Inside Business: You hum it, she'll find an advert

Rachelle Thackray talks to Ruth Simmons, the prime mover in choosing pop songs for TV ads
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How times change. Pop singers would once have cringed at the thought of their music being used as a soundtrack for television adverts for instant coffee or detergent.

Not any more. Pop stars now can be heard on the TV constantly as they serenade the latest car model. US crooner Andy Williams, who last charted in 1973, has recently ridden an unforeseen wave of success with "Music to Watch Girls By" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", both theme tunes for car adverts (Fiat Punto and Peugeot 305). The Cardigans song "My Favourite Game", meanwhile, is featured in the Ford Fiesta advert.

And it's not just cars: Cornershop sold 400,000 singles with the aid of a commercial for Caffreys beer. Bands find their chart ratings and reputations enhanced by such cross-fertilisation, but executives are even happier. Music publishing houses, for example, can earn up to pounds 40,000 per year for licensing a single track.

At the centre of this quietly growing synchronisation industry is Ruth Simmons, the woman responsible for bringing hundreds of catchy backing tracks to public attention. Dynamic, direct and shrewd, she began in the music industry 20 years ago when her husband, an accountant, suggested she help him with his copyright business.

She soon branched out to broker deals. "The one thing I learnt", she recalls, "was to read the trade papers voraciously. Nobody understood synchronisation, and it was thought of as something to do with films. We invented the term."

Mrs Simmons found she had a natural bent for matching sounds with visuals. Her first success came in the early 1980s, for Ogilvy & Mather, when she teamed up the Vangelis track "Chariots of Fire" with an advert for a car. It nearly turned into a disaster: her advert was pipped to the post by a shoe brand, which used a soundalike tune for its commercial. Determined not to be beaten, she issued an injunction and the advert was taken off the airwaves.

That fighting spirit stood her in good stead when Filmtrax, a music business that is now part of EMI, offered to buy her out several years ago. She sold it a 50 per cent stake, but when the larger company threatened to swallow up her vision, she decided to pull out. "I realised there was a huge takeover going on and I was going to get lost."

On leaving Filmtrax, Mrs Simmons ventured into music composition with a friend, under the label Hum. When it split off, she concentrated on building the Songseekers matchmaking service, with enormous success: last year she trebled business, licensing 67 tracks for between pounds 5m and pounds 6m in total.

Record companies hold the intellectual property rights to a recording and music publishing houses own the more valuable master right. But both have been slow to recognise the hidden value of songs in their archives. Mrs Simmons, meanwhile, has quietly pursued those she knows will fit the visuals. "Sometimes you have to actually ask the artist, especially if that person is difficult to deal with," she says.

These days an artist rarely says no to a proposition: Van Morrison was initially reluctant to sing along to a car advert, but changed his mind and agreed to the licensing six months later. Dire Straits, meanwhile, were happy to say yes to another request until they found out the advert was for a company that had "made a mess" of servicing one band member's car when he was 18.

Brands, for their part, have been remarkably slow to capitalise on associations with the personality that promotes them, says Mrs Simmons. "The brand walks away too quickly. You can do more with a song by building the link: there should be a more holistic approach. We're saying, look, you've spent this amount of money on the song - so why isn't the artist driving your car while he's in London? The problem is that it gets dealt with by so many agencies. We are saying to brands that we will manage the process to maximise the use of the song."

The industry has distorted in places as it has expanded, and prices can be hugely inflated. Microsoft, for example, was willing to pay a reputed $8m for the right song. Litigation has also increased - unnecessarily, according to Mrs Simmons. "Most of the time we say to clients that we can solve the problem. Lawyers scare people, everybody bristles, and things get blown out of proportion." Nevertheless, agencies have become more guarded in their use of soundalikes. "The client wants the genuine article, so the record companies have had to wake up and recognise they have a genuine commodity for sale."

Mrs Simmons hopes to shorten the process of choosing tracks with the launch of the SoundLounge, a room stacked with thousands of CDs and equipped with technology that allows words and pictures to be put together on-screen. There are other options: to create a secure website containing versions of the advert, or to video-conference with colleagues abroad. Clients are even given quotes for each track before they walk out of the door. Previously, the process of matching songs with pictures used to take months.

"The SoundLounge will take us on to a level that I don't think even I can grasp," Mrs Simmons says. "This makes us accessible around the world. There are people out there we haven't even begun to talk to. We give people independence, and everybody is our client. It's about saying `I know a man who can'. The next stages are very, very exciting."

It's anyone's guess as to whether the next wave of sexy Italian men and French chicks driving new cars will be swerving gracefully round corners to calypso music or to cajun. One thing you can be sure of: Ruth Simmons will have seen it coming a mile off.