Claudia Butzky, Warner Records’ senior VP of brand partnerships, was getting ready to start her weekend on May 8 when a seemingly impossible request for one of her artists to be part of an ad campaign crossed her inbox. Though it wasn’t clear at the time, the resulting commercial would make its broadcast premiere just eight days later on May 16, as Walgreens’ 2020 graduation campaign to promote its family photo albums and same-day gifts.
To help provide a musical pick-me-up for displaced 2020 grads, Walgreens and its agencies VMLY&R and Berlin Cameron were seeking the following: Could Warner identify an artist who could write contemporary lyrics to “Pomp and Circumstance,” the iconic graduation march first composed by Edward Elgar more than 100 years ago in 1901? Only don’t make it slow and stoic like the original, make it fun and upbeat for the TikTok generation. Oh, and it’s already Friday night, but could the artist submit a demo of those lyrics by Sunday? Because there’s a chance a non-music version of the same spot might go to air instead if the song isn’t good enough.
The frenzied campaign music brief, led by VMLY&R’s executive music producer Theresa Notartomaso, has become the new norm in the post-pandemic advertising hustle. As brands and agencies struggle to turn around new commercials that can still inspire and entertain audiences during such an anxious time, the extreme limits placed on filming them means ideas are often greenlit within days of campaigns making it to air. It’s not unlike the Super Bowl rush to secure music for ads that usually occurs during the holidays and extends until the last 48 hours before the Big Game, as song choices get cycled through until the last possible second.
Still, Butzky rose to the challenge. “I said, ‘Okay, well, I need to find an artist that can actually write, and wants to do things.’ I had to A&R all this stuff running through our heads and still get it approved by the client. I knew Walgreens wasn’t going to go with any artist.” Butzky submitted a shortlist of artists by late Friday night, and by Saturday morning had the go-ahead to approach Warner artist Bebe Rexha to write a demo to submit for Walgreens and VMLY&R’s review.
“By Saturday night, [Bebe] sent back a demo with a 60-second sample and a 30-second version of her lyrics to ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ where she dropped this beat on it and it just totally worked,” Butzky says of Rexha, who first cut her teeth as a songwriter for Eminem & Rihanna and G-Eazy before being recognized as one of Variety’s 2018 Hitmakers. “They wanted it to feel youthful and young, and when you’re a gifted writer like Bebe you’re able to capture that.”
Rexha tells Songs for Screens that the rapid-fire turnaround for Walgreens was counter to the approach she typically applies to her songwriting. “I definitely like to spend a lot of time with my music, making sure that what the world hears is exactly how I want it to sound. Writing the perfect song can take a long time, but it’s an exciting and rewarding process. This project came together rather quickly because graduations across the globe are happening in real time right now, and I wanted to make sure that all the students have a chance to celebrate with the song.”
Rexha infused elements of her own high school grad celebration with the more remote realities faced by this year’s class. “I felt it was important to honor the legacy of the song and maintain some aspects of the original while putting a 2020 twist on it,” Rexha says. “I was thinking about all the kids this year who aren’t getting the full graduation experience and how I could uplift them and get them excited again by giving them their own special graduation song to celebrate to.”
After Rexha’s song inspired several more weekend calls and negotiations, Butzky received word by May 12 that both the song and Rexha herself had secured a starring role in the Walgreens campaign. Now for the next obstacle: could Rexha self-record her appearance in the commercial, and within the next 24 hours? Yes, but Butzky was able to buy an extra 12 hours to give the singer-songwriter a break from separate sessions she’d been logging for her next musical project, expected later this summer.
So on the morning of May 14, Rexha did her own hair and makeup and filmed a dynamic outdoor video of herself performing her song. It went to air 48 hours later, and is currently set to run through June 10.
Says Patrick McLean, Walgreens chief marketing officer, “The class of 2020 has put in years of hard work, and Walgreens wants to make sure all graduates are celebrated. Whether you’re walking across your living room or organizing a drive-by graduation parade, it’s important to capture those moments and memories. But we knew this year’s grads deserved something special, so we came up with the idea to partner with Bebe Rexha. In a matter of hours, she put a new spin on the traditional ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ song that will hopefully become an anthem for students.”
Butzky says that once Rexha filmed her appearance for the commercial, the partnership took on a life that extended beyond typical contract deal terms. “iHeartRadio got wind of it, Walgreens had some plans, and they wanted to go ahead and premiere all the information on Friday morning with ‘Elvis in the Morning,’” Butzky says. “So Bebe got up at 6 a.m. Friday to talk about the graduation piece. I have so much respect for an artist who does that.”
After the commercial went live, Butzky adds, “there was a total uptick on socials for her, searches for her. She did a TikTok #GradJump; she offered to do personal messages to grads. These were not requirements, but she totally embraced what the message was about. Walgreens is such a good partner, and I think there’s mutual appreciation on both sides in doing something for the kids.”
Ewen Cameron, CEO of Walgreens’ partner agency Berlin Cameron, said, “By launching Bebe’s remix and the new Walgreens ad during Barack Obama’s commencement speech and continuing the rollout on traditional and social media throughout the graduation season, the initiative allows the class of 2020 to rock their own ideas about graduation. It also positions Walgreens at the heart of this celebration and perhaps most importantly, brings some much-needed fun and joy at this time.”
Though Rexha has been staying busy during quarantine working on new music and spending lots of quality time with family, she’s excited to see responses from fans who are already requesting a full-length version of her “Pomp” update. “It makes me so happy that the fans love this song so much,” she says. “You never know what could happen — we’ll see!”
Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.