Inner sense

Lynda Relph-Knight boards Eurostar to meet sound design consultancy Sixième Son, which is planning to bring its offer to the UK

Does Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons really sum up your company or brand? Probably not, especially if you’re in, say, high fashion or the fast-moving world of finance. If it did, you’d be sharing your culture with a host of other businesses, it being one of the most popular snatches of music repeated interminably as the unsuspecting caller holds on the phone to be connected. It’s also a favourite with international airlines, which seem to equate the lively 18th century melodies with calm as you touch down at your destination.

It doesn’t take a brand specialist to tell you that your company is judged by clients and consumers alike as much by its phone answering provisions as by its logo. More, in fact. And it is this area that Paris group Sixième Son is seeking to address, under the auspices of its founder Michaë Boumendil. Though not alone in the field, Sixième Son claims to be one of the very few that composes music for its clients rather than just create digitally derived jingles.

Comprising eight people, mostly young musicians, all employed by the company and based in courtyard offices on the edge of Paris’s Latin Quarter, Sixième Son – meaning sixth sense in English – prides itself at being ‘the pioneer and leader in the market’, says Boumendil. Set up in 1995, it has a Baroque cherub in techno pink as its motif, signifying its roots, but hinting at its contemporary beat – classical and electronic instruments are propped against the wall of a studio containing some of the most advanced digital kit imaginable.

Team members compose and produce musical signatures for clients as diverse as John Player Special and Lacoste, often creating their own software as they go. Their compositions involve all the usual musical devices – melody, harmony, tempo and sound – which Boumendil equates with the typography, colours, symbols and naming of a visual identity. Jingles focus only on melody, he says, lacking the impact and meaning of a holistic sound design.

Each signature is a piece of music, using instruments and voices, that ‘defines the principles’ of the identity, says Boumendil. For store chain Fnac Junior, for example, the signature includes sounds that conjour up childhood and humour. Elements or related themes are then created for various applications.

One of the advantages of sound branding, he maintains, is that you can change the mood of, say, a telephone communication according to the client. France T̩l̩com, for example, gives out different sounds depending on the type of caller Рa business client or a domestic customer, perhaps. It also allows you to target an audience by creating a mood in areas such as cigarette branding where strict limits are imposed on conventional advertising.

As a business Sixième Son is comparable to any number of visual branding consultancies. Its functions are consulting, creating and following through appropriate identities for its clients to applications from phone signatures and websites to events and in-store sounds. ‘I’m obsessed by differentiation,’ says Boumendil, explaining that the compositions are based on ‘a creative vision of the job: brand expression’, but adding that he’s a keen follower of the work of any rivals.

One of the main differences in the way his team operates compared with most creative consultancies is that everyone works a four-day week, taking Friday off.

The idea here is that creative people need to refuel their creativity by doing other things. A ‘book of the week’ is also part of the company’s culture to stimulate new thoughts and provoke social exchanges – when I visited the chosen book was entitled Cosmic Sex.

Boumendil is totally driven. He says his ambition was always to set up a sound branding consultancy. A natural musician, who taught himself as an eight-year-old child when his family acquired a house with a piano, he went on to study marketing and to work for Ernst & Young before setting up on his own. In the early days of Sixième Son, he and his colleagues did musical gigs to fund the company – the reverse of most musicians’ experience – and they still sometimes play for charity.

Nor is he faint-hearted. In 2000, in the run-up to the French presidential elections, contender and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin countered a lunch given by arch rival and successful candidate Jacques Chirac for established French entrepreneurs by inviting five young creative activists to lunch with him. Boumendil, now aged 31, was one of them.

It’s hardly surprising that he attracted Jospin’s interest, given that he had already done an 18-month audio audit of the French government, looking at the way it communicated through sound across Europe via various government departments, to give it an unsolicited appraisal of its public image. ‘The Prime Minister is a brand,’ he says, as if anyone might doubt it.

With clients such as France Télécom, which changed its identity two years ago, and perfume house Chanel, you’d expect Sixième Son to have been snapped up by a bigger marketing services conglomerate. It is used to working on identity programmes with the likes of Landor Associates and would fit well with the WPP Group stable, for example, or more likely, within its French rival Havas. But despite a close association with Dragon Rouge, Paris-based parent of London’s Dragon with which it collaborated on identities such as Fnac Junior, and a good working arrangement with Landor, it remains independent.

Boumendil, who owns most of the business while creative manager Olivier Aude owns 5 per cent, sees building his own global mini-empire as the best way for the group to expand. ‘I want to be master in my own house,’ he says. To that end he is looking to open in London next year, to try to replicate as far as possible the French model, tailored to the local market.

So what next? Apart from setting up in London and perhaps other parts of the world, Boumendil has another career plan up his sleeve. In his next life, he plans to be a lawyer specialising in intellectual property rights. Now there’s a man with a mind for seizing opportunities with passion and vision.

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