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Meet the Class: Steve Keller

February 23, 2017

In today’s visually driven market, we are inundated with videos and images constantly. We are so accustomed to the ever-replenishing stream of visual media that we often overlook the importance and versatility of audio content. The rise of podcast and streaming cultures has led to a re-imaginging of what sound is capable of, an alternative approach to reaching an audience.

iHeartMedia has been at the forefront of this audio revolution and has collaborated with the Berlin School to create a scholarship designed to bring the brightest minds of the audio driven culture to our Executive MBA program. We spoke to this year’s winner Steve Keller about how he fell in love with sound and where the revolution will head in the future.

Tell us a bit about how you came to the audio business. What drew you to this part of the industry?

I have three professional passions in life. The first is Psychology. After graduating from University with a BA in Psych, I set my sights on a graduate program. I was taking an interim year to work in preparation for my continued studies, when an opportunity presented itself to pursue my second passion in life: Music. I put my graduate studies on hold, ultimately moving to Music City (Nashville, Tennessee) where I eventually made my break into the music business. I worked as a remix producer on a number of multiplatinum albums, as well as gaining other industry experience as a songwriter, musician, publisher, independent label executive and manager. It was working as a composer and music director on a variety of brand commercials that I discovered a third passion: advertising. In 2005, the roads of psychology, music and advertising converged with the launch of my audio consultancy, iV, where I work as an “audio alchemist.” I spend my days blending science and art, exploring how music and sound shapes our perceptions and influences our behavior.


How do we show the value of good audio work? In other words, how can strong audio creative help create authentic conversations between brand and consumer?

There is no question that the impact of audio on brand communication is significant. There are hundreds of empirical studies proving that sound has the power to increase attention, facilitate brand/message recall, improve brand perception, drive purchase intent, elicit physiological responses, increase likability, build positive associations, prime implicit responses and produce chemical reactions in our brains.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to think of audio only in the context of a “creative execution.” I think brands and agencies would be better served to think of audio from a process perspective. That process begins with  understanding brand intent, moving through the stages of discovery, design, creation, evaluation, implementation and management. When agencies and brands use sound more intentionally, based on a clearly defined strategy designed to align brand intent with consumer perception, then audio becomes more than simply a tactical add-on to a campaign. It becomes a reflection of the brand itself: congruent, distinct, flexible, recognizable, likable and ownable. When that happens, audio doesn’t just start a conversation. It drives it.


Radio surpassed TV as the largest reach medium in 2015, yet the majority of the advertising industry isn’t talking about it. How do we get brands and creatives excited about radio and include creative audio in their marketing plans?

It stands to reason that given the unquestionable power of sound, agencies and brands would want to use every available audio touch point at their disposal to leverage that power - which would include radio. I’d suggest that the abandonment of radio in advertising strategies is driven by cultural shifts in the perception of radio’s worth. In my opinion, that perception isn’t based on facts, but on systemic biases. If that hypothesis is true, then rational arguments alone won’t change the perceptions about the use of radio as a creative and/or strategic platform. Neither will it be enough to create another radio “dot” to connect, though there are plenty of dots worth exploring (e.g. hyper-localization, transmedia/transplatform integration, pre-targeted advertising, data mining, partnerships, adaptation to emerging trends, etc). Rather than focusing on the dots themselves, we should focus on how the dots are connected, rewiring them to drive new perceptions (and new behaviors). It’s an “everything old is new again” approach. Coupled with data to support results and drive KPIs, I think we’d begin to see some real innovation in how brands and agencies think about radio - both tactically and strategically.


Do you see the rise of podcasting playing a role in the future of audio advertising?

Podcasting is growing as a new medium for storytellers to connect with audiences. Ethnomusicologist and UCLA Professor Timothy D. Taylor, in his book “The Sounds of Capitalism,” documents that in the early days of radio, there was reluctance on the part of brands and agencies to use the medium for advertising. Ultimately, it was the development of radio “programs” that turned the tide. Could it be that we have entered a cycle where the future of radio lies in its past, leveraging radio’s ability to create both “on demand” and “in demand” content while blurring the lines between streaming services and radio? I think that’s the potential with podcasting. It’s branded audio content at its best.


How will the iHeartMedia scholarship help you better understand radio’s enduring popularity and the medium’s future?

As a recipient of the iHeartMedia scholarship, I feel a responsibility to give back as much as I get. I want to honor the confidence iHeartMedia has placed in me by devoting time and energy to looking at the unique opportunities and challenges currently facing radio. I’m already beginning to explore ideas for my Master’s Thesis, and look forward to immersing myself into the world of radio, understanding everything I can to connect the dots between its past, present and future. With my love for music, psychology, research and advertising, I’m looking forward to an amazing journey!