Marco Vitali of SONIC LENS: “Let’s start with ’not so positive’ disruption”

Say what you’re going to teach, then teach it, then tell them what they’ve learned.” — Uncle Joe Argenio, retired teacher. A big part of the ‘MI’ process involves presenting a ton of information about clients’ brands, what we’ve learned about competition, etc. MI allows me to ‘speak marketing’ about music, but it’s still a lot of new […]

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Say what you’re going to teach, then teach it, then tell them what they’ve learned.” — Uncle Joe Argenio, retired teacher.

A big part of the ‘MI’ process involves presenting a ton of information about clients’ brands, what we’ve learned about competition, etc. MI allows me to ‘speak marketing’ about music, but it’s still a lot of new info for marketers to absorb. I was driving my wife’s uncle Joe to NY one night and asked him for some words of wisdom about teaching, after doing it for 30+ years. He said “Say what you’re going to teach, then teach it, then tell them what they’ve learned.” and said it never failed to turn knowledge into understanding for his students. That hit home for me, and has proven to be a simple formula for success. It allows you to convey your concept 3 times, and that is indeed the magic number.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marco Vitali.

Marco Vitali is an award-winning audio branding specialist, creative director, music producer and recording artist who has not only crafted some of the world’s most impactful sonic brands including 4 x Fortune 100 brands and one of the “Top 10 Best Audio Brands of 2020”, but has also collaborated as writer, producer and musician with Grammy winning artists like Wu Tang Clan, Quincy Jones, Nile Rodgers, Ceelo Green, Aviici, Tiesto, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Icona Pop, Organized Noize, and Peter Wolf (J. Geils). Marco founded SONIC LENS in 2019 to introduce the world’s most data-forward, insight and strategy driven approach to sonic branding through a proprietary process called “Music Intelligence” (MI). This unique ability to bridge analysis, creative and marketing is best attributed to a very ‘zig-zag’ career that began as a child violin prodigy at Juilliard, made a sharp detour onto Wall Street and dual MBAs from NYU, returned to music as the first artist under management by super-producer Nile Rodgers (Madonna, Bowie, Daft Punk) before serving as head of music at various top music agencies, and partnering with mentor Nile Rodgers to provide platinum curation to global clients before eventually launching his own boutique agency SONIC LENS.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

At my core I’m a violinist. At the ripe old age of 3, I was already practicing an hour a day, reading and playing music before I was even speaking full sentences. I was accepted into Juilliard when I was 11 and concertizing around the world as a teenager. By the time I graduated I was pretty burnt out on practicing and wanted to learn about business and explore other careers, eventually earning an MBA in Marketing and Finance from NYU. I spent nearly a decade on the floor at JPMorgan Securities but music is what I know best and I just couldn’t shake it, so I left to start my own music house. I remember kicking myself for having ‘wasted’ a decade in finance instead of jumping right into music, but in retrospect Wall Street is the reason I’m able to bring something “disruptive” to my industry — it’s the best training ground for learning how to use math and strategy to analyze complex situations.

As luck would have it, music legend Nile Rodgers (Madonna, Bowie, Daft Punk, etc.) took me on as an artist/producer to manage. He paired me up with famous artists like Wu Tang Clan, Ceelo Green, Organized Noize, and Pete Rock to score movies and video games, as well as work on songs. It was humbling, and one of the greatest honors of my life! I also got to experience what goes into making music of the highest standard.

Eventually I met Daniel Jackson — a “sonic branding” pioneer who penned the first official book on the subject and actually coined the term. He had a UK agency that was expanding and hired me to launch and run a US office. Another partner and I built that business from nothing to global contender, eventually branding icons like Chase, Colgate and Sprint — and I spent more time sitting with CMOs and marketing departments than creative directors, a drastic change from when I ran my own music house.

That’s when it became obvious to me there was a tremendous need gap in the market — marketers didn’t have an objective and scientific way to look at music and sound that would allow them to apply strategy. There were several music agencies that claimed to offer a marketing POV, but none put any science to it — probably because they were music-only people or because it was not cost effective. I saw a lot of smoke and mirrors being presented to clients by the top music agencies. I knew there was a solution. Like the violin, it would take years to perfect, but like the violin, I knew I could do it.

My Wall Street experience analyzing securities made me believe it would be possible to break down the elusive world of music into math and then build it back up into something a marketer could look at and understand objectively. The goal is to bridge music and marketing for the first time. This would be the key to unlocking the potential of music as a strategic branding tool, so I spent the next decade creating and perfecting a “Music Intelligence” (MI) process. Just like analyzing a financial instrument, it’s all about breaking the whole ‘sonic’ picture into its many component parts, assigning values, analyzing, and then rebuilding and shaping it into a pure solution tailored to meet the strategic and emotional goals of brand marketers. A time consuming process, but sonic branding defines the master brand — often THE most valuable asset of a global iconic business. ‘MI’ is the only way to ensure the sonic brand is perfect as a marketing tool as well as perfect sounding.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

It’s amazing to me that what I do is ‘disruptive’ in my industry filled with superb players. The need for ‘MI’ is so huge it should already be the norm. But alas the music servicing industry has been using the same model since talkie sparked the scoring industry 100 years ago. First a brief is written to fit something already created, then some composer interprets it and makes the music — and if the music is good everyone is satisfied, end of story. The marketing world has unfortunately accepted the same model established by Hollywood — music is the end of the line and the product is in the hands of the composer, who knows nothing about your brand or your business goals. There is a huge opportunity cost if you do not design your creative to incorporate your greater marketing strategy. You lose creative accuracy and your branding is not guaranteed to be fully future-proofed. MI achieves both — it just means doing a bunch of more homework, which I guess is how we’re being ‘disruptive’.

‘MI’ puts a more sophisticated marketing lens to music and sound so it can be considered sooner in the process and higher in the marketing mix. It’s a data driven process that enables marketing people to understand something they used to think was impossible. In the words of SONIC LENS client Church’s Chicken, “‘MI’ enabled us to craft a smarter, more holistic music strategy. They took an analytic approach by converting “sonic landscapes” to data, which enabled a more strategic approach to sonic branding.” Why is this important? Because ‘sonic branding’ is using sound to define and augment the ‘master brand’ — like a visual logo. In an age where 30% of purchases will be screen-less by 2022 and all brand touchpoints are ’sound-on’, I would argue that sound is sometimes even more important than a brand’s visual logo. It has to be done perfectly, and it needs a seat in the marketing mix early on. Most brands don’t even realize it’s possible to treat music as a marketing discipline yet. I suspect after this article comes out that will change!

Besides the ‘MI’ process itself, it’s the actual work we’re doing that’s truly “ disruptive”. We’re redefining what sonic branding means. It used to mean a sonic logo, like Intel’s famous 5 notes, or NBC’s 3 notes, or HBO’s static sound. Now it’s much more wholistic. We discover every opportunity during our analysis and then we design sonic ’systems’ that accommodate all of them. We’re bringing an actual voice to brands. I think most brands are pretty noisy, and I like to think we’re turning this noise into harmony when we design a brand’s sound. Similar to how bands stand for something in our minds — brands can have a ‘sound’ that helps consumers identify who they are while evoking a certain set of beliefs around their brand.

Proof of this ‘positive disruption’ is in our results. When we rebranded Disney Junior, Disney focus tested all their emotional and marketing goals against 820 kids and parents, and every metric over-performed in a big way. To quote their ECD, “MI enabled us to pinpoint specific connection points with our audience with laser accuracy and deliver on key objectives from our brief.” This year, SONIC LENS won both top ‘branding’ prizes at the global Music+Sound Awards for the sonic rebrands of TV networks Oxygen and Aljazeera (examples here).

Since we studied their competitors, I can confidently say they both have the most wholistic sonic branding in their markets. OXYGEN has a system of sounds and a complete library of sound designed ’sonic clues’ which augments all their visual branding across linear tv — not just logo reveals but cuts, swipes, bumpers, under dialogue everywhere. More importantly, bits and pieces of this modular system allow them to build brand awareness across social, digital, podcasts, YouTube, and much more. This has never been done before in TV. And we made Aljazeera — no global news network has such wholistic sonic branding. Aljazeera’s ECD described it as “much more than just music — a full audio toolkit made up of signature tracks, style tracks, mnemonics, and sound design elements, that when used in conjunction with core brand visual elements such as the channel idents and interstitials or the title sequence of the News broadcasts as well as across channel image promotions, holistically and subtly reinforces the Aljazeera brand.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was hired to start a US office for the aforementioned UK agency, we were given a literal shoe-string budget and no leads. It was myself and my biz dev partner in a small office with 2 desks and phones. They didn’t even give us a CRM or lead list to work with, so we called one client database provider to walk us through a live demonstration while on the phone, knowing we didn’t have funds to purchase it. As their rep was pulling up a page rich with target contacts and phone numbers on my partner’s computer, I got super excited, ran over and hit a key combo on his computer to take a secret screen shot. What I forgot was that doing this also makes a loud, super-obvious camera-shutter sound! The rep scolded us like we were kids stealing candy and hung up. Even though I felt completely moronic, I couldn’t stop laughing at how obvious and dumb that move was and how I embarrassed my partner who was trying to be all serious, which made it even funnier. Maybe you had to be there, but I still tear up laughing about it. The lesson learned? When adversity stares you in the face, or you’re up against the odds, laughing at the failures and hiccups keeps you going. Have fun with your challenges, and roll with the punches. We eventually built that business far bigger and more successful than anyone would have expected because we didn’t focus on what we didn’t have or the many defeats that tripped us up.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

This is an easy question!! Nile Rodgers, of course! I’ve had many mentors, but Nile is quite possibly the most genius musical mind in the world as well as one of the greatest musicians alive — and a wonderful human being. He’s shaped music over 5 decades starting with Chic (“Freak Out”), Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”), inventing hip hop (“Rappers Delight”), Madonna (“Like a Virgin”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), almost every big 80s band, and is super relevant even today (Daft Punk “Get Lucky”). When I was struggling to sustain my first music house, having Nile single me out and then start a management company to which I was the first artist signed was the biggest confidence boost I could ever receive. I honestly don’t think I would’ve made it through the inevitable hard times of building that business if I didn’t know someone like Nile believed I had something special to offer. He’s the biggest workaholic I know, and I think my tireless work ethic gave him some confidence too. Being part of the Nile Rodgers family meant everything to me in those years and still does.

My other mentor is my father, Ubaldo Vitali. If you look him up, you’ll see he’s considered by many (including the NY Times) to be THE greatest living silversmith in the world. He’s also a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” and has created works of art for several Popes, Presidents and museums like Smithsonian and NY Metropolitan . He is a true renaissance man, and taught me that creativity comes from pulling inspiration from everywhere — history, philosophy, science, art. He’s an alchemist, which essentially means studying every aspect of something so you can then break down every element to its core and then build it back up to capture its true essence. I’m oversimplifying, but seeing him prove in his work that this premise is indeed true gave me the faith to think it could also work with something as elusive and ethereal as music. It’s a distillation and then rehabilitation process — which is a good way to describe what the “MI” process is, and what creating the sound of a master brand demands.

Lastly, I have to give Daniel Jackson a shout out as a mentor. He wrote the first book on “sonic branding” and coined the phrase. He was originally an ad agency planner and saw the value of strategically planned sound for brands before most of the world did. He looked at how much rigor the visual branding agencies were putting into logos and realized that music needed to be considered the same way because it can also define a brand. Before working with him, I was like everyone else in thinking music was destined to remain the last piece of any creative part of advertising, and the most value to be offered was in outstanding composition and creative execution. He showed me that dealing with music as a pure marketing and branding tool was a higher level conversation that needed to happen, and one that could bring enormous value to global brand clients. He set me on a path to figure out how to have that conversation, which has driven me ever since.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Great question. Let’s start with ’not so positive’ disruption. I have a great example. When I was on Wall Street, I sat one desk away from the brilliant guy who invented the “derivative” security instrument. It launched his career into the stratosphere and made tons of money for the firm, and derivatives were quickly adopted by every firm on the street. It was an incredible idea — carving different risk elements apart from existing securities and packaging them in bulk by their risk class, creating markets to trade them, and using them to better manage portfolios, among other things. Derivatives were successful because they filled a need gap in the market. Because these were a very ‘ disruptive’ invention, they changed Wall Street forever and every player had to adjust and engage. The fact that they did not ‘withstand the test of time’ meant there was one risk element that was not considered in assessing their value — the risk that was invisible. Some derivatives were so complicated and multidimensional that there was no practical way to consider every possibility and trace every component being traded once the beast was let loose. Eventually, derivatives became one of the biggest contributors to the global financial crisis of 2007/08, the greatest recession since the Great Depression. I’d say that was a ’not so positive’ disruption!

I think ‘good disruption’ is when a change or improvement is made in an industry that increases efficiency, output, and/or value without increasing risk or causing harm to a system or to people (such as job loss or discrimination). Most disruption is positive. The electric guitar was a modification to the acoustic that opened up new styles of playing, new genres of music, new amplification technologies, new cultural movements and new emotions people could feel through music. It didn’t take away from musicians capability or work opportunity — it added to both. It was a more efficient way to get bigger sound and bigger impact and output without having to use horns or orchestra, so it provided more options and enabled stronger music for less budget. It gave small bands a whole new palette and more options for creative experimentation. It sparked rock and roll and the punk movement. It provided value to musicians, labels, bands, fans, stadiums and buskers.

I love disruption that has nothing but positive outcomes for all parties. “Harry Potter” comes to mind as a disruptor because it found a new way to mix magic and adolescence and mystery and underdog stories and good versus evil and humor and creativity in such an accessible way. Its value is limitless as it has sparked kids’ interest in reading, ignited their imaginations and sense of wonder, reinvigorated both Scholastic and printed novels, launched a huge entertainment franchise. Nothing but a positive effect no matter where you look and no downside. The best disruption ever!

I think disrupting the traditional model of sonic branding and giving brands an all-encompassing voice and sound is a huge net positive. We are living with the most constant sensory overload in history, and a lot of it comes from brands making random noise. My broader idea of sonic branding gives brands more cohesion across more of their sound — creating less noise and more harmony. I feel really good about adding to this reality as much as I possibly can, and I hope my goal of showing global brands how to put more thought and strategy into their sound will become the new norm and cause a flood of sonic innovation that spills into unforeseen areas. Brands like MasterCard are already innovating with huge success — they’ve created a wholistic sonic strategy that includes a suite of branded transaction sounds.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Always start with the chorus.” — Nile Rodgers

  • When Nile Rodgers said this to me, I was totally surprised and asked him if he was kidding. He told me to listen to “Let’s Dance” which he produced for David Bowie. It starts with “Ahh -ahh — ahh- ahh” up the dominant chord — the start of the chorus. Then he cited some of his other hits. The chorus is the hook of a song, more or less, and it’s a payoff you get during a song — but there’s no reason to make people wait. Even if the verses do a great job building your anticipation, you can still give them a taste of the candy right up front and get them hooked. It’s like a drug dealer giving out free samples, the effect of which usually gets someone hooked and turns them into a customer. There are few producers, if any, that have created so many hit songs for so many different artists over so many years, so for Nile to state a truth like that is huge. I like to apply this concept as often as possible in my work, whether it’s a song or presenting a sonic strategy to a client. When you drill way down and eventually strike gold, I like to show the gold up front when discussing everything I learned instead of making people wait and wonder where it is.

“Stakeholder management is the key.” — Daniel Jackson

  • This is a golden rule in my business. Sonic branding lives at the master brand level, so everyone at that client has a stake in it, not just the creative director or VP of Marketing or CMO or the ECD at the ad agency. Everyone needs ownership and approval or nothing will ever make it past ‘go’. In fact, if you have any stakeholders who feel left out of the process, the project will probably die no matter how good it is. I’ve had this happen on two separate occasions — both iconic global brands. One was a creative director who was out of the country while the ad agency worked on the sonic branding, the other was a top producer who we were never told about, so he was not privy to any of our presentations of findings, strategy or creative briefing. In both cases, we had 100% enthusiasm from all parties at both the client and agency, but after launch the branding had a shortened lifespan because those uninvolved ‘stakeholders’ had no authorship of the sonic branding. Lesson learned — bad ‘stakeholder management’. Our goal is to enable ALL stakeholders to have authorship in their brand sound so it belongs to them. This is what ‘MI’ makes possible.

“Say what you’re going to teach, then teach it, then tell them what they’ve learned.” — Uncle Joe Argenio, retired teacher.

  • A big part of the ‘MI’ process involves presenting a ton of information about clients’ brands, what we’ve learned about competition, etc. MI allows me to ‘speak marketing’ about music, but it’s still a lot of new info for marketers to absorb. I was driving my wife’s uncle Joe to NY one night and asked him for some words of wisdom about teaching, after doing it for 30+ years. He said “Say what you’re going to teach, then teach it, then tell them what they’ve learned.” and said it never failed to turn knowledge into understanding for his students. That hit home for me, and has proven to be a simple formula for success. It allows you to convey your concept 3 times, and that is indeed the magic number.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I’m definitely not done. I want to reinvent the way brands think about sound and how they plan it and how they use it. This is all part of sonic branding from my perspective. But the more we innovate for brands about how they can use music and sound, the more I believe sound can be THE primary driving force behind content. Think about what MTV started in 1981 when they unleashed the music video onto the world. They flipped the filmmaking model on its head, and the world went bananas. Where film always came first and music’s job was to score it, now the music came first and the filmmaker’s job was to score the music with film. This made one of the biggest cultural splashes in modern history. The appetite around the planet was insatiable, and MTV became Earth’s largest influencer of culture because of the music video. I’ve started to bring this music-first idea to sonic branding in the form of “music driven content” — short music platforms that drive short social content. The visuals are cut to 5 seconds of music or sound, making it easier to consume and more viral, and turning social media into stronger branding agents. I want to get to a point where clients believe in the power of music as a marketing tool so much that they will have interest in a ’sound-first’ agency — an agency that puts music at the front of all their thinking, creating content that is truly driven by music and sound. I’d like SONIC LENS to be thought of this way.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

This is hard to narrow down, but the book “Musicophilia” by Dr. Oliver Sacks comes to mind. He was a British neurologist who wrote about case histories of patients with unusual neurological disorders and the effects of music on the brain. This was filled with examples showing how music is hard wired, so it bypasses all the filters we use to sift incoming language as humans. Some examples include a patient with Tourette syndrome who couldn’t speak a sentence but could sing along with songs. Another is an Alzheimers patient who couldn’t recognize his wife, but would still remember how to play songs he learned on the piano as a child. Most importantly, Dr. Sacks shares proof that memories associated with music are emotional memories. Coupling this with the knowledge humans have been using music as a form of communication for at least 40,000 years (according to the first known ‘flute’), Music and sound evoke hard wired emotions from people more directly and immediate than later forms of communication such as language and reading which go through more cognitive filters.

I witness this universality of sonic interpretation whenever I do audio moodboarding with clients. I almost always find unanimous agreement on certain sounds and music clips that convey very specific adjectives. To someone who preaches that sound is a powerful way for brands to communicate who they are on a deeper, visceral level, it is reassuring to see medical proof that music has a direct line to the soul that is immediate, direct and universal.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This might seem too short and simple of an answer, but my father often uses the Roman phrase “Forza e corragio”. This means “strength and courage”. My family is proper Roman as far back as we can trace, and we’re going with the theory we’re related to Caesar himself, or at very least the ancient Roman Empire. I think it probably has roots in pep-talking Roman warriors before battle, but for my father it’s a pep talk to trust your mind when it has a creative idea or goal and to not waver. I’ve seen him restore works of art that nobody else on Earth could fix by working it out in his head, putting himself in the workshop of the renaissance artisan who created the work, unpacking the secret that would allude anyone else who didn’t attack the problem from every angle.

Figuring out how to analyze sound and music in a marketing context was very daunting for me — I had no guidelines, and it caused me to work 10x harder and longer on jobs than I probably had to. I was determined to figure out a better way to figure out sonic branding for clients (‘MI’), but I didn’t have any proof that it would work or that clients would appreciate the value of it. Whenever he saw me frustrated and overworked going down this long difficult road, he would always say “Forza e corragio”, and it gave me the strength and courage to keep pushing and to have faith it would amount to what I hoped for in the long run. And he was right, as always.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m not sure I have a movement in mind per se, but I know that playing music with other people is one of the greatest joys a person can experience, a gift from our ancestors and food for the soul. Not just listening, but participating — and we all have the capacity to do this to varying degrees. It actually triggers dopamines, but beyond that it is a way of communicating that goes back to our roots and evolution, an emotional language that we don’t have to comprehend or overthink to feel. Playing music together is also the greatest unifying force I know, which is something we need desperately these days. It has no color, religion, nationality or political bias — it goes way way back to the roots we all share as human beings, and when we play music together, we are all one tribe on a visceral level. I don’t have the answer, of course, but I think there is a need for more music-making as a social norm. It’s one of those things that has nothing but positive value for the world. It brings fulfillment and nurtures mutual respect and love. Maybe there is some unforeseen way to get brands involved in a natural way, I don’t know yet. People love brands who love them back and help make the world a better place — maybe if the right brands have the right relationship with music and there’s a way to do something that doesn’t feel like heavy-handed marketing, I’d love to use their power and influence to bring social music-making back from the bottom up instead of pushing manufactured music onto consumers from the top down. I’ll let you know when I figure that one out…

How can our readers follow you online?


LinkedIn :

Instagram @soniclens

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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