My career in 5 executions: GSD&M's Jay Russell

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From MC Hammer to Radio Shack, GSD&M's CCO taps into the tension in the room.

Name: Jay Russell
Title: Chief Creative Officer, GSD&M
Years in ad industry: 24 years
First job in ad industry: Junior Art Director, DDB

Jay Russell landed a job at DDB Dallas right out of college. After a stint at Y&R New York, he worked on Miller Lite at Square One, a smaller boutique shop in Dallas before heading to Temerlin McClain, now called TM Advertising. 

But during that entire time, he’d had his hopes set on working at GSD&M. He was turned down out of school, and again in 2000. But in 2005, GSD&M called him. There, he worked on BMW and learned how to sell to clients.

In 2009, he watched Texas recede into the rearview mirror as he headed to Boulder to join Crispin Porter+Bogusky to run the Microsoft Windows account. But he missed the culture of Austin and GSD&M, and two years later, he was back, and hasn’t left since. 

In 2015, Russell became chief creative officer of his favorite agency. "Hire people, get out of their way and be a servant leader," he says. "Hire people that are smarter than you – it pays off."

Here are the 5 executions Russell says define his career.

Client: P&G
Brand: Ivory Soap
Work: "Maricopa"
Year: 1995

During his final year at Southern Methodist University, Russell and his creative partner Wade Alger entered the One Club’s Young Ones competition with a provocative piece of spec work. "You can’t do that joke anymore," Russell says. "That’s fair. Somehow we won a Bronze Student Pencil and made it to New York for the show the night after graduation." 

A creative director from DDB Dallas offered them jobs on the spot. The pay was $28,000, but Russell was proud of himself for negotiating another $500 a year. "Two weeks later we were working on Bud Light," he says. "It was surreal and not at all how I thought I'd break into the world of advertising."

Client: Nationwide Insurance
Agency: Temerlin McClain
Work: "Hammer"
Year: 2002 

Temerlin was pitching Nationwide Insurance, which was a big deal for the agency. "At the time, neither the brand nor the entire insurance category was using humor in any campaigns," Russell says. "We came in with an idea to use MC Hammer in the marquee spot," a penchant for using ‘80s icons Russell would revisit in later years.

MC Hammer was understandably reluctant to do the self-deprecating spot, and his manager initially asked for $1 million to close the deal. After the agency demurred, Hammer settled for "pennies," Russell says. "It was the first time I learned the power of tension, or exposing the ‘elephant’ in the room. Sometimes clients are afraid of taking a risk and in this case, it was exactly what we needed to make the campaign work."

Client: Microsoft
Brand: Windows Phone 7
Agency: Crispin, Porter & Bogusky
Work: "Windows Phone launch"
Year: 2010

Windows Phone was going up against the iPhone behemoth, so CP+B counterprogrammed smartphones. "The phone's interface was very user-friendly and efficient, so our strategy was to encourage people to spend more time with each other, and less time searching on their phones," Russell says. Crispin brings strategies with a lot of tension and insight that go against the grain."

But he admits this idea was a little ahead of its time. "We now know that we weren't even at the tipping point of smart phone distraction back in 2010," he says. "But it was another example of addressing the elephant in the room—and the clients bought it."   

Client: RadioShack
Agency: GSD&M
Work: "Phone Call"
Year: 2014

After returning from CP+B, Russell had been promoted to ECD. "I can set the creative bar if I don’t fuck this up," he thought. He got his chance with Radio Shack, which had many of the same problems as Microsoft—plenty of awareness but flagging sales and stock prices.

Just like with MC Hammer, ‘80s stars like Hulk Hogan and Kid ‘n Play didn’t cost much to cast. "It was an opportunity for our clients to make fun of themselves and use that moment in time to point out its supposed flaw," Russell says. 

The spot ranked 5th on USA Today’s Ad Meter. "It was one of the biggest moments in our agency's history," Russell says. "It raised the bar on everything in the halls. The next day, immediately." And brands began to call, asking for their own Top 5 Super Bowl spot. 

Client: Avocados from Mexico
Agency: GSD&M
Work: "First Draft Ever"
Year: 2015

One of those brands was Avocados from Mexico, which was ready to break onto the cultural landscape, and it wanted to do it with a Super Bowl spot. "They named us ‘Super Bowl AOR,’ which I'd never heard of a client doing before," Russell says.

Once again, he relied on heroes from his past, Jerry Rice and Doug Flutie. Avocados from Mexico was so happy with the result and the ensuing social media buzz that it stuck with GSD&M for two more Super Bowls.