1985, the year I started listening

Our Head of Creative Development, Sam Crowther, writes about the significance of communicating through audio and the defining sounds on his personal journey.

1985 wasn’t the year I was born.

I’d already been around for over a decade by then, but it was the year I started listening to the world. Of course in a literal sense, we start hearing well before then, even before we’re born the ‘thump thump’ of our mother’s heartbeat is hugely reassuring. Those early years of childhood are preparing us for the world. Our parent’s voices introduce us to language and they also give us a personal sound to identifies us by. A sound we’ll react to more than any other sound for the rest of our lives….our name.

We’re quick to learn the significance of emotion in communicating with sound, you only have to witness the different ways a two-year-old toddler says ‘no!’ to realise the range of emotions that can be behind one, simple, short word. No, I’m talking about a moment when we fully, consciously understand the world of sound and specifically its significance to us as emotional creatures.

I was eleven years old and it was Live Aid.

It was a lovely summers day so we had the radio on outside and the tv on inside. My sisters sat glued to the tv all day while my elder brother and I were out playing cricket with it on as a soundtrack but the one moment that really caught our (and everyone’s) attention that day, was Freddie. At that moment I understood the connection between communication, voice, language, emotion and music. They’re one of the same.


It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it.

A phrase that beautifully sums up the significance of sound, emotion and memory. If you wrote down what Freddie says it makes no sense and no elaborate use of adjectives can ever truly do justice to what you feel listening to it. It’s seared in my memory, in a way the Beatles or Hendrix did for the generation before and artists like Bieber and Adele are doing now. You will probably be thinking of the track, performance or artist that did it for you too. It’s no surprise music becomes so important through our teenage years, it’s the point we start working out what it means to be an emotional human being. The point we understand we can influence others and define who we truly are.

So we start listening to music, friends and media more and our parents less, because defining who you are means you need to start breaking away and learn independence. Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Mad Max also had significant impacts on me at that time. I started skateboarding, took an interest in DIY technology and aspired to ride a motorbike (which I’ve done ever since) and again the soundtracks are seared in my memory. However perhaps more significantly for my career is that brands understood the emotional connection sound can deliver.

We heard it through our speakers.


1985 was also the year of this iconic ad. The 50’s imagery is very powerful but it’s true impact came from the soundtrack, Marvin Gaye’s break-up song, ‘I heard it through the grapevine’. It began a decade of Levis’ ad soundtracks topping the charts and thus radio playlists, particularly those of the non-commercial but hugely influential, BBC. I heard the emotional values Levis wanted me to feel many more times than I saw them, they’re just blue jeans right! A brand using music to muscle its way into the soundtrack of my generation, whether we liked it or not.


So 1985 was the year I started listening, taking an interest in the way sound, music, culture and brands mix. Most people don’t analyse it in any depth, but subconsciously it is as much a part of us as our DNA. This was the first step on a personal journey that has led me to Creative Development at A Million Ads and this blog post. In future posts, I will explore and explain how and why personally relevant sound is so powerful with reference to research, theories and campaigns from the past, the present and with an ear on the future.

Sam Crowther, Head of Creative Development

The Sound of Personalisation


The world is personal

Personalisation is everywhere. Emails, web pages, social feeds, music recommendations, Coke bottles.  And for the most part we accept that brands and companies can talk to us like they know us.

Some brands have more ‘permission’ than others – like Starbucks. We are used to walking into their stores and giving our name (though we may be a little more wary when it comes to PPI claims companies or government agencies).

In fact, our minds are tuned to react more favourably to messages that appear to be for us. We like familiarity and familiar people, so marketing that looks like it’s for us is instinctively more attractive (as long as it’s not delivered in a threatening or creepy way).

This is borne out in the performance of personalised campaigns. The conversion rate on a personalised email campaign for a UK retailer was 8% compared with just 1% on a less targeted campaign; an outdoor clothing retailer used weather-related imagery and changed the product selection based on the current weather and got a 5x uplift in CTR; and, an email campaign that used personalisation beat every KPI record: The number of active customers increased by 20% and open rates were up by 75%.

Dynamic Creative

To deliver these personal, context-aware messages and ads, we use “Dynamic Creative” tools.  Instead of delivering one generalised creative treatment to everyone, these tools deliver customised creative treatments to specific audiences (individuals or groups) that are more likely to be relevant to them.

This is normally done by creating a template, and using data about the recipient (viewer, listener, user) to fill it in. The killer feature of Dynamic Creative is the ability to do this at speed and at scale, efficiently creating millions of versions of ads.

Below is a Dynamic Creative display advert for Vodafone, where the text, language, background picture and product offer are selected dynamically based on where the viewer of the ad is located and whether they are an iPhone or Android user.

Picture credit:  Sizmek .

Picture credit: Sizmek.

Where’s Audio in all of this?

Until recently, marketeers have not been able to use audio as a platform for personalisation. Broadcast audio (radio by another name) cannot be personalised due to its one-to-many nature. But digital audio (audio delivered to a connected device) can be. Given that over 65% of all listening to digital audio is on headphones it is a brilliantly personal medium: right into people’s brains with singular messages, not like a webpage where there can be many different commercial messages in view at once. Sound has infinitely more power than text because it is how we express and receive the majority of our personal, emotional information throughout our lives.

This is why I founded A Million Ads: to create a technology solution and – importantly – develop the creative know-how to deliver effective personalisation and dynamic creative for digital audio.

Imagine the audio ads that you hear on your favourite music streaming, internet radio or podcast service being personalised with data about you, such as your name, age, location, favourite music, weather where you are… and changing the actual audio that you hear based on this. We can do this in real time as the ad is played for every user.

And it works: effectiveness and engagement increase significantly as a result. We recently conducted a 2,000 participant survey of digital audio listeners in the UK and demonstrated a 52% uplift in recall and a 49% uplift in engagement in comparison to regular, non-personalised campaigns.

Responsible personalisation

With the ability to talk one-to-one at scale comes responsibility: shouting someone’s name in every advert is going to burn very quickly. Plus robotic voices or edits that are not perfect will be spotted a mile off and kill the credibility of the format. At A Million Ads we take this responsibility very seriously and endeavour to set the standard for personalisation, not only with regards to technology and creative execution, but also appropriate and audience-friendly use of data and overall respect for privacy.

If you are an advertiser or agency currently using digital audio and want to add the personal touch to your campaigns, give me a shout.

Ascension backs personalisation platform, A Million Ads

Ascension Ventures is pleased to announce its investment, from the ASCEND SEIS Fund III, into technology and creative start-up A Million Ads, an innovative digital platform that delivers personalised audio adverts.

Other backers in this round include The Sandpit and multiple angel investors.  In addition to its investment, The Sandpit, a business builder for startups focused on B2B marketing technology, will provide hands-on sales and marketing, strategic and operational support.

A Million Ads delivers dynamic creative and personalisation for digital audio. Think of the ads that you hear on Spotify, Pandora or internet radio being personalised with your name, current location, weather etc…  A Million Ads integrates with the music streaming, internet radio and podcast platforms to combine all of the data points known about the user, their environment and the advertiser’s campaign to influence the message they hear, delivering relevant and personalised ads on-the-fly.  The effectiveness and engagement of the adverts increases significantly: a recent 2,000 participant survey of UK audio listeners demonstrated a 52% uplift in recall and a 49% uplift in engagement, in comparison to regular, non-personalised campaigns.

Steve Dunlop, founder and CEO of A Million Ads commented:

“Personalisation is an inevitable evolution for audio advertising and at A Million Ads we have built a robust, scalable, industry standard platform that is ready to be implemented on a global scale with some of the most recognised music and audio services, and are ready to power that with some of the best creative out there.

My 15 year’s experience is a mix of engineering, creative and strategy and A Million Ads is the coming together of many of these aspects: engineering at Cambridge University, a radio producer making adverts and jingles, a strategy consultant for the BBC, Intel and Vodafone and, most recently, Head of Strategy at Global, the UK’s largest Commercial radio operator.  I’m passionate about Audio and believe that the values and sensibilities of one-to-one communication, when applied to the scale and efficiency of digital advertising, will significantly improve its effectiveness and impact with users.”  He added, “I am delighted to be working alongside Ascension.  Their strategic input and business development expertise is a massive plus.”

Ascension Ventures CEO Jean de Fougerolles added:

“When I first met Steve, I was excited by the product he had built and the traction he had achieved with some of the biggest players in this space.  I believe we are very close to a world where personalisation in advertising is the norm.  Steve has a very credible track record in the advertising and creative space and I am excited to see how big A Million Ads can become.”

Ascension Ventures will be announcing further investments from the ASCEND SEIS Fund III over the coming weeks.

About Ascension Ventures

The Ascension Ventures team has deep knowledge of the digital media and tech sectors having worked at a senior level in these industries.  The team is embedded in the London early-stage market, having established strong relationships with the tech hubs (Wayra, Microsoft, Entrepreneur First, Founders Factory, Mass Challenge, Accelerator Academy, eSpark, Google, etc.).  Their strong industry knowledge and contacts help to attract the most compelling early-stage digital media companies and the best entrepreneurs looking for more than just money from their investors.

If you have any questions, please email – kieran@ascensionventures.com

About A Million Ads

A Million Ads delivers personalised audio creative on-the-fly and at scale, driving higher brand engagement and greater media effectiveness.  We are the new standard for data-driven creative, enabling brands to engage people with the right content at any given moment.  We make this possible by combining technology with innovation in the creative process to deliver relevant and personalised digital audio ads in real time.

If you have any questions, please email – steve@amillionads.com 

A Million Ads Strengthens Team with Power of Sound Pioneer

Dynamic creative and personalisation startup underlines the importance of creative in latest leadership hire, Sam Crowther, former Creative Director at Bauer Media.

June 22, 2016, London, UK. A Million Ads (www.amillionads.com), is excited to announce and welcome Sam Crowther as the Company’s Head of Creative Development. Sam will take the creative lead and will support the senior team on the mission to revolutionise digital advertising communication. 

Sam comes with a wealth of experience within the digital audio industry and is a thought leader on the “Power of Sound”. He was previously at Bauer Media, where he first served as Head of Creative and then Creative Director (Commercial Audio). He is also former Head of Creative Development at Global Radio. 

“A Million Ads is the technological, evolutionary next step for audio advertising – radio, streaming, video… whatever, wherever to whoever!” said Sam. “It’s such an exciting time to be joining the team taking the story to market. I want to inspire creative that talks to people like they’re one in a million, not one of a million. That’s so much more human….don’t you think?”

Sam will develop the company’s data-driven personalised communication playbook, in a function at the intersection of technology and creativity, and to lead the creative idea as well as the A Million Ads platform development. He will play a key role in the company’s goal to create a better, more intimate and personalised connection between brands and consumers.

“With Sam joining the team we are clearly signalling how important creative is to our business. He is the master at evangelising about the power of sound, and personalisation is the next chapter of his thesis” states Steve Dunlop, Founder and CEO of A Million Ads, “Delivering data-driven creative for audio is much more than a technology solution: having Sam on board will enable us to create the most engaging, relevant and brilliant campaigns for our clients.”.

About A Million Ads

A Million Ads delivers dynamic creative and personalisation for digital audio. We are the new standard for data-driven creative, enabling brands to engage people with the right content at any given moment. We make this possible by combining technology with innovation in the creative process to deliver relevant and personalised digital audio ads on-the-fly.  


Photos/Multimedia Gallery Available: in the picture, Sam Crowther

Other media: Sam Crowther presenting at AdWeek Europe 2016, in April (link)


Media Contact

A Million Ads

Steve Dunlop

07967 601617