Play it loud: Cannes winner pitches sound therapy as extra tool in arsenal against cancer

Winning a Gold Pharma Lion at Cannes can mark the end of a campaign, the moment when months and years of work are recognized and focus turns to other projects. Not for New York agency Grey. Having won a gold lion for capturing the noise of dying cancer cells, the team is embarking on phase two of the project: bringing the sound of survival to the patients who need to hear it.

The campaign that won at Cannes shows the power of the sound. Working with the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Grey created a video to show the reactions of cancer patients when they put on headphones and heard the sound of apoptosis. 

Throughout the short video, the camera stays still, keeping the people in portrait, and lets what Tim Jones calls a “multitude of reactions, some anger, some resentment, some tears, some happiness, some exuberance” flash across the faces and tell the story. Jones, chief creative officer, pharma at Grey, explained the thinking behind the pared-back approach. 

“The creative decision was really simple. From the beginning, it was ‘do not do anything that distracts from the pureness of just capturing someone’s raw emotion.’ This isn't trickery, this isn't some slow zoom in or transition. It’s literally just raw emotions,” Jones said.

The video is the result of years of work. Jones said the project began with “a provocative, outrageous, wonderful thought,” namely, “How do you motivate patients to overcome a disease which is mostly quite invisible?” That led Jones to think about how to visualize the fact that “the bastard that is cancer does die” and sent the team down a rabbit hole of figuring out how to capture the sound of dying cells.

Grey set itself a high bar. Knowing the sounds would be played to cancer patients, the team wanted to make sure the science was foolproof, Ankit Vahia, Ph.D., chief strategy officer at Grey Health & Wellness, said. No fudging would be acceptable.

“We basically set out reading scientific literature on different techniques and spoke to scientists all over the world seeking advice, asking ‘Hey, do you think we can do this?,’” Vahia, a former oncology researcher, said. The search led Grey to a microscopy technique that captures the vibrations of cells and, after being ghosted by other scientists, to Conor Evans, Ph.D., associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Evans measured the movement of breast and lung cancer cells, across multiple cell lines, at the moment they died. Working with the Berklee College of Music, the team used an algorithm to translate the cell movements into sounds.

Grey played the sounds to cancer patients, resulting in the aforementioned video, and created a website where people can hear the sounds and the stories of the patients. The team also made an open-sourced sound therapy available for hospitals, universities, patients and caregivers.

“It's not just about a gimmicky ad campaign. It's about how to get that sound to the community, to the people that need to hear it the most,” Jones said. “The Most Beautiful Sound is just beginning. Phase two is getting it out to the world, open sourcing it. We want people to take this thing and create as many sound therapies as possible, because only then will we start to see real tangible results, and that's what we want. We want to see people having an extra tool in their arsenal against cancer.”