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Syncing bands and brands

Gabe McDonough sources music and brokers big-money deals for some of the world's largest advertising campaigns

Story by Mallory O'Brien

Photography by Dean Palmer

Last summer, as Samsung was developing a new global commercial to advertise its new Note 3 smartphone and Galaxy Gear product lines, Gabe McDonough, vice-president and music director at advertising agency Leo Burnett, was tasked with one of the most integral parts of the campaign: finding the perfect song to feature in the ad.

He eventually pitched a song called Royals by up-and-coming artist Lorde, a teenage singer from New Zealand. It took some convincing. Back in mid-2013 the song was getting a bit of buzz, but it wasn’t a breakthrough hit.

The commercial was released in October, the same week Royals hit No. 1 on the charts. “It was perfect,” says McDonough (BA ’96) from his Chicago office. “That’s what I’m always trying to do — launch the spot at the same time the song has got a lot of heat, and the publicity from both just goes …” He points to the ceiling and smiles. “I’m really proud of that one.”

McDonough’s job is to find and pitch music to companies for their ad campaigns, and he has a knack for matching bands with brands. His client list features some of the world’s most recognized companies, including McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and Sprint, to name a few.

It wasn’t that long ago when musicians were unwilling to license a song. But with the rise of digital sound files and music sharing in the late ’90s, which caused the music industry billions of dollars in losses, the tide began to turn. Today, many bands are eager to land a song in a commercial. What was once seen as “selling out” is now known as a “sync,” and it’s one of the best ways for musicians to make money and get exposure.

“Occasionally bands still say ‘no,’ but it’s pretty rare now,” says McDonough, 38. He cites Canada’s indie darlings The Arcade Fire as an example of a band that refuses to license its songs (the band did once, to donate the profits to a charity benefiting Haiti).

“It’s getting to the point that even artists that said ‘no’ before, if an opportunity comes up, I always bring it to their people just in case they’ve changed their minds.”

McDonough — hair tousled and wearing a casual dress shirt — isn’t your stereotypical ad man. Named one of Billboard magazines “40 Under 40 Power Players on the Rise” and a musician himself (he is the bassist in the Chicago Stone Lightning Band), he understands the needs of both the brands and the bands.

“When I was coming up as a musician, I was huge into that indie-rock attitude and ‘no selling out!’” he says.  “But I also always viewed music as legit work, and people get paid for their work.

“It’s up to each individual artist whether they want to sell the music they make, and it’s kind of pointless for the rest of us to weigh in. All I do now is present an opportunity and musicians can opt in or not. There are no hard feelings either way.”

The indie music connection

How exactly did an indie-rocker get into the world of big-brand advertising? The Cleveland, Ohio-born McDonough grew up in Kitchener, Ont., and after moving to British Columbia for a period, came back to the area and attended Laurier. He earned a general BA and majored in English, but he would have preferred not to specialize.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do; I was interested in a lot of stuff,” he says. “I liked writing and reading, and had to pick a major so I picked English, but I was also very interested in biology and cultural anthropology.”

In addition to enjoying Thursdays at Phil’s nightclub, McDonough started his first “real” band, Choke to Start, while at Laurier. Today he plays bass, sings, DJs and plays a few different instruments, but he started out playing guitar, and still has his guitar case from Waterloo’s Sherwood Music store.

After graduating, he started a record label in Toronto and produced a seven-inch record for Choke to Start.

Gabe discusses his time at Laurier.

“It was my first experience being a part of the music business, even though it was a tiny, tiny little piece,” he says. “The indie-music community in Canada wasn’t big at the time, so it took a do-it-yourself approach. I had this weird, super-heavy, loud band and I knew there wasn’t a label that would want to put this record out, so I just figured it out by asking people what the next step was.

“I ended up with this seven-inch at the end of it, which I still have, like, 300 copies of in my basement,” he says with a laugh.

When Choke to Start broke up, McDonough headed to London, UK, after a friend offered his floor to sleep on. McDonough, who was just 20 when he graduated, wasn’t ready to commit to a “straight job” — “I still felt like I had some ya-yas to get out, you know?”

He found a job at a record store in Kensington, a ritzy London neighbourhood. “It wasn’t a cool-guy record store at all. It was called Our Price. It was the kind of place where you would go to buy (at the time) the new Spice Girls record.”

McDonough stayed in London for two years until his visa ran out, learning bass guitar and touring with a band. He was back in Toronto for only a couple of months before a friend in Chicago told him to head south of the border.

“He said, ‘Hey come down, I’ll get you a job as a bouncer at this bar,’” says McDonough, and chuckling at his smaller physique, adds: “I told him, ‘I’m not really a door-man kind of build,’ and my friend was like, ‘Nah, it’s just art school kids, you’ll be fine.’”

So McDonough found himself packing his bags once more. His do-it-yourself approach served him well, and it’s an attitude he puts into everything he does today.

“Even though I’m in pretty much as ‘corporate America’ a job as you can get, I still try to look at the world in that way. Most things, you can do yourself if you just start doing it, rather than waiting to have the training or have the perfect degree or whatever,” he says. “I think it also applies to the music industry as it is now, because there is no model to go by at this point — you just have to keep moving forward and have faith that you’ll figure out the next step.”

City Scape

Living in Chicago

The Rainbo Club is a legendary bar for musicians in Chicago that offers a supportive community and a place to work while giving musicians the freedom to pursue their goals in the music industry, including going on tour. When musicians return from months on the road, their shifts are waiting for them. McDonough, who arrived there in his mid-20s, worked as a bartender, janitor and doorman. Eventually, a fellow bartender offered him a job at her record label, Thrill Jockey. There, McDonough got a taste of music licensing.

He also started a band called The Boas, which became big in Chicago and toured with Wilco.

“That was a great, incredible time of my life,” says McDonough. “Touring is not at all — at all — what people think it is. It’s really, really hard work, and a tour is considered successful if you come home and break even. Meanwhile, you haven’t worked for two weeks. More often than not it was a money-losing endeavour, but you do it for the love of the game.

“At it’s best, it’s like being at summer camp on wheels. At it’s worst, you’re almost crashing in a snowstorm.”

McDonough also met his wife … for the second time. His first encounter with wife, Rebecca, happened years earlier in Toronto. She was a bassist doing a sound check for a concert at the El Mocambo Club, and McDonough, who was at the club for a zine launch, bought her a drink. Fast-forward to New Year’s Eve 2001: McDonough is working at the Rainbo Club and Rebecca walks in.

“I was like, ‘That’s that girl from Toronto!’ I ran over to her and just started talking,” he says. They have been together ever since, and now have two daughters, Fiona, 3, and Evelyn, 6.

After a couple of years of playing music, and working at the Rainbo and other music spots around town, McDonough was about to marry Rebecca and “needed a job with health insurance.”

Chicago is a hub for musical talent, there are lots of bars and clubs where you can check out great musicians. McDonough, who currently plays in The Chicago Stone Lightning Band, offers some recommendations for the next time you’re in the city. Who knows, you may even see McDonough rocking the stage: 

  • The Rainbo Club
  • The Empty Bottle
  • The Metro
  • The Hideout
  • Schubas Tavern 

“I knew that people who worked in offices had health insurance,” he jokes, and McDonough’s only friend who worked in an office happened to work at the advertising firm DDB.

“I had zero experience, but my friend got me in the door and put in a good word. To the woman who hired me, I said I was an organized guy, I can handle this.”

McDonough started as a print project manager, a “very low on the totem pole” job that had him running around getting people to sign off on proofs. On the side, McDonough continued with his musical interests, writing for magazines, performing and creating podcasts. When a new boss arrived who was a music fan, McDonough pitched the idea of a becoming a music producer for the company — most New York-based agencies had a similar position but DDB didn’t.

In 2006, after encouraging his new boss to Google his music credentials, McDonough started his career as a music producer. “It was a job that hadn’t existed, so I kind of had to feel it out, and I kind of made the position what it was.”

At DDB, McDonough was focused on the creative side of the business, and worked with the creative teams to make music suggestions, or with external music houses when they had to compose new music for an ad.

McDonough made a name for himself with the launch of the Bud Light Lime ad campaign in 2007. He pitched singer Santigold before she even had a record out, and is often credited with kick-starting her career, although he insists she already had a great career going. He also placed a song by Brazilian band Os Mutantes in a McDonald’s commercial, which AdWeek and Billboard called one of the best uses of music in a commercial of all time.

In 2010, McDonough’s successes were noticed by Leo Burnett, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, which hired him away from DDB. In addition to finding and handling the music they use, he now works with the company’s legal teams on the business side of music licensing.

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