How Spotify Makes Its Data-Driven Outdoor Ads, and Why They Work So Well

CMO Seth Farbman takes us inside the campaign

Headshot of Tim Nudd

It’s usually British TV spots that are wowing people at this time of year. But for our money, the most entertaining holiday ads of 2017 so far have been Spotify’s global out-of-home ads, which crunch user data and cleverly transform it into witty headlines—riffing on the ups and downs of our suddenly unhinged world.

We posted a bunch of the ads on Wednesday. With the theme “2018 Goals,” they serve as comical New Year’s resolutions come early—using Spotify listeners’ habits from 2017 to humorously suggest strategies for dealing with life in 2018.

The campaign follows similar ads last holiday season. The ads work so well because music is such an emotional experience, and data about our listening habits, on the macro level, taps into our collective mood, said Spotify CMO Seth Farbman.

We spoke to Farbman on Thursday, who told us more about how the campaign is made, why so many of this year’s ads are politically themed, and how to keep advertising about current events lighthearted in a world gone berserk.

AdFreak: The hook this year is that you’re looking forward to next year. What was the thinking behind that?
Last year it was so clear. It was why we used the line “It’s been weird” last year. We couldn’t figure out how else to describe it. It was such an unusual year. So much happened, and at such a rapid pace. As a culture and society, we were just taking it on. We were almost fascinated, in a sense, at everything that had been happening to us.

This year, by looking at our own data and the external data, observing the world, there was just this level of fatigue. There was a level of real distraction in our lives, from over a year of constantly changing news—things we thought were usual and normal that were changing. Some of it comes from D.C. and London and elsewhere. Some of it comes from the natural disasters that really impacted people’s lives. It was like, you just couldn’t get a break. So we thought, “What do we do about this?”

We decided, “Let’s look forward instead of back, and let’s inject optimism and humor where we can.” Not to make light of things, but to lighten them up a bit. It was as simple as that. The creative team here at Spotify came up with the idea of goals. How do we think forward? To take some of that nutty stuff and say, “I’m going to push against this, or be better at this.” A lot of people look back at this time of year. We just thought it would be interesting to look forward.

That’s a tricky balance—not ignoring the state of the world, but trying to be optimistic or positive when you address it.
It’s absolutely tricky. We rely on two things. One is a tone of voice that is sort of inclusive and reflective and a little cheeky. And we also rely on the information and the data that we see from from our fans. All of the work we present, they’re not statements we’re making. It’s just looking at how people consumed music over the course of the year and using that fact-based approach, which somehow makes it feel a bit less traumatic.

It’s something we’ve experienced together. The highs and lows are not individualized. We’ve gone through those as a society. In the U.S. it’s created quite a bit of conversation. Some of that conversation is very localized, and some of it is is much more global in nature. But music has always had the role of bringing people together, of being a common language, of transcending everything from who you are to where you live to your points of view—on everything from culture to politics to music itself. But we can all agree that it is a deep and meaningful part of our individual lives and our collective experience. That’s really what we want to reinforce.

It’s not just the out-of-home campaign. We’re delivering, to nearly every one of our fans, an individualized dashboard of their musical habits. What they listen to, what artists they helped launch, what moods they were in during different periods of time. You can see all that. The out-of-home, and the above-the-line, the digital—the advertising portion of this—really looks at our shared experience. But at the same time, we’re giving people their individual experience through our year-in-music wrap-ups.

So these ads work so well because what we’re listening to says something about us.
Absolutely. And in general, the more concrete you can be, the easier it is to communicate. We take individual experiences, individual data points, and use them to represent a broader feeling. If we just talked about how many people listened to this one song, or streamed this, or did this other thing, it stays up high. But when you get very concrete, so you’re realizing this is a real person with real listening habits, real playlists, real playlist names, then it just cuts through the clutter.

We’ve been doing this all year long. We did a campaign over the summer, first in North America and then across most of the world, and we simply called it the playlist campaign. One of my favorite lines was, “There’s a playlist called Peaceful Piano. For when you’re sick of all that violent, in-your-face piano.” That’s concrete. It’s real. There was a playlist called “Root Canal Songs.” Our headline was, “Someone made a Root Canal Songs playlist, probably because they never had a Flossing Songs Playlist.” When you’re concrete, it puts an image in your mind that a general statement just doesn’t do. And we’ve found that to be the best way of communicating these shared experiences.

You must have an ocean of data. How do you go about finding these data points, or data trends, that might make fun headlines?
It’s a labor of love, for sure. We do have ridiculous amounts of data. The geeky way of describing it is: What are the use cases? What’s going on in people’s lives that they are amplifying with music? That creates a treasure trove, but it’s very difficult to sift through. When we first started doing this, we came into it with an open mind. We have a group of people here that we’ve hired—analysts within the marketing group. Our creative team has complete access to all of this data. First, what they did is, they just went in and started looking. It was like truffle hunting, in a way. And it was overwhelming.

So we changed the process. We went into it saying: What do we think? What do we believe people are feeling? What do we think are the major stories—music stories, culture stories? And then, can we find truth of our beliefs? You have to have a premise. You have to have a supposition. And then you go in and you either validate it or you don’t validate it with the data. That’s generally been the hunting methodology.

There are other times where when things just pop, because of a moment in time that becomes so obvious. We have one around the Mooch [former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci]. Somebody created a playlist that’s like an hour and 55 minutes long that lasted longer than the Mooch. That was the name of the playlist. We just saw that coming at us, because that was such a watercooler moment. Regardless of your political ideologies, people found that to be a fascinating story of the rise and fall, in spectacular fashion, of someone unknown yesterday, on everybody’s minds the next day. We’re not social media platform, but people do express themselves through music and through playlists just like they would express themselves through a tweet.

So, Spicer resigns and someone at Spotify wonders how many times “Bad Liar” has been streamed that day.
Exactly. There’s got to be some reflection of that in music within the Spotify ecosystem. We just go and look. And there it is.

Obviously, politics is on everyone’s mind. Does it make you uneasy to wade into that? Or is it just good fun and part of the reality we’re living in?
The reality that we’re living in is that the news, every single day, is dominating our culture. We look at it not so much as a political statement but as a cultural one. No matter what political point of view you have, we all must admit that we’ve been obsessed daily with what will happen. It’s all consuming. We also have to admit that there have been some highly interesting and unusual things that have happened this past year. Not just in the U.S. but in the U.K. with Brexit and Theresa May.

Our point of view is that these are stories that are being told by our Spotify fans, and we’re going to just lift them up. We’re not making any direct judgments against any of it. We’re simply reflecting back the year that we had, and pushing off of it.

Obviously some topics are probably out of bounds. The Weinstein stuff and everything since then. This campaign couldn’t possibly address that.
No. Going back to the optimism and the hope that we want to reinforce—that’s what music does. No matter what’s going on in the world, the role of music is to try to make you feel more connected, to make you feel safer, to make you feel a bit better. That we’ll get through all these things together. There have been some very dark stories that we’ve all had to experience. That’s reality, but it’s just not appropriate for our brand to dig in deeply on things that are really painful to many people. Even when we’re poking fun—you mentioned the Spicer one—we never want it to be mean-spirited. That’s the opposite of what this campaign ought to do. And it’s the opposite of what music does.

Visually, you’ve got the pink and green and red, with some sepia photos. What were you going for visually, and how does it help these ads stand out on the street?
We are using rather long, complicated, meaningful copy. It’s needs to be read. This is not the casual advertising channel that it often is for others. You have to take a moment. You read it, you pause, you think about it, and then you laugh. There’s a lot baked in there.

There no seven-word headline max, or any other rules.
Exactly. When we look at the design, obviously you want it to break through, and obviously you want it to be somewhat in the seasonal tone. But we also want it simplified so that the message comes through much more clearly. We are using out-of-home in a way that is less traditional. Out-of-home gives that hyperlocality that gives those “aha” moments to people. And it allows a digital community to feel connected in a physical way. This is happening here. We’re all seeing this and remembering this moment together.

The ads are about a group experience, and looking at outdoor advertising is a group experience, too.
Exactly, 100 percent.

The cutouts are fun and a little different, too. Can you talk about those?
A lot of the artists that we spend our time helping, through marketing and other things, they’re not the superstars—they’re the next superstars. We’re incredibly proud of the fact that we can, through the data, identify who’s about to be the next superstar. And we almost share that with the audience before it even happens, to give you a sense, as a fan, that you’re on the inside, you’re in the know. It’s what so powerful about discovery.

As a result, what we started to see is a lot of artists, when we put up a billboard, they will take a selfie in front of the billboard. Because that’s a moment. When you’ve made it on a billboard, you’ve made it, right? They share it on their social channels, and we observe a tremendous spike in the sharing and the traffic and the engagement with that artist’s page. People love to see that. So we thought, alright, what’s the fan version of this?

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.