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Jingle all the way

DDB's Gabe McDonough can turn a song into advertising gold-if he can find the perfect 30-second chunk.

Photograph by Aaron Corey ; Model City Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 S Michigan Ave; Retouching, Paradigm Studio Gabe McDonough, DDB
By John Dugan |

There are “cool” jobs—and there are cool jobs with cultural influence. These days, as the music business finds that licensing tunes for ad spots can help offset ever-slumping CD sales, an ad-agency music producer is a good person to know.

Logan Square’s Gabe McDonough, 34, pitches music for advertising firm DDB. According to the ad man (who’s worked at the Rainbo Club in Wicker Park and Thrill Jockey Records), he’s one of only two music producers in a city awash in ad agencies (the other, he notes, is Stump Mahoney at Draftfcb). Historically, New York has been home to most agencies’ music departments.

McDonough (with whom I play in a rock band) has been with DDB since 2004, and its senior music producer since December 2006. His biggest success was the launch campaign for Bud Light Lime, which made use of fairly unknown Philly artist Santogold (since redubbed Santigold) and multiple tunes from her self-titled debut album. The campaign called for two songs, so McDonough went with an artist who could be edgy one moment, chill the next. “She had songs like ‘Creator,’ which were raw club bangers, and ‘Lights Out,’ which was like a smooth Blondie song to my ears,” McDonough says. The buzzed-about campaign was beneficial for both product and rising artist. “It helped catapult her,” he says.

But Bud Light Lime wasn’t a typical music placement. “Usually my job involves submitting hundreds of tracks, but in the case of Santogold, we went in with…her—that’s very unusual.”

So what comes first: the song or the ad? Usually, the creative brief (i.e., “Here’s the spot we want to do, and we need a song that goes with it”). McDonough then submits numerous tracks from his massive music collection: 180 GB at work, 300 GB at home for some 90,000 songs, including advance and instrumental versions submitted by labels, publishers and independent pitching agencies like New York’s Bank Robber. McDonough uses iTunes playlists to organize songs by feeling or subject matter.

When choosing songs to pitch, McDonough—who audaciously placed Brazilian psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes in a McDonald’s ad—works with 30-second chunks of music (often edited specifically for ads). He then listens for aspects of a song most of us never consider: a guitar line that comes in and then recedes, allowing for a voiceover, for example.

Because client budgets range from nil to sky’s the limit, McDonough saves certain tunes, like an unreleased Rolling Stones track from the ’70s, for deep-pocketed accounts. “There’s a handful of songs I call my secret weapons,” he says.

In the end, the song has to feel right to the client. And no matter how much McDonough likes a song or a band, the ad is really about a product and the song is simply an element in building an emotional response. “My job is not to break new bands,” he says. “My job is to sell burgers or beer.”

We challenged McDonough to pitch a tune for these brands. Here’s what he came back with.

Space Bags
Without hesitation, “Pop in/Pop Out” by the French band the Plasticenes. “I’m a wizard. This is actually one of my secret-weapon tracks.” Could Space Bags be hip? It seems so.

Dr. Marten’s
“You know what I would try to do. We sometimes do artist partnerships. This seems like a Lissie Trullie thing—she seems like a Doc Marten character. This might be something where we would try to do a video partnership, have her wear the shoes in the video. The words don’t have to be about what the song is. She would be right for that brand, but it depends what the creative is—maybe the campaign is about bunnies and hearts.”

Time Out Chicago
“Here’s something that I might do—I might go find my newest stuff.” He plays me an instrumental from Citay—a song by Hesta Prynn—“who Time Out New York likes.” “Ninety percent of the time, they’re trying to do something optimistic and positive. The songs I keep on file are the upbeat, catchy, major-key kind of tunes.”

Time Out Chicago, you might want a Chicago artist. I’ll find you somebody I’ve used. This guy Dan Smart (the Field Auxiliary). Just like a good, lean, rock poppy vibe.” Before he arrives at… “Ah, this would be the one. This YACHT song ‘Psychic City,’ this would be it. For ad music, you either have to have a strange-sounding guitar hook or vocal hook. And it’s all about a city and living place.”

City of Chicago Tourism Board
“This Uglysuit song…100 percent this one…I’d use the instrumental version then cut in at the chorus. ‘I took it to Chicago.’ Or I’d have the Chicago Children’s Choir record a cover of something,” he says as he plays CCC covering Daniel Johnston and Spiritualized.

Kuma’s Corner, say they were expanding to Vegas
“It would have to be a metal tune—but what metal tune? You would go straight to Pelican and put them in the studio to record a new tune that then Kuma’s could give away. I’d use their budget to get Pelican in the studio to do a tune that they could use on their record that also worked with what Kuma’s wanted to achieve in their ad.”

Matt’s chocolate chip cookies
McDonough digs around his iTunes food folder, imagining an ad in which a kid playing T-ball is rescued by his dad and cookies. He plays the Faces…then Howlin’ Wolf’s “Chocolate Drop.” “What’s rad about this is that it says Chicago, but it’s also right sonically,” he says. Before getting to the Quantic Soul Orchestra’s funky “Don’t Joke with a Hungry Man.”

The Rainbo
McDonough considers Precious Wax Drippings (a former member manages the bar), creating a band from the staff and recording a theme at SOMA studios next door before arriving at Stereolab. “There’s a Stereolab song about the Rainbo called ‘Rainbo Conversation’ that was recorded at Soma, too.”

Tips for bands
“I get instrumental versions of almost every record that comes out. That’s a tip I give to bands—always do an instrumental version of your album.” And another: Title your song with the chorus—it’s more likely to get placed that way.

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