Feature Article in SourceECreative
PrimalScream’s Nicole Dionne Brings an Edgy Touch to Ad Music
No diva, this well-connected executive producer puts a heavy emphasis on creativity, collaboration and results.
I’m stumped. The confident and outspoken Founder and Executive Producer of the L.A. and Austin-based PrimalScream Music & Sound seems to reflect so many different motifs, it’s hard to decide. So to make things easy, I’d do what lots of agency creatives do: I’d turn this assignment over to Dionne herself. I’d give her the brief, share a little of my insights and let her work her music magic.
Dionne is a Bay Area native who got her start on the film production side, working initially with the director Renny Harlin. From there she landed at RSA, working with Marco Brambilla on treatments for commercials and videos. Given her musical background (it was always a part of her life while growing up, she recalls), “my head just started filling up with musical ideas as I was putting the treatments together.” The move into the music business, she adds, “felt like a very natural transition.”
She founded PrimalScream, which is both WBENC and HUB certified, in 1995, and has been working out of the Village Recorders facility in L.A. for the past decade – a fact that’s helped Dionne build a wide network of musician friends and peers whom she frequently taps for ad assignments. As one producer says about her, “she seems to be surrounded by musicians all the time.”
If you’re not all that familiar with the PrimalScream name, you’ve likely heard their work, if not in countless broadcast spots sor the groundbreaking BMW Films series from Fallon, then while doing a little channel surfing. For example, they were tapped to musically rebrand six of the channels in the Starz cable lineup, a massive gig that resulted in 75 separate audio deliverables. They also composed an opening theme for FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” and created tracks for the network’s “American Horror Story” anthology series that represented orchestral updates of cinematic tracks from well-known thrillers.
The studio’s most recent tour de force in advertising has been the “Move To Comfort” Fruit of the Loom campaign The Richards Group created to break during the Summer Olympics last year. A massive re-positioning of the iconic brand, it was built around a half-dozen evocative and stylistic spots directed by Nez of Furlined, each spot backed with its own track.
The bands themselves were promoted on a special site FOL set up for fans of the campaign, which repositioned the brand as more of a badge of style and performance than just underwear.
Dave Morring is the Creative Group Head with The Richards Group who, working with Co-Creative Director Tim Tone, led the team that created the campaign. “I really liked Nicole’s approach to things,” he tells SourceEcreative. “It was different. She was very collaborative, and so into the bands and the music scene. It felt like she was really well connected, and we were able to work right in the studio with the musicians and the engineer, experimenting and trying different things. I liked the whole process.”
Morring says Dionne recognized the need for original tracks once he and the creative team laid out the brief, and suggested they get actual bands to create and record the songs. “And she did this global search; she must have sent us close to a hundred bands from all over the world. She bombarded us with style.” From the process they narrowed it down to 16 groups, who started working on the tracks.
A surprising number of the songs worked great almost from the start, Morring recalls. “Nicole worked with the bands quite a bit to get the sounds just right. She really bent over backwards for us on this.” Was it worth it? “Well, we ended up with exclusive music that we could do lots of social media things with,” he answers.
The observation that PrimalScream’s tracks feel more like ‘real’ music than ‘ad’ music was heard over and over. “What struck me about them was the organic feel to their work,” says Nina Davenport, a former producer at Uproar! in New York who worked with PrimalScream on a number of projects for brands such as Hasbro. “It sounded like it came from a band, and it felt like you were listening to a song. There was a power and authenticity to it.”
Davenport, who’s now EP at Clockwork VFX, describes all of the jobs she’s done with Dionne and her team as “really positive experiences. I can’t say enough about how accommodating they are, which is important for an agency producer. Nicole is really in the game; she was as intensely committed to each project as we were.”
Another fan is Alison Wagner, now a Senior Producer at GSD&M who worked with PrimalScream while at The Richards Group. They collaborated on campaigns for Firestone and Comcast that included lush orchestral tracks, and again, the experience was extremely positive. “I love the way they work,” she says. “They go out and find talent that you might not normally be able to access, but through Nicole’s relationships she gets them to work on your projects. The result is that it usually has a different feel and tone – it sounds more authentic.”
“We have a bilingual team here at the studio,” says Dionne, whose own Spanish she describes as not bad at all. “We understand both the cultural nuances of music for these demographic groups, as well as the need to deliver the same level of quality in their work.”
The studio is not shy when it comes to trumpeting its’ WBENC certification, and with good reason. “Especially in the area of music, being woman-owned is rare,” says Dionne. “With our long history of producing high end creative work, we offer both clients and agencies such a broad spectrum that it gives them the confidence that we’ll be able to meet their needs.”
Their status, she adds, “benefits anyone looking to work with a certified diversity company; it lets them know we’re an option. I don’t think that many people actually know we’re WBENC certified, because music is not typically seen as a woman’s business.” Dionne works with a dedicated Head of Diversity, Alison Bacon, who she says has connected the studio with companies and individuals looking to work with WBENC companies, but exposure is just part of the equation. “It’s really important for us to not just raise awareness of our status,” she notes, “but also to earn the trust both creatively and production-wise with new clients.”
Dionne and Bacon have put in their sweat equity, making the rounds of diversity showcases and events and presenting the studio and its capabilities before a wide range of companies. In some instances, they’ve been talking mostly to marketers; in others, both agencies and clients have taken part. For example, they were on hand at a diversity event held in Las Vegas last year to coincide with the annual NAB Show attended by dozens of top execs from such networks as Disney, ESPN, ABC and CBS, where they made a capabilities presentation and screened a video that neatly sums up the studio’s chops across media genres and platforms. (You can check it out here.)
“The events that we participate in really remind us how important it is for these large corporations and agencies to be working with diversity vendors,” Dionne notes. “It also helps me to understand why these companies value working with diversity vendors, which is fascinating to me. Our population is multi-cultural and diverse, and growing more so each year. When large corporations work with diverse individuals and companies, their work and perspectives have added value. This is more than just qualifying as a women owned business, this is about their valuing the output of the work and seeing how it is impactful to the final product.”
How does PrimalScream’s status as being woman-owned influence how it approaches its work? That’s a question we posed to both Dionne and some of her fans on the agency side, and got an interesting range of perspectives.
From Dionne herself, it’s more about empathy and sensitivity being at the forefront. “There’s an emotional connection to music that needs to start with a very intimate level of understanding human feelings and impressions,” she says. “This understanding, combined with connecting these concepts musically, is what our creatives and clients are looking for with their work.”
The Richards Group’s Morring believes PrimalScream’s woman-owned status makes a tangible difference. “I think it fuels Nicole’s desire to go with a different approach,” he observes. “It’s made her a bit of a fighter, but in a good way. She’s not going to take any BS from the guys in the music business.” And while he’s quick to point out that her gender, nor the ownership status of PrimalScream, factored into their decision to hire them on the FOL project, he adds, “I believe her being a woman makes her more creative and more willing to try things that a conventional music company might not, because she feels the need to stand out.”
“Nicole’s being a woman influences their work in that they never take anything for granted,” says Davenport. “We always felt her presence, that she was front and center and totally engaged. It might be that ‘I’m a woman in a man’s world’ factor that makes her go the extra mile, but then again, it might just be Nicole herself.”
So what influences Dionne? Well, lots of things. The desire to deliver for clients is one. And certainly building her presence in Austin is another. “L.A. has been kicking it for years,” she says of her studio, “but I’m also excited to show the rest of the country what the community here is like,” she says from her new Austin digs. “I’d love for them to come here and make music, or shoot. It’s such a great place with so much talent to offer.”
From a personal perspective, Dionne feels a sense of obligation and responsibility to the women owners who are coming up in the business today. “I’m in that first generation of women in the business who didn’t need to act like a man in order to be seen as successful,” she observes. “The women that came before me, they laid the foundation. What they did was amazing. But I wanted to be successful in my own way. And I’m a woman, through and through.”
So she makes herself available to mentor women, and sees herself as something of a role model. “It’s really about helping the next generation of women to succeed like I have,” she says. “And the best way to do that is to be truthful and honest.”