste (conducted with Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory), an exploration into the existence of audio archetypes (conducted with Goldsmiths University London) and demonstrating the effects of source bias on evaluations of music aesthetics and worth (conducted with Technische Universität Berlin). Steve is also a part of the think tank serving Chef Jozef Youssef’s London-based Kitchen Theory, lending his sonic expertise to the development of gastrophysics experiences for brands and consumers alike.
In addition to a degree in Psychology with a focus on research, social psychology, and group dynamics, Steve has over 30 years of experience in the music industry as a producer, remixer, composer, independent label executive, music publisher, and manager. Forever the student, he is the 2017 recipient of the iHeartMedia Scholarship for Leadership in Audio Innovation and is currently completing an Executive MBA through the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, focused on how brands can more effectively measure and predict returns on audio investments.
Thank you for doing this! Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting and what lesson you learned from that?
I have a number of funny stories, but none about marketing mistakes — because marketing mistakes typically have consequences that aren’t all that humorous. Fortunately, my mistakes through the years haven’t proven detrimental to my clients or my business. Instead, they gave me opportunities to reflect and reframe. I’m a photographer, and one of the lessons I learned from one of my mentors was the importance of contrast. Great photographs combine light, dark, and shadow. I think there’s a metaphor in that for leadership, too. Great leaders embrace the light, the dark, and the shadow. Mistakes happen, so when they do, don’t get so caught up in the remedy (or the blame) that you lose sight of the fact that they’re an important part of the creative process.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
My career has always had an ebb and flow. Success has been measured by a series of forward-moving concentric circles rather than a linear path. In that respect, there have been multiple tipping points, and with them, multiple pivots. I have a habit of uncovering dots, connecting them, and seeing positive results, only to immediately begin looking for new dots to connect. I’m a change agent at heart, which means success for me is about evolution and growth. I try to never be so focused on a destination that I miss out on the experience of the journey. I’ve found that if I focus too much on finding the answers, I lose sight of finding the right questions. Success can spell the death of your career if you get too comfortable.
What advice would you give to other executives to thrive and avoid burnout?
It’s probably the result of years of training in psychology, but I tend to resist giving advice. That said, I think rituals are powerful ways to center us and provide meaning. Anything that can pull you back to a sense of center and self at the moment. Paying attention to the rhythm of my breathing, listening actively to someone who is speaking, taking a few minutes for walking meditation, journaling — these are all practices that help me navigate the ups and downs of leadership. Of course, therapy also helps. I’m an advocate of therapy and group work, even when everything feels right with the world.
None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
These kinds of questions are difficult, because in narrowing the choice to a “particular person” there’s a dissonance involved in overlooking any number of individuals whose presence in my life shaped the outcome of it. In the interest of answering the question, I’ll go with one of the first who popped into my head: Professor Charles Spence. Charles is the Head of Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford. I met Charles at a conference I was attending and was blown away by the impact he’s had on the field of psychophysics, which investigates the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they produce. Charles’s research had a profound impact on my thinking and experimentation with the impact of sound on perception and behaviour. He’s become not only a friend, but a collaborator, welcoming me into his world and opening the door to opportunities to not only learn but to publish in the field. In addition to our research into the use of music and sound in healthcare environments, we have a love for multi-sensory dining experiences and gastrophysics. Whenever I’m in London, I always make it a point to share a meal with Charles, where we inevitably dream up some new sonic experiment.
Consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. Where do you see the future of marketing headed?
I’d agree with Orlando Wood (author of “Lemon: How the Advertising Brain Turned Sour”), who believes that for all the technological advances in marketing analytics, advertising effectiveness is actually in decline. We’re sacrificing long-term gains for short-term benefits. While rational messages designed for short-term sales activation have a place, the most effective marketing “goes long,” i.e. building emotional connections over time that motivate purchases. That’s particularly true in the world of “audio-first” advertising, where most brand communication focuses on price points and emotion. The good news is that brands are waking up to the importance of music and sound in long term brand building, particularly in today’s media rich environment where the use of music, sound and has become a primary driver for brand identity, discovery and experience. Brands need to know how to navigate the challenges of this rapidly changing sonic landscape, where capturing ears is as important as capturing eyes. At Studio Resonate, we’re on a mission to blend sound science with sound art to help our clients make sound decisions.
Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- You don’t find meaning. You create it. We can spend a lot of time trying to find meaning in life. I’ve discovered that meaning is rarely “found.” Instead, it’s created. It takes action and awareness. Meaning can be “found” in the simple action of showing up. By framing meaning as something you create, it helps you think of meaning as a dynamic rather than a static concept. It’s okay if it changes and adapts over time.
- It’s a process. Not an event. This go-to phrase can apply to just about anything. I’ve found that it’s helpful for me in the heat of making difficult decisions where it’s so easy to focus on the trees that you can’t see the forest. I’ve tried to discipline myself to think about these moments not as isolated events, but as part of a process. It helps to realize that there can be a flow and that for every moment in time, there was another before it — and another that will come after it. Do the best you can, be aware, and keep moving.
- Listening doesn’t start with your ears. It starts with what’s between them. Active listening is a skill. It requires practice. It requires intention. Too often, we’re not really listening to what someone is saying — instead we’re planning our response, thinking about the point we want to make, or how we can co-opt the conversation with our own stories. I’m constantly evaluating my listening habits, and how I can become a better listener.
- Encourage Dialogue. Avoid Debate. Debate forces a zero-sum outcome. There’s a winner and a loser, so from the start, the debate is inherently about proving a point. Dialogue, on the other hand, is about discovery. It involves considering options, suspending beliefs, moving past biases and pursuing a collective understanding. Dialogue can be much more difficult to manage, but it also delivers richer results (and will typically draw teams closer together).
- All you can do is the best you can do. I’m always driven to do my best, and to become even better in the process. However, that can work against me if I get so lost in the details that I miss the big picture or try to control for every possible outcome. Perfection isn’t achievable. In spite of that awareness, there are still times I need to remind myself that if I’ve honestly done my best, that’s all really all I can do. Let go. Move on. Keep growing.
What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?
I have a thing for books. I keep a running reading list that I often share, particularly with aspiring sonic strategists. Currently, it consists of 162 titles. Here are few that I’ve been referencing lately:
“The Social and Applied Psychology of Music” by Adrian North & David Hargreaves
“The Sounds of Capitalism” by Timothy Taylor
“How (Not) to Plan: 66 Ways to Screw It Up” by Les Bennet and Sarah Carter
“Building Distinctive Brand Assets” by Jenni Romaniuk
“Lemon. How the Advertising Brain Turned Sour” by Orlando Wood
“Marketing to Mindstates” by Will Leach
In addition, I’m constantly reading academic and professional journals. The wealth of research available is astounding. These kinds of published manuscripts are also good for mining reference material that can lead to unexpected insights.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’d like to inspire people to develop a passion for the art of listening. Active listening requires focus, the ability to move beyond ourselves and take in the world around us. What if we could really hear each other, moving beyond our own bias and agendas, developing true understanding and empathy for others? What if we could really hear the world around us; developing a deeper understanding of the impact that soundscapes and noise have on our emotional and physical health and well-being?
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So much value here! Thank you so much for sharing these fantastic insights!