Five minutes with Paul Sumpter
Paul Sumpter, creative director and founder of London-based music and sound production company The Futz Butler, discusses the importance of offering greater buy-in for clients who want a sonic identity.
Tell me about how you set up The Futz Butler, and the principles you operate on as a company.
I set the business up in 2004. I think one of the things that we've tried to do throughout is to simply help our clients find a better way to express their ideas through sound and music. We build our own instruments. We take risks. Our approach rejects complacent defaultism and sees everything as a possibility. We call it anti-obvious.
Using pre-made presets and loops is all well and good but we made the decision to gravitate the business towards collaborating with people who place a value on the craft and what you bring to the party, not just how cheaply it can be done. We try to make the work we do provide a genuine sense of meaningfulness for everybody in the business, both now and in the future.
Is sonic branding in Britain, as a tool, being taken as seriously by companies as it had ought to be?
No, but I don't think that's necessarily the fault of the people who are 'commissioning it'. I think the trouble that brands have with sonic branding, as an idea, is that it is a very abstract concept. Most companies we interact with are visual thinkers, first and foremost. They think in terms of language, colour, shape, motion, lighting, cinematography. Very few of them think about how to express their idea through the medium of sound.
We believe it's our job to be a translation service and help clients harness the power of sound. And just as importantly, make that process feel simple, authentic and exciting for everyone involved.
In recent times you’ve worked hard on offering greater buy-in for clients. Can you tell me what that entails?
When we say ‘buy-in’, what we're talking about is basically getting people behind an idea that can deliver whatever wider objective it is that they're trying to achieve.
Branding through sound is just one small part of it, however. The bigger goal should be to enrich and develop a relationship with the end user. Whether you're telling a story with a piece of film music or whether you're creating a piece of audio that accompanies when a washing machine stops, it's fundamentally the same thing. If you view it as an opportunity to 'shout your name' at people, the strategy will likely fail to resonate because it puts the brand's needs before the user's - there's no value created for them. If you make the sound you produce, even if it's functional, feel like a positive addition, you earn attention rather than grab at it. Only then can sound help to create long-term loyalty.
And so, when we talk about buy-in, what we're really referring to is listening - to users as well as each and every stakeholder. And then using our 20 years’ experience, fold all those thoughts, needs and ideas into a challenging, yet cohesive creative concept. One that all involved feel reflects them individually and so are invested in seeing it succeed.
How does this play out in practice?
The most recent project we delivered was for ITVX. ITV is a huge corporation with multiple important departments, in addition to DixonBaxi who were the branding agency overseeing the rebrand as a whole. So, there's lots of different views to build in.
As the audio specialist, our job was to uncover what was truly important and create a unified direction that delivers on it as part of the wider objectives. When there are so many layers of sign off, it just makes sense to get everyone singing off the same hymn sheet as early as possible, by offering a vision everyone can get behind.
If you fail to garner that buy-in, you're setting yourself up for a world of headaches, as you'll likely be trying to shoe-horn together and balance multiple often divergent ideas somewhere down the road. The project can descend into a design by committee, which rarely yields the best work. Moreover, it can be genuinely frustrating for the client, who can sometimes feel ill-equipped to be able to communicate with musicians and sound designers as to why the audio isn't working.
Sound is so subjective, it can be really hard to describe. There's a famous quote that says trying to describe music with words is like dancing to architecture! As audio companies, we have to get better at making it easier for our clients to use plain English to describe what's in their heads, not have to learn our jargon. It's not their responsibility to tell us how to change things or be able to offer overly musical or technical notes if it's not quite hitting the mark - it's our job to translate their language into actual sonic action.
Our process mitigates as much of this as possible by hopefully creating this sense of togetherness at the beginning. We do that through a process of workshops, questionnaires, and using a document with sliders that helps to dial in the exact feel of what the client is looking for.
What’s your feelings on the trajectory of sonic branding? Is it due a boom?
I'm very hopeful about the future of what we do. I'm a glass half full kind of chap, but I don't think it will manifest itself in terms of people thinking about it like traditional sonic branding. When you say sonic branding to someone, a lot of people probably think of jingles, which is very much rooted in the mid-20th century. I think what we'll move towards is UX sound design, so creating enrichment and enjoyment in the experiences that people have with brands. But not just brands. This is the key thing. I think if you look at something like the Metaverse, for example, it's a huge opportunity for brands to own the way they sound.
We are moving away from sounds that are produced as the by-product of some other function, such as the mechanical sound of a car running. Nowadays, an electric engine doesn't make that sound. It doesn't make a sound at all. So, we have an opportunity to own the way that a car for example sounds, and what we want that sound to be like. Which is an amazing future to run towards.
They're building these new cities in the desert from the ground up, where we have the chance to literally sculpt the sound of the environments and spaces for the inabitants at a molecular level.
What does this park sound like? How will the sound react in real time to different data to be more immersive? How do we design the sonic conditions into workspaces so that they promote wellbeing as well as feel productive? What do the traffic lights sound like when you cross the road? Everything can be designed. We get to imagine the unimagined.
And the question we should be asking ourselves is how can we make that meaningful to the people that live there? We're not thinking of how we can make that work so we can sell them toothpaste. Our focus is about how can we make the person who lives there enjoy it more so that they connect with it more.
It's our job to help people realise the potency of what sound can do.