Ira Antelis On the Spot

Antelis thinks he’s got the world’s best gig. As director of music aid at Leo Burnett, he’s written music for the U.S. Army campaign and enlisted Julian Lennon to sing “When I’m 64” for Allstate. Before he joined the Chicago shop two years ago, Antelis had his own music house, where he created “Be Like Mike” for Gatorade and “What You Want Is What You Get” for McDonald’s. Another career highlight: Christina Aguilera and Enrique Iglesias performing his song “Celebrate the Future” at Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.

Interviewed by Aaron Baar

Q. How did you get into advertising?

A. I was struggling in New York, and my sister’s best friend’s father owned a recording studio where they recorded jingles. He introduced me to Sid Woloshin, who was famous for “You deserve a break today.” Through Sid and pleading, I got a job.

What was your first assignment?

[Woloshin would] have four or five writers working for him, and the first stuff we worked on was for Labatt’s beer. He said it was one of the worst things he’d ever heard.

What has been the biggest change in the industry during your career?

It used to be that if you did a recording session, it was pretty finite. But with synthesizers there were all kinds of sounds, and the whole thing got more efficient. I used to write stuff and I wouldn’t know what it would sound like until we got a rhythm section. With the machines you can program drums and bass lines, and get a sense of what is going on before you hire anyone.

How would you describe your job now?

I’ve got the most amazing gig in the world. I’ve met with every different music company in the country. So if a creative comes to me and says, “I need this kind of music,” I have many options. The other part of my job is doing music when I’m asked to do it in-house. I’m wearing a lot of hats.

If you could change one thing about your current job, what would it be?

Even though we all work well under pressure, sometimes stuff has to get done so fast that you don’t have the time to do it 100 percent. You’re more at 98. You wish you had a couple more hours to perfect it.

What agencies or advertisers are using music well?

I love the Mitsubishi stuff. That’s a really good way of using the songs for car advertising. Whoever picks their music knows what’s going on. And the Nike stuff is always first rate. Musically, they investigate it and figure out what’s going to work.

Do you get the sense that people use songs simply because the music is available?

Why would you spend $200,000 on something that doesn’t relate to your product? It is very expensive to buy a song. You might want to buy one that will home in on what you want to say. Nike’s [use of the Beatles’] “Revolution” was the beginning, even though it was sacrilegious if you grew up with that stuff. Heinz’s “Anticipation” was perfect. It really epitomized what Heinz was.

How do you decide which songs should go with which products?

My formula is this: Will it play in Michigan City? Cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles are pretty hip. Will mid-America understand what we’re trying to do?

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

You get a reputation and everyone wants to use the same five people. I sit down once or twice a week with my people and we listen to all the music companies—new, old. And a lot of the new guys are really great, but because they don’t have a reputation, they’re not given that opportunity.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?

The person who has given me the opportunity to flourish is [Burnett chief creative officer] Cheryl Berman. Cheryl and I have a common interest in music. Through writing songs, we’ve had 20 or 30 campaigns all song-oriented. Gary Klaff from Klaff Weinstein Music taught me the ins and outs about how advertising fits in with music.

What was his main point?

Music is not the whole campaign. It’s got to fit what they’re trying to say. What kind of audience are you talking to? If you’re doing Coors Light, you’re not going to do big-band music. He focused me. He believed every product has a certain kind of sound. And to focus in on what that sound might be. Coors Light has a different sound than Pop-Tarts.

How did “Be Like Mike” affect your life?

[It used to be that] nobody outside of Chicago in advertising would come here to do music. After it happened, agencies from all over the country were calling us.

What impact did the campaign have?

We were trying to make 30-second records. Not like jingles. And that crystallized what we were trying to do. Not that there was anything wrong with jingles. We just took it to another level.

What are the pros and cons of original music vs. licensed music?

If you want instant recognition and you buy a song like “Twist and Shout,” there’s an instant recall of the song in relation to the product. When we bought “When I’m 64” for Allstate, it was a great merger because it was about retirement, and it was talking to those kinds of people.

What is your dream assignment?

I owe a lot of my career, influence-wise, to Billy Joel. Elton John, Billy Joel and Sting are the major influences in my life. To be able to work with them would be something.