Michael Russoff chats to LBB’s Alex Reeves about catchy tunes born from creative experience - and that Honda earworm
The ad industry is an intricate web of specialist roles that often stretch the metaphor of ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ beyond usefulness. The path from agency creative to director is well trodden, but Michael Russoff took a more unorthodox route to cross the floor. “A lot of creatives are frustrated directors,” he acknowledges. “The excitement of being on set, working with kit and the flexibility and possibilities of filming is quite seductive. I also think it’s quite nice to work on other people’s scripts; to be facilitating other people’s work.” He sees the attraction, but instead of moving behind the camera he got behind a piano.
Michael’s first instrument was the violin. Learning from an early age, he got a music scholarship to school. He’d always written little tunes, ever since his critically acclaimed debut, ‘Choo Chug-a-chug’.
Music was generally a private thing for him for a long time. “I didn’t need to perform,” he says. “It was just the process of writing and expressing something musically was satisfying in itself. I didn’t feel like it needed an audience”.
His movement towards advertising began with his first job at the Guinness Book of Records, where he was a researcher. His day-to-day involved doing things like going to meet Alex Lambrecht – the world’s most pierced man. And all without the help of the internet. He became interested in the Guinness book of records brand and one of the more unusual branded content efforts that the book contained. Allegedly it was initially invented to resolve disputes in pubs, as if drinkers across the country were arguing about how many piercings a human body could sustain.
Someone at Guinness told Michael about D&AD’s evening course, so he enrolled and toured different agencies every week, presenting work and meeting creatives. Eventually that led to his first job as a copywriter at Mother.
His creative career took him from there to Wieden + Kennedy, where he landed on the now-coveted Honda account. They needed a song for this campaign. “Hate something, change something,” was the core of the idea. “I thought ‘I’m just going to write it,” he says. “The time it would take me to sit and brief a composer and have all those meetings… Just get the guitar out”.
Being a copywriter, he was used to doing things himself. He never understood why art directors hired photographers and designers, but copywriters just got on with the writing themselves.
Wieden + Kennedy had the spirit that allowed for that kind of flexibility. “There’s a lot of freedom there,” says Michael. “When I was working there you could run with things and were encouraged to. When I looked at books [later in his career] as a creative director it would never be about the ad work. It was always some funny little cartoon or something interesting going on in the creative process”.
“I’ve never actually appreciated how trusting that was as an encouragement,” he says. The song did wonders for that campaign. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions in 2005, and pretty much every other award besides.
Music continued to be central to his work when he went on to work on another Honda ad called Choir. That time they brought in an expert choral composer to help them recreate the sounds of a car using human voices alone, but Michael’s musical bent ushered the idea along.
The next step was to start composing for other people’s scripts. Although Be Wonderful & Wise for Lurpak was from his Wieden + Kennedy family, it was the first time he’d worked as a composer and not a creative. As you’d expect of the agency, it was a deeply collaborative process, with Michael involved from an early stage and lyrics going back and forth, so the song could start to influence the visuals brought to life by Dougal Wilson.
Since then Michael has worked as a creative director at several different ad agencies while composing infectious hooks for Fuze Tea, Honda and The Guardian, eventually finding his way into Leland Originals' suite of composers. His dual perspectives definitely influences the way he composes. “I think often people who have one job to do become very expert at that particular job,” he says, “and advertising is so much about how that fits with everything else. As a copywriter you learn to can learn to come up with the best strapline in the world, but if that doesn’t fit your strategy and client, it doesn’t matter. It’s got to be buy-able otherwise it’s just your nice fantasy”.
Michael always asks to see the strategic documents when he’s composing for a client, to see how the idea got to that point. “I want to understand what people bought into,” he says. “Once you know that, what they’re asking for might not be as narrow as it seems.
When it comes to sales, Michael takes a different approach again. He doesn’t send MP3s to agencies. He knows how easy it is to click on a sound file and dismiss it. He records his songs as he’s sitting at the piano writing them, interjecting with his thoughts. Or he holds recitals for agencies. Sharing the process allows it to be more like a draft than a set-in-stone final piece.
Michael’s experience gives his work a multi-faceted outlook. He understands lyricism through the lens of a copywriter who’s worked in the agency structure. But, above all he wants to get into your head. “I’m just a sucker for a tune,” he says. “I’ll often wake up in the middle of night humming something from the evening before. That’s when I know it’s catchy”.