Getting Spanked

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Chicago is the home of the blues, house music, the world-famous Symphony and at least a few prominent advertising agencies. But when it comes to music houses, many creative directors tend to go to either New York or Los Angeles.

Enter Spank. Founded three years ago by partners Steve Shafer, Greg Allan and Mat Morse, Spank has scored hundreds of ads (Quaker, Gatorade, Payless), sound-designed movies (The Little Mermaid) and videogames (Wu-Tang Shaolin Style), and created music for television sitcoms (Lateline).

"The amazing thing about them is that they're so quick and versatile," says FCB creative director Landis Smithers, who most recently worked with Spank on the Quaker and Payless accounts. "When we started this campaign for Quaker, one of the mandates was that we had to use the melody `Heart and Soul.' Spank did everything from gorgeous Sweet Honey in the Rock-style a capella and acoustic rock to Kronos Quartet-like string and techno. They did 25 versions for me in one year!"

Such versatility probably stems from the three principals' varied backgrounds and their relatively ego-less sharing of projects with each other and with other in-house composers. "We all do everything," says Allan. "Just when I think Mat will nail something, our junior writer will do an equally good job. Everyone takes a stab at something to push out of their own boundaries."

Why Spank tries so hard may have something to do with its location. "It's difficult for them because Chicago houses have this stigma that they're not as talented as, say, Tomandandy," says FCB creative director Marisa Basta-Brown, whose work with Spank on Gatorade garnered two prizes at the London International Advertising Awards. "I think because they're trying to compete with some of the bigger music houses in New York, they [make] the extra effort."

Eschewing the relatively cheap computer host-based software popular with many armchair composers today, Spank's principals use the legendary, dedicated digital audio workstation known as the Synclavier (a workhorse dating back to the '70s, and a favorite of the late Frank Zappa). "A lot of people think Syn-claviers are dino-saurs, but they're really time savers because they're completely integrated," says Allan.

Spank also employs local musicians from the Chicago Symphony and sometime players for Smashing Pumpkins when the budget allows. The result of all this quality control is beautifully produced output, from the cabaret-jazz of HBO's Crashbox and the touching vocalise with piano for Quaker Oats to the industrial dance tracks for Noxzema.

Says Morse: "When you have a schedule that says, give me the Chicago Symphony by 9 a.m., the gospel choir at 2 p.m. and the guy who plays the saw at 7 p.m. -- and you have it played every day by competent people -- it's musically very gratifying."

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