Spotify’s Danielle Lee talks brands, audio and diverse recruitment


“Music data, I think, is really unique. We really believe that we can extract unique insights based on how you stream. You can understand habits. You can understand moods, mindsets, tastes. And you can start to predict behaviour.”

Danielle Lee is Spotify’s global head of partner solutions, charged with helping big brands tap in to the streaming service’s data on its listeners. The potential of which was a core plank in Spotify’s pitch to brands at the Cannes Lions conference this month.

That’s where Music Ally sat down with the former AT&T and Vevo executive to talk about how Spotify is working with brands on campaigns that go beyond standard ads – but also the opportunities she sees around smart speakers and podcasts, and her participation in the Lions’ ‘See It Be It’ initiative, which aims to tackle the gender imbalance at senior levels of the creative industries.

Starting with the data, and Lee’s pitch for what Spotify can bring to brands looking for more than display ads. Personalisation looms large, as well as context-driven campaigns.

“Context is so, so important because it helps you tap in to the emotion. If I’m listening to Drake ‘God’s Plan’ on a run, I’m going to be in a completely different mindset if I’m listening to that on my commute, or when I’m hanging out with my girlfriends. Very different contexts,” she said.

“Because people curate their own playlists, they name them based on the activity that they’re doing. That gives us this unique insight into the context, and therefore the mindset. And that all informs the creative: what do you put in front of this person when they’re focused on their health versus a boozy dinner party?”

Playlists have been a prominent part of some recent brand campaigns on and around Spotify. Financial firm John Hancock, which sponsors the Boston Marathon, ran a campaign that created personalised playlists for Spotify listeners based on their streaming habits, preferred genres, and the pace that they run at.


A Snickers partnership, meanwhile, identified Spotify users who were listening to music outside their usual genres, and targeted them with the brand’s ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’ campaign, driving traffic to Snickers’ Hunger Hits playlist.

“These are the types of things where you can integrate a brand’s message into an experience that’s unique to you, that really resonates. And that did exceptionally well,” said Lee.

“Music is so personal and so fun, so we really want brands to take advantage of that, as opposed to just pushing in to the experience with something that’s disruptive and intrusive. It creates a sense of value-exchange between the user and the brand.

Outside playlists, Spotify currently offers three main formats to brands: display, video and audio advertising. Lee is particularly enthusiastic about the latter in 2018.

“What I’m really interested in is how audio’s going through this complete renaissance right now. With the growth of connected devices and connected speakers, audio is being looked at very differently,” she said.

“We know that music is an important use case for these devices. That presents us, and marketers, with a whole new set of opportunities to engage with consumers in this screen-less world. That’s something we’re really excited about exploring with brands.”

Spotify is already integrated into a number of smart speakers, Google Home and Amazon Echo included, even if it can’t (yet) take advantage of all of their features. With regular rumours that Spotify might launch its own device, it’s clear the streaming service is mulling the potential for new forms of advertising, as well as new ways to interact with the music itself.

“The notion of being able to respond to an audio ad with a voice command is something that we’re excited to explore in the future,” said Lee, before moving on to another area of audio that Spotify is focusing on: non-music content.

“Podcasts is a really exciting opportunity that we are starting to invest in. We’re the number two player in podcasts now, so growing that opportunity for brands is huge,” she said.

“Marketers are masterful storytellers, and that’s really where you can connect on an emotional level, it’s where you can drive greater ad recall, and start to build a relationship. So I think podcasts will be a huge opportunity for brands going forward.”

“It’s a pretty fragmented space right now, and I think brands are still trying to figure out how do you do this and measure it, measure the impact as with any advertising? So we’re excited to shape that with them… There are a lot of brands that are starting to make their own podcasts, and we’re collaborating with them on those opportunities. If you’ve earned the right, some brands can carry that off. Not all of them!”

Spotify is also tackling the issue of how artists sit within its partnerships with brands. There is potential for controversy here: for example, if a brand creates a themed playlist, should it ask for the featured artists’ permission, or pay them? But Lee talks about another aspect: where Spotify enlists artists to actively participate in a campaign.

The recent example is Echoes of Vietnam, based around the PBS documentary of the same name, and a partnership with Bank of America (which underwrote the film’s development).

“They came to us and we presented them with an opportunity to use music as that connective tissue to the Vietnam War,” said Lee. “That era has some really phenomenal music, and what we did was we had several artists remake songs from the time period.”

John Legend, The Lumineers, Dan Auerbach, and Leon Bridges, Gary Clark Jr and Jon Batiste were among the artists taking part, with Lee stressing that there was more to this than simply cutting them cheques.

“We found artists that had a connection to the war, whether it be family members. One of the artists actually brought letters. So it wasn’t just ‘sing the song’ – it was ‘tell your story and why this was relevant to you’,” she said.

“We sit in a place of helping brands connect to culture in a really authentic way, in a way that not everyone has licence to do. And the opportunity to discover something new on the platform is very natural.”

Another recent Spotify/brand partnership was with Diageo / Smirnoff for the ‘Smirnoff Equalizer’ – a microsite that got people to log in, then showed them what percentage of their listening was to men artists versus women artists, with a personalised playlist to redress the balance.

The campaign took a light-hearted tone, but was sparked by the fact that the entire top 10 artists on Spotify in 2017 were male. This, against a backdrop of public debate within the music industry about the diversity of its workforce at every level, and issues ranging from all-male panels at conferences to harassment in and out of the workplace.

Spotify’s sponsorship of the Cannes Lions’ See It Be It initiative is part of a wider slate of activity for the company, which includes its own (not related to the Smirnoff campaign) Equalizer Project back in Sweden. Lee – who is also a board director of the I.D.E.A. Initiative, which aims to highlight and support executives of colour in the US business world – talked about how she sees the current landscape.

see it be it

“I think we’re at a time in the world now where consumers want to know where brands stand on these issues. And employees want to know where their companies stand on these issues. And it’s no longer acceptable to sit on the sidelines,” she said.

“There have been so many conversations up and down the [Cannes] Croisette this week around gender-equality, and around telling the stories from the community that haven’t been told. And it’s an exciting time to be a woman in business, I think. I think we’re far more fearless, we feel more powerful than we ever have, we’re far more confident. There’s a greater sisterhood amongst us.”

“There was a time when if you were one of two senior women, it was like ‘oh no, there can only be one of us’. It’s kinda ridiculous, and it is a myth. There’s room for more than one of us at the table! I’m excited to be part of that conversation.”

Lee believes that brands “have a responsibility to stand up for what’s right and to affect positive change”, which is how she sees Spotify’s participation in See It Be It. The initiative brought a group of women in creative roles at companies across the world to Cannes, for a program of training, mentoring and networking during the Lions festival.

“It’s giving them all types of tools, and nurturing them in a way that you wouldn’t get as a young woman. The goal is to improve gender balance, primarily at the senior levels in these creative worlds,” said Lee.

The intent is, having taken note of data showing that women make up 46% of the advertising industry but just 11% of creative-director roles, to take action that can change that ratio. Lee also had some thoughts on practical steps that can be taken within the music industry on this front.

She started with a tip for conferences. “For men in particular, refuse to sit on manels, all-male panels. Don’t do it,” she said.

“I also think we need to address the bias in our hiring processes. If you’re interviewing candidates for a role, and you’re only seeing white men, you need to call that out. You should demand that 50% of the candidates that come through are women. And a representative number of people of colour,” continued Lee.

“There’s no way you’re going to really affect change unless you’re being intentional and deliberate, and that’s something that I tell people on my team that are hiring managers. Fight that! That’s not acceptable.”

Lee added that the other area where change is needed is at the most senior management level (‘c-level’ – CEO, COO and so on) and at board level.

That’s something that Spotify itself could be criticised for: at the time of writing it has one woman out of six c-level executives – albeit with incoming chief creative officer Dawn Ostroff to come in August – and three out of nine board members. Talking generally, rather than specifically about her company, Lee was hopeful that the arguments for changing these kinds of ratios are persuasive.

“We know that when we have diverse leaders, it drives greater creativity, it drives greater innovation, and ultimately it drives business growth. And so this is not an HR issue. This is a business necessity. It’s a business imperative,” said Lee.

Stuart Dredge

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