How the Grammys Went From Granny to Gaga

Behind the campaign for the 54th Grammy Awards and the Recording Academy’s challenge to bring an outmoded event into the digital age.

It wasn’t long ago that the Grammys were snarkily dubbed the Grannies. Notorious for performances from artists that you vaguely remembered from your parents’ LP collection, the show was teetering on the brink of irrelevance. But over the last five years, through its working relationship with its agency TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A., the brand has undergone a shift.


The live show itself features a good cross section of the biggest performers from many genres–this year’s show, for example, includes everything from Foster the People to a long-awaited Beach Boys reunion, as well as big names like Springsteen, Coldplay, and Rihanna. That, combined with high profile campaigns for the broadcast, has helped the Recording Academy rebuild the brand. Buzz artists like Adele, Bon Iver, and Skrillex feature in this year’s ad campaign called “#WeAreMusic.” The tech-enhanced marketing push illustrates the raw emotion of music through pulsating particles, and digital extensions engage fans before, during and after the show (of course when it comes to who wins the prizes, fans may still howl. But then again, if you don’t think all award shows are subject to bad decisions, we’ve got five words for you: “Dances With Wolves Beats Goodfellas.”)

To best understand the evolution of the Grammys’ communication strategy, it is first useful to go back to 2008. The Recording Academy had just hired TBWA as its agency of record, social media was exploding, and the music industry was ailing. With an endless parade of new shiny entertainment baubles to capture people’s attention, the five-decades-old Grammys simply weren’t topping the engagement charts.

“It’s no secret that for a time, we were struggling from a perception standpoint,” says Evan Greene, Chief Marketing Officer of the Recording Academy. “People were questioning the Grammys’ relevance and we were behind the curve when it came to digital and social media. At that time, the feeling was when you get to be a certain age, you just graduate to the Grammys.” Not a great reputation in a world being inherited by digital natives.

Charged with elevating the cultural relevance of the Grammys, TBWA’s first campaign for the 50th annual telecast was a thorough exercise in branding, says Bob Rayburn, TBWA Creative Director. “When we first got hold of them, they hadn’t really done a fully integrated, unique look across all of their media before, so that’s where we started.” The result was a cohesive campaign that connected the present with the past–fitting for a 50th anniversary.

The following year, the agency started expanding the digital profile of the Recording Academy, but it wasn’t until 2010 and the 52nd Grammy campaign that things exploded. Looking for ways to connect with a younger target, TBWA knew that for their client being digital was the only option.

Creative Director Patrick Condo says that part of the problem in trying to reach younger music fans was in the way that fans were targeted. “A lot of old metrics were being used to find where the fans were, like radio airplay and record sales. But music was going more and more digital so those weren’t really applicable to how music was being consumed,” he says. “The first conversation we had with Evan was that we needed to stop trying to pull the fans back to the music industry and needed to start showing the music industry where the fans are.”


How to actually do that was something of a mystery until a happy collaborative accident led to a creative breakthrough at TBWA. As Director of Creative Technology Ricardo Diaz tells it, one of the agency’s art directors saw an unrelated and unused prototype that used scraping technology to gather information from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube based on keywords. Meanwhile, an engineer saw some campaign comps. The two got together and came up with a concept that used social networking content to create visual mosaics. “At first, we weren’t sure that we could make it happen but we put our heads down and started programming,” says Diaz. “A day or two later we showed the prototype to the rest of the team and they were like, that’s it, that’s the idea.”

The result was We’re All Fans, a campaign that had at its center an interactive site where portraits of Grammy-nominated artists are composed entirely of real-time, fan-generated YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook postings. From there, the idea was extended to more traditional media.

Evan Greene calls that campaign a tipping point for the Recording Academy because it represented the perfect intersection of music, marketing, and social media and changed the conversation around the Grammys.

Not ones to buckle under the pressure having to repeat a breakout success, the agency’s campaign for the 53rd Grammys, MusicIsLifeIsMusic, used social networking and geolocation to allow fans to map out their life’s musical journeys and share them with others.

So with this year being the fifth in a fruitful relationship that has seen a year-round spike in online engagement and Grammy show ratings increases upwards of 50%, the natural question is what next?

Well, for starters, for the 54th Grammys, Greene changed the brief. “This year I challenged them with something different,” he says. “I said, let’s not focus as much on the ephemeral nature of music and the stories of individual artists, let’s really focus on the visceral nature of music. Like music itself, I wanted this campaign to have a driving pulse and really infused with energy and movement.”


How exactly does one visualize the power of music? TBWA started with the root DNA of music, which was brought to life through undulating particles that swirl, collect, disperse, and eventually form into one of the six featured artists in the 54th annual campaign, including Adele, Skrillex, Bon Iver, Foo Fighters, Bruno Mars, and Paul McCartney. “The way we thought about it was that all of these artists have influences–things come into them and it shapes the way they think and write and craft,” says Condo. “The emotion that comes back out is what attracts us to them. It’s about what that energy looks like as they’re performing.”

Once again, TBWA started with digital and let the idea grow from there. Diaz says his team of engineers started by playing around with a bunch of technologies to determine how to best show the passion and energy that comes from music. “Because of the look and feel that the creatives were looking for, we needed top, top-tier 3D accelerated graphics. We tested and prototyped everything–HTML5, Canvas, CSS3, Javascript, Flash–before landing on Flash 11 and Stage 3D.”

#WeAreMusic microsite

The heart of the campaign is a microsite that features trippy particles moving on a 3-D plane that ebb, flow, scatter, and reform to the beat of each artist’s music (for more on the campaign, see sidebar). Fans can make playlists of a wide variety of songs, and then upload their own photos, which then receive the same particle treatment. A mobile app replicates the experience while letting friends listen to the same song or playlist simultaneously. In the week leading up to the awards show, the campaign also included a #SingMyTweet experience wherein artists such as Meiko, Anthony Hamilton, and Class Actress would sing messages sent over Twitter. Finally, the look created from the particle visualizer will be integrated into the live Grammy telecast, a final testament to the holistic approach that has grown out of the relationship between TBWA and the Recording Academy.

Making music dance

Skrillex doing his thing

#WeAreMusic, the campaign for the 54th Grammy awards, is all about the roots of music’s energy, about what exists deep within various artists that fuels their creative output. As with previous campaigns, a number of top artists feature prominently in #WeAreMusic. In order to help articulate the energy that each musician exudes, TBWA ascribed a musical DNA to each, which then informed the artistic direction of each execution.

For Adele, “fire and rain” were the leading forces, while “solemn wonder” fit Bon Iver’s musical vibe (both spots created by visual effects company MPC). The Foo Fighters’ energy was driven by “beautiful destruction” (spot created by Wolf & Crow) and the unique sound of dubstep performer Skrillex was expressed as “metallic dance.”

For all of the spots, working with particles meant finding the right balance between controlled movement and energetic randomness. For Pixomondo, the production company behind the Skrillex piece, that challenge was even more, shall we say, fluid. Instead of making fiery raindrops, swirling snow or crashing crystals form in the shape of a musician, Pixomondo had to make what looks like liquid mercury dance.


To do that, the team used motion capture data of a dancer and used a mixed bag of technology to make it move–from Flame to 3-D Studio MAX, Cinema 4D, and Maya. While pushing the software to get the desired effect was a great challenge, the most attention was paid to ensuring that the technology didn’t obscure the emotion of the spot.

“There was a lot of back and forth because we had to determine how much of the actual performance we wanted to see versus how much it would be an abstract piece, and the liquid is intrinsically driven by the performance,” says Pixomondo creative director Simon Mowbray. “We were always coming back to this visual metaphor for how music affects us. It was always a question of what the emotional impact was for each shot. We had a whole slate of shots that we’d finished that we ended up cutting out in the end because they just didn’t quite have the right feeling for that phrase of music. That was what was interesting to us about it, this abstraction of real dance.”


About the author

Rae Ann Fera is a writer with Co.Create whose specialty is covering the media, marketing, creative advertising, digital technology and design fields. She was formerly the editor of ad industry publication Boards and has written for Huffington Post and Marketing Magazine