Learn to listen

Julian Treasure is a musician that entered marketing and now combines the two in his consultancy firm, The Sound Agency. He advises on sound branding and the effects of audio on human behaviour and spoke to Anna Mitchell at xSolutions 2011.

Anyone who believes that sound is the weaker partner in the audio video relationship needs to listen to Julian Treasure, founder of the Sound Agency, author and conference speaker. Treasure’s talks are engaging and compelling in their messages, which range from audio branding, audio as a positive or negative tool in workplaces, how audio affects our lives, sound and health and conscious listening.

The Sound Agency is a UK based consultancy that specialises in effective sound branding and designing and installing soundscapes. Within this role Treasure has worked with an impressive list of clients including BP, Harrods, Nokia and BAA.

He’s been employed to reduce stress levels in airports, create or refine audio branding and overhaul audio communications. He’s also been very successful. The companies that have been brave enough to implement something new or perhaps unusually understand just how important sound is in the perception of their brand - or for the effectiveness of their employees - have reaped enormous benefits.

I met Treasure at xSolutions 2011 and before interviewing him watched his address in the InAVate Live theatre. He immediately and effectively presented audio as not just important but undervalued. He highlighted the fact we hear a 360° radius in eight octaves. We see only one octave in a "cone in front of us".

In this sense some of the approaches Treasure suggests are largely common sense despite being massively overlooked. Some are based on neurological research and some from Treasure’s own observations. His type of consultancy isn’t taught. It is truly groundbreaking so where does Treasure’s inspiration come from?

Treasure is a musician and used to play professionally. I’d just listened to him stressing the importance of protecting your ears and lamenting the damage people inflict on themselves listening to loud music so his choice of instrument surprised me. Treasure plays the drums. He’s also a fan of listening to music. He is also a fan of silence.

Before pursuing his current line of consultancy Treasure worked in marketing and established and sold a successful contract publishing company. It was 2003 when Treasure asked himself: "What do I want to do now?". That was effectively the birth of The Sound Agency and the start of a career that Treasure describes as a marriage of music and marketing; his passion and his skill. "No one else is doing this," says Treasure. "At the moment my work is largely about getting the message out there." There may be a lack of awareness but once people hear Treasure they seem incredibly responsive to his ideas. "The UK is quite advanced in these concepts and awareness certainly grew after I published my book in 2007," he adds.

"Interest in The Sound Agency has grown and adoption of these approaches has become a lot more widespread in the last year," Treasure notes. "I think this is partly down to getting the message across and partly down to businesses going through some tough times.

"During a recession or tough economic times businesses look for ways to give themselves advantages and new approaches are tried. Particularly in marketing departments people become far more experimental."

Brand experiences should utilise all five senses according to Treasure. "Creating a brand experience is like conducting an orchestra, each sense is a section," he says. "Sight is significant but sound is important on an emotional and psychological level. Seventy per cent of brand related decisions are based on emotion and in many ways the study of economics has ignored that."

Treasure read economics at Cambridge University in the UK and believes that the concepts of microeconomics, that was the prevalent school of thought in the late seventies, dehumanised the way the discipline was explored. He is much more comfortable with the concept of behavioural economics that accepts humans are irrational and act on emotion.

There’s a little bit of economics that informs Treasure’s consultancy and there’s a lot of psychology.

Treasure is in touch with and stays up to date with multiple researchers in this field but says it is a shame that much of the work that has gone into the impact of sound on human behaviour focuses on music.

His passion for the power of sound is contagious as he notes spaces where you can really feel its effects. He runs through scenarios from the calming silence of an empty church; to the intense, aggressive silence of a cave and the pleasure that can be gained from listening to music on a good quality sound system.

Treasure doesn’t want to just help companies brand themselves to sell more and make a greater impact. He wants to improve environments and experiences and his consultancy extends to working with audio manufacturers. He has a good working relationship with Biamp. On the installation side he’s working with Electrosonic. He stresses that his work is equipment-agnostic but does cite manufacturers, including specialist speaker manufacturers such as Holosonic and Feonic, which make equipment that often suits his purposes.

Sound should be thought of when a building is designed according to Treasure, who says that whilst some architects are fairly adept at this most do not even consider it. It’s a complaint familiar to any AV integrator who has found themselves trying to make a useable conferencing or presentation space out of a beautiful but obstructive room. Treasure shares some integrators’ fears in this area and is concerned that, particularly in the field of conferencing, manufacturers increasingly selling direct to IT departments could have a negative affect on communication.

"Architects should be responsible for ensuring a space appeals to multiple senses," he says. "They are the guardians of human experience. They’re generally very good at considering touch and vision and they consider smell a little. But they must take on sound."

At the moment he says retail has been far more receptive at seriously investing in improving audio experiences and using sound to enhance a brand but believes the corporate world will follow suit. He says: "Retail is the obvious area for these concepts but offices could benefit immensely from designing in quiet working spaces to go alongside the prevalent open plan shared working spaces."

Near the end of his talk at xSolutions Treasure asked a room that contained a healthy number of UK audio consultants: "Are we loosing our listening?". It seems odd to speak to the audio industry and ask this question. Indeed, speaking in the InAVate Live theatre, Treasure said himself he may be preaching to the converted. However, his ways of looking at audio and his subsequent recommendations are refreshingly different to how the professional audio industry largely thinks and acts.

It’s true that many of his concepts on intelligibility and audio quality are adopted, proclaimed and implemented ingeniously by this industry. But when it comes to using sound to alter an experience, affect behaviour or build a brand then I think there is still a lot that can be learnt and utilised.

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