In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
Most people in the music industry work one job at a time; Jake Terrell works at a Venn-Diagram intersection of three things: corporate branding, creative directing, and artist marketing. Terrell is the senior director for music and partnerships at BEN — short for the “Branded Entertainment Network” — an AI-based company that works with brands and artists to identify ad opportunities and drop product placements into projects like music videos. At BEN, which has 220 employees across coasts, Terrell oversees a six-person music team that’s linked up Charlie Puth with Lucky Charms cereal, paired A$AP Ferg with 1800 Tequila, and placed Flaming Hot Cheetos into Lizzo’s music video for her smash hit “Good As Hell.”
The Portland-based music-and-tech exec spoke with Rolling Stone about the “50%-50% split of business affairs and creative affairs” of his job and the challenges of orchestrating multi-team creative projects in quarantine.
Product placement in music videos is a pretty unique role. How did you get there?
My background in the decade-plus I’ve been in the music business was founded on music rights and clearances — everything from music supervision and creative syncs to bulk digital streaming service licensing. I’m not a lawyer myself, but have become steeped in that space. All of that led me to BEN, which is an agency formed of both Norm Marshall & Associates, the forerunner in product placement in entertainment, and Plaid Social Labs, which our CEO Ricky Ray Butler started and did things like influencer marketing. Those elements, combined with creative sync services, come together in one big swath of music marketing capabilities.
Our cornerstone is in brand innovation and music content. We also have other extensions beyond that, with artists, whether it’s social marketing and experiential and — in this day and age — live-streaming and performance. My job here is overseeing those brand partnerships and relationships rooted in brand integration and content, which often extends in other artist marketing.
Has the brand partnerships landscape changed due to quarantine?
It has. When it first hit, we all saw lots and lots of immediate outpouring of goodwill and a lot of artists took to going live on Instagram, livestreaming. it was all about togetherness and being there for one another. These are really intimate events, great and visceral.
As the waves continued and live touring became pushed to next fall to “question mark,” we’ve seen that platform mature quickly. So livestreaming is increasingly something that brands we work with are interested in — and a space we’ve activated in more and more. There’s such a propensity of the content and there are so many artists pioneering new approaches in the space and doing full studio and equipment setups. For us, it is a main offering. There have also been charity livestreams, like the Wounded Warrior Project, which is a call to give.
What are some artist integrations you’ve worked on?
One of the first livestreams was with country artist Luke Combs. We have a cross-section in the music video space — we’ve integrated Cheetos with Katy Perry and Lizzo, 1800 Tequila with A$AP Ferg and Future, Lucky Charms cereal with Charlie Puth. Not every day would you think that Lucky Charms would work well in a pop video, but this really did!
How long does it take to conceptualize a brand product placement in a music video?
While to some degree it can vary, it often happens within a couple of weeks or less. It is often the case that music video shoot dates fluctuate and/or get scheduled without a ton of notice. That’s the case even in COVID times. So we pride ourselves in helping our clients get really nimble about knowing what artists have content coming, getting ahead of creative treatments, so that we can activate really quickly. It can happen kind of on a dime. But given our relationships with labels and artist managers, we have a bedrock to be able to move quickly.
The day-to-day involves brand planning meetings, negotiation, and making content plans.
So you work with artist teams, brand teams, and your own team every day. Is it difficult to get everyone to sync up?
It’s definitely a juggling, balancing act amongst multiple brands and multiple pieces of artist content. We often have multiple brands interested in a given artist opportunity. Sometimes it’s nicely siloed — we’re meeting with a brand and touching bullet points with them on what their initiatives are and what content opportunities we have in gestation, and we can identify an idea of ours or tentpole event of theirs in the next quarter that works [great for everyone].
In other cases — if an artist is preparing a surprise release and there’s an opportunity to do something there, for example, a lot of brands can be interested. Then we’re fielding various offers and looking at whether there is a threshold for multiple players and the moment can still remain natural enough. Because we can’t have too many cooks in the kitchen. Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” was able to have multiple brands and still feel natural.
And there can be a lot of people involved in the creative direction of a branded project.
Yes, we’ll usually get a lower-touch, smaller group — a few on each side — looking at artist calendars and upcoming opportunities. Either side surfaces a video or livestream shoot or something like that that’s coming. Once we get into brass-tacks negotiation and start working on what the integration will look like, it expands out.
Now we’re looking at contracts teams, licensing teams, video creatives, directors and producers. Weaving in those moments and making sure what we’re doing works for both sides. It starts with the tight radius and then blows out as we get into the material effort.
In normal circumstances that includes visits where we’ll have staffers helping arrange for specific moments and making sure we get the set right. In COVID, we have to get creative with video relays and feeds and making sure the finished project comes to light.
Can you share what a typical brand spend might be for placement in a music video?
There is no real starting benchmark, because every activation is bespoke and dependent on artist, brand, affinity. It is definitely a moving target because it depends not only on the reach of an artist but also the nature of an alignment, how pervasively a brand may be involved, and behind-the-scenes content and things like that. Brands commit a certain amount to a music program and we slice and dice it into different projects — so we don’t necessarily think about it on a video-to-video cost basis.
What’s your personal favorite project you’ve worked on?
We’ve had a couple of great ones recently — the Lucky Charms and Charlie Puth moment was one of those where the scheduling became tight and it literally involved getting a box of Lucky Charms from the Ralph’s down the street to make it in time. And it went brilliantly.
I also really loved an activation that the band Lovelytheband did with Wahl Clippers, a grooming product, which was gratifying because it became this bigger integration — it extended into this larger partnership across social channels which performed really well. It became a broad alignment and extended the relationship just the way we endeavor to do.
For artists, it feels like the attitude to brand partnerships has gone from “that’s not something I’m interested in” to “yes, I really want a deal with Gucci” in the last couple of years. Have you observed that shift? Why do you think it’s come about?
I absolutely have. I think it’s come about for a few reasons. On one hand for artists, there’s a really great incentive: The brand involvement is in large part empowering the content, and so artists get to make the kind of content they want to make, and aren’t necessarily beholden to what the label is planning. More independent artists can take better control of the destiny and have another means of funding creative projects.
“Brands have over time gotten better at seeing the value in letting the artist be who they are… We increasingly see that music fans feel brands add value to music because they empower the artist.”
Brands have over time also gotten better at seeing the value in letting the artist be who they are and partnering with artists who have an authentic relationship with their fan base. They are not there to control the creative — just empower it. We increasingly see that music fans feel brands add value to music because they empower the artist.
So as the proposition has matured, all sides of the equation — brands, artist, fanbase — have started to see the benefits of the win-win-win.
What is the value in someone coming to you for help, instead of using their own marketing team or going to the other team directly?
There are those upper-echelon artists that everybody wants to work with — Drake, for example — so there are a lot of times that someone comes through with a preconceived notion of who they want to partner with. But between our own intel about artists’ cross-sections and fanbases, we also are an entertainment AI platform. We have proprietary AI that analyzes all of the content and creators that a company has worked with across the 40+ years that its collective piece parts have been in business — identifying follower counts, demographics, demographic crossover between X and Y — so we can identify for brands what their fanbase should be. We can stress-test that with data science.
From my perspective, any brand looking to do business in any meaningful way at all needs to have a music partnership strategy. Time and time again it is proven that it’s the biggest passion point with consumers. To be involved in that space is critical. If you’re a challenger brand who wants to work with more emerging artists who you can help break — we got you. If you’re a brand looking to reposition itself to a different demo — then great, we can pair you up. We find music campaigns are most successful when you do work with that range of artist — a hybrid approach of star wattage and artists who are coming into their own and those who are bubbling with super-devoted fanbases.
On the brand side it’s not limited to Fortune 500 companies. We do work with General Mills and Frito-Lay and others widely known, but we also work with nationally based or more medium-sized brands.
Do you feel like you work in the music industry or the tech industry?
I am not a musician — I might dabble on an acoustic guitar, but no one should ever have to experience that. I found music clearances and licensing and partnerships as my way into working in the world in a sometimes-creative and sometimes-deal-making capacity. I feel like my headspace and my job is this 50%-50% split of business affairs and creative affairs. For me that’s the ideal balance. It was not something i was always aware of, growing up — a place one could find — as I left school and got started in LA.
It was one of those lightbulb moments, 12 or 13 years ago. It provided a lot of opportunity. The music industry was accepting, to some degree, of streaming platforms who were going about bulk licensing. It was an inflection point and an opportunity to get my foot in the door.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
To not lose the forest for the trees. Whenever you’re doing deal-making, in any business I’m sure, there are a lot of t’s to cross. You get really into the details of a negotiation, a contract. You have to take a step back and you’re working on a larger campaign basis, with larger, grander goals for what you want to accomplish this year and what’s going to make sense for next year. Those bigger-picture things are what help mature the cultural identity of a brand and their sonic branding.
What’s been the most surprising thing about your time in the music industry?
For me the most pleasant surprise is how far it goes to simply be — and I know this sounds obvious — kind and respectful in all your dealings. Any entertainment industry can have tough personalities and people doing things a certain way for a long time. I think sincere engagement where you’re not looking to gouge anyone, you know everyone stands to benefit and everyone can be happy with what they get out of the deal, is something I wasn’t sure was possible when i first started, but have found to pay dividends over time.