McCann's Eric David Johnson on the Power of Music in Storytelling

'It conveys emotion better than almost anything else'

Music is the universal language, and Eric David Johnson speaks it fluently. 

His experience as a DJ and tenure playing bass for an indie band inform his approach at McCann, where's he's been svp and integrated music producer for five years. 

"It really allows me an insight and empathy when I'm commissioning people or working with artists," he says. "And I've now learned the language of advertising. So, I occupy a position where I can see what our ads are trying to do, and also understand the hopes and dreams and measures of success for an artist or composer." 

That dynamic came into play last year, when McCann was planning Verizon's 2019 Super Bowl commercial honoring first responders, and Johnson found himself negotiating with a relatively unknown band. "We started listening to all these kinds of bands," he recalls. Along the way, Johnson stumbled on This Will Destroy You's epic track "The Mighty Rio Grande," which he judged a perfect fit for the ultra-high-profile commercial slot. The group, however, didn't immediately jump into the game.

"Most bands will say yes to licensing or advertising—but not all bands, and there's some that are very true to their artistic nature," he says. "This was one of those bands. It wasn't like, 'We're into it—awesome.' It was more like, 'We need to think about it.' That's where my empathy and perspective of being an artist comes into play, because I get that. I get that it's a process."

In the end, that dramatic track—metallic, orchestral and evocative of other worlds—propelled Verizon's heartfelt message on advertising's biggest stage. 

Verizon | The Coach Who Wouldn't Be Here

"I think it even shows up when we're working with high-end talent," Johnson says of his knack for clicking with artists."In the last few years I've worked with SZA on a Mastercard project. A few years before that, I worked with John Legend. I was in the studio with both of them. I feel very comfortable in the studio, working with their engineers or our engineers, and talking to artists directly. I think it makes them feel comfortable. We have better outcomes because of it."

Johnson believes a song can make or break a project, as soundtracks, in some cases, communicate the marketing proposition with as much power and persuasion as visuals. "Music does a lot of storytelling in a piece of film," he says. "It helps convey emotion better than almost anything else—almost better than the film itself, I would argue." 

In our conversation below, edited for length and clarity, Johnson parses recent McCann campaigns that prominently feature music. We start with "The Most Vicious Cycle," from gun-control group March for Our Lives, which was formed in the wake of the deadly 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. 

The stirring music video features "Safe," an original track by Sage, who performed with superstar singer Kesha (who happens to be his older sister) and rapper Chika. Rob Kaplan and Aaron Mercer—then operating at Wool & Tusk, now part of Premier Music Group—served as producers. The project won a remarkable 17 Clios this year, including a Gold in the Social Good category within Clio Music. (Johnson served as a Clio Music juror this year.)

How did "The Most Vicious Cycle" come about?

We have a woman in our production department, a producer named Gabby, who went to Parkland, and she's only a few years graduated from when that tragedy happened. She wanted to do something to give back and help. We did something the year the shooting happened—"Price on Our Lives." We wanted to do something again, and we had worked with Kesha on the MGM "Universal Love" project. 

So we had this idea: Why don't we create a unique music video that would speak to this topic and deliver the message in a way that would get it elevated as a cultural, shareable thing? Rather than be preachy, why don't we do a video that would show instead of tell—or that would tell by showing? Kesha was immediately on board. Her brother Sage was on board. We wanted to do something innovative, and I feel like it's heavy for sure. People really responded to it, which was our intention. 

You used "Food Glorious Food" for the New York Lottery. Why that song, and why focus on food in a lottery spot?

We wanted that spot to be somebody singing about, "If you had $1,000 a day for life, what would you do with it?" Now, this person, in the ad, will explore food. So we were like, "OK. We want a song to convey that." That song is just so iconic. We knew if we did a modern take on it, it would feel right. For younger people, who maybe don't know that song, it feels contemporary.

New York Lottery - All The Foods
But when you win the lottery, you think of Ferraris, not food…

It's not speaking to the big-ticket life, if you win a bazillion dollars. It was more like: "You're going to win $1,000 per day, what would you do with that?" Food is the new rock 'n' roll. We're seeing millennials and Gen Z and even Gen Xs looking at food as an experience they love exploring. The lottery was trying to speak to a demographic that was a little bit younger. 

A year earlier, you did something similar, but you got an original song?

"Odds of Love." It was a scratch-off game that had certain odds. We wanted to speak to that. We thought, "Wouldn't it be funny to shoot it very New York-centric, and have it be a day in the life of two people, and speak to the odds of this thing happening, and do it in a way that was really charming?" We said, "Let's work with emerging talent rather than somebody super big and flashy." 

Joe Iconis kept coming up in conversation. This was just as his [musical] Be More Chill was about to go to Off-Broadway. When we met with him, we were like, "This guy gets it. He knows what we're trying to do." We got the music company Walker involved. They and Joe started putting some scratch tracks together, some demos. From the second they sent something over, we were like, "This is it!" 

New York Lottery - Odds of Love

It made us smile. It was doing all the right things. We just fine-tuned it. We got lucky enough to work on it at Electric Lady Studios [in Greenwich Village], which made it even a little more New York-centric. We had a great team shoot it, mostly in Brooklyn. 

Your earlier Super Bowl ad for Verizon, in 2018, was quieter, mostly piano? 

That was a Max Richter track. People's lives were changed, were saved, by these first responders, and I think on that one we leaned into it more emotionally. We wanted more heartstrings. We wanted the feels to happen. It was an existing piece called "Vladimir's Blues." 

Verizon | Answering the Call
Camila Cabello's song for Mastercard this year—can you talk that one?

That was around Grammy time. We were trying to solve for who felt right as an influencer [for the brand]. We also wanted to find a good track. We were thinking about the Grammys in terms of, "Who's the up-and-coming next generation or this year's hottest new thing?" Camila's name kept coming up. We saw her star rising like crazy. We just had that feeling: "By the time our project comes out, she's going to be totally massive." And as we started talking to her, it made the most sense to work with her as talent, so we put her on camera, too.

Mastercard | Priceless Surprises with Camila Cabello
That was quite different than your 2018 Grammy ad for Mastercard.

So much of the world is so beautifully diverse, and we want to speak to the beauty of that diversity. We stumbled on Bo Diddley's version of "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover," originally written by Willie Dixon. We wanted to take an artist at the beginning their career, but kind of hitting their stride, and couple them with the next generation of emerging artists who were truly underground talent. So we talked to SZA; she said yes. Then, we sourced emerging talent. We listened to stuff on SoundCloud, we asked buddies who they liked. We went down the craziest rabbit holes. We ended up finding incredible artists and bands from all over the country.

Mastercard | Can't Judge a Book

We were also trying to reflect the diversity of the country in the artists we chose. We saw all this great talent, and we put them together with SZA, and had each of them cover that song. Then we made a mashup of all their versions. That was the one in the commercial. Each of their own covers live on Spotify. It was really well-received. And these artists got noticed. Some of them, like Radkey—which is a band from Kansas City that everyone thought was hip-hop, but they're basically punk—were signed. The Tracks from LA—nobody knew about them except in their little scene. But all these people came and talked to them afterwards and agents wanted to work with them.

The last one I'll ask about is "Universal Love," the same-sex wedding songs performed by various artists (and produced by Rob Kaplan and Aaron Mercer, with McCann's Deb Archambault). How did that come together?

It didn't come from a client brief. It came from an insight we had. The Marriage Equality Act passed, and we we thought: "Well, the world is going to need new wedding songs." Historically, wedding songs—or any love songs, really—have a hetero point of view. We thought, "That's great, but things are changing." 

We wanted to help initiate that change, and we wanted to reflect inclusivity in the world. So, we almost reverse engineered the project. We looked at our client list, and thought, "Who feels like they would be most aligned to this cause?" At the time, we were taking on MGM as a new client—and it became clear to us they were right for "Universal Love." MGM employs a huge amount of LGBTQ+ people. They're already living and breathing in this world of LGBTQ+. We had to go through many, many songs to hit on what felt most accurate for the message we were trying to convey. 

Did you assign songs to the artists?

No, we didn't. We came up with a list of songs, and while clearing those songs and working with the publishing rights, we started putting together our list of who we wanted to involved. We started reaching out to talent like St. Vincent, Bob Dylan and Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie. We shared the song list with them. St. Vincent was like, "Oh, I want to do 'And Then She Kissed Me.' I'm going to do a punky version." We really wanted to be collaborative with the artist because, in the end, we knew it had to be their true voice, not an assignment. "And I Love Her" became "And I Love Him," for Ben.

What was it like working with Dylan?

His manager, Jeff Rosen, years ago sat down with Bob—I think this is going back to the '80s, if I remember Jeff's stories correctly—and they asked, "Are we going to do commercials?" And they decided, "OK, yes we are. And we're going to give people a yes or a no answer in the first 24 hours." He adhered to that, and it's astounding. Working with Bob Dylan was easier than some of the indie bands and artists I've worked with. One of the frustrations we have in the world of production is the uncertainty of things. We were so strapped for time that to have something as clear as that was great. Not to mention, the artistry of having him involved. We were like, "Oh my God, Bob Dylan!" 

So, you were a rock star yourself back in the day?

I played in a minorly successful electronic band from '99 to 2004. Pulseprogramming. We were signed to a cool little indie label out of Chicago. I got to do fun things like play a festival in Barcelona, which led to a six-week European tour. At that point, I was already at Wieden + Kennedy, and they were nice enough to let me tour. We sounded basically like electronic stuff meets indie rock. At first I was actually just making short films to accompany our songs. Every song had a film. Eventually, I started playing bass in the band.

What's your "DJ Bunny Ears" nickname all about?

I had DJ'd going back to the mid '90s when I started doing college radio. But I never landed on a DJ name or personality, so to speak. Then in 2000 or 2001, friends of mine in Portland started a venue called Holocene. They asked me to start playing shows. It literally came down to: "Hey. We need your name for the flyer, what's it going to be?" 

I'd been meaning to name myself for some time. I should have a 'name' if I'm going out there doing stuff, but also because there were a lot of Eric Johnsons in the world of creativity. There's one that plays with the band The Shins. So, I went with this moniker—DJ Bunny Ears—and I liked it. It was cute and clever but not so full of itself. It was a little bit of pranksterism. I think of "bunny ears" when you do the two fingers behind somebody's head. I wanted to take myself seriously, but not too seriously.

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David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.