From Motown to Moscow, the Yessian
Sound is Starting to Spread
Headed up by second-generation music talents, Yessian has
expanded far beyond its roots, both in terms of where
its work originates and what they're being asked to do.
By Anthony Vagnoni
A few years ago, "world music" was all the rage in the ad circles. Commercials across the cable guide featured exotic beats from emerging and developing countries scattered around the globe, and for a while it seemed the more obscure the source, the better.
These days, the concept of world beats is a bit different. Music houses are now tapping an increasingly global and well-connected pop culture universe – where composers, styles, attitudes and vibes intermingle seamlessly, jumping tracks between advertising and entertainment almost at will. Combine these trends and you'll come up with something that probably looks a lot like Yessian Music.
The increasingly worldly studio now works far and wide beyond its roots as a mainstay of the Detroit ad scene. With offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Hamburg, Germany, the studio is creating tracks for ads, short films and web videos produced everywhere from the West Coast to Eastern Europe.
Today Yessian functions as a global collective of producers, composers, music supervisors, research creatives and recording artists, according to Creative Director and Partner Brian Yessian, who, with his brother Michael, Head of Production and Partner, makes up the second-generation of Yessians to lead the band. In addition to running six full-up recording studios, the company also has a free-standing division called Dragon Licks that handles music licensing and research of indie bands and well-known artists. "It's made us a complete resource for music, sound design and soundscapes," says Brian Yessian.
The studio was founded in the early '70s by Dan Yessian, now CEO. The company's bread and butter work in its early years was the automotive trade; it was a time when Detroit was king and the American nameplates, all handled by Detroit-area agencies, dominated the marketplace. The company's growth and diversification, which started back in the 1980s, began to accelerate once Brian and Michael got more heavily involved a little over a dozen years ago.
Brian started out on a very different career path. A classically trained clarinetist, he majored in music at Wayne State in Michigan. After graducation he went off to study at a conservatory in Austria, where he perfected his German and played with a variety of orchestras and ensembles, touring throughout the continent before returning to his roots in Detroit. Michael Yessian, also a musician, focuses on the studios in Los Angeles and Detroit and supervises the company's busy global production schedule. Both of them divide their time between Detroit, New York and L.A. as well as globally, whether they're making the scene at Cannes, in Hamburg or elsewhere.
In 2004 the company took a big leap by opening a full-time office in New York, naming Marlene Bartos as its Managing Director and Executive Producer. An agency veteran, she'd held positions at Lowe and Y&R and was co-head of production at Gotham before joining the studio. An L.A. office followed, opening in 2007, and in 2010 they expanded again, opening a full-time office in Hamburg that's run by Managing Director Ingmar Rehberg.
Why Germany? The choice grew out of work they were doing for Tris Gates-Bonarius, a top creative at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York who had moved to the agency's Frankfurt office and continued to work with the studio As their reputation there spread, more and more jobs started coming out of the German market. "We went out and met with agencies, and the business started to take off," says Yessian, who used it as an opportunity to dust off his German language skills in the process.
Hamburg has served as a springboard for the studio to handle work originating at agencies not just in Germany but in other European cities, including Moscow. Ralf Heuel, Chief Creative Officer and Partner at Grabarz & Partner in Hamburg, has worked on a number of projects with Yessian, including spots for VW, Ikea, Apollo Optik and EDEKA, a large German supermarket chain. Heuel says the studio is now well-established in the marketplace. What he likes about working with them is that they understand his needs and come to solutions quickly.
"They're very dedicated, very fast, very flexible and very professional," he says. "And they have a good eye for the whole project, not just their part of it." What sets them apart from other music houses is how they approach the work, he adds. "I really appreciate their global attitude and the corresponding excellence the studio puts into each project," he notes. "We never get 'typically German' solutions from them. What's more, they are like us: obsessive about everything they do, but in a very pleasant, positive way."
Recent work from Yessian includes two new spots for the Russian home improvement chain OBI, "Flowers" and "Nails," produced for BBDO Moscow. Both employ moody, ethereal guitar and string arrangements to complement spots in which flowers and nails represents agents of household change.
It's been a busy year for the company in both Europe and the US. Yessian had a half-dozen spots that appeared in and around the Super Bowl this year, marking one of the first times the studio had a major playlist to accompany the big game. Among those spots was Budweiser's "Eternal Optimism," directed by Fredrik Bond for Anomaly, a period classic that recaptures the era of prohibition up to the present and reflects a mash up of two different music tracks in the process. It was named to the bi-annual SHOOT magazine list of top ten ad tracks this past spring; indeed, Yessian work has made the SHOOT list for the past two years running.
Other notable recent projects include a big-budget, cinematic NBC promo for "The Voice," the network's answer to "American Idol," in which celebrity judges such as Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera face off in a "Matrix"-style martial arts battle, and the launch of Gillette's new Pro Glide Styler men's grooming tool, seen in a very mod spot ("Launch") directed by Olivier Gondry via a WHITELABEL Product featuring actors Adrien Brody and Gael Garcia Bernal and Outkast's Andre 3000. Yessian also provided the track for an emotional and well-received Bounty spot titled "Let the Spills Begin," produced by Twin Film in Munich, promoting Olympic athletes.
Of particular interest on the current Yessian reel are a group of crossover hits that have also made waves on a different sort of music collection: iTunes.
The studio's score for a 2008 spot titled "Dreams" was one of the early TV ad tracks to find its way to Apple's online music store, where consumers could not only opt in to hear it, but were willing to pay for the privilege. The spot, from Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, promotes Pampers' support for Unicef's efforts to wipe out maternal and newborn tetanus. It shows a culturally diverse group of mothers and infants shot in a warm and nurturing manner and is backed by a soulful and uplifting song sung by Angela McClusky.
Yessian composed a song for the spot that was an instant hit, surprising everyone when it made the leap to iTunes. The studio followed that up with another Pampers Unicef spot last year, titled "Kiss."
Given the spontaneous response to "Dreams," both the agency and the music house went into the process expecting to produce a longer version of the track. They made the right call. In the spot, a song composed by Mark Chu and performed by Kim Wayman supports the visual treatment of animated kisses floating through the night air, blown by caring mothers and landing on the faces of sweetly sleeping babies. It was released as a full-length download on iTunes shortly after the spot launched.
Gates-Bonarius, who's Global Creative Director on the brand, says the experience of working with Yessian was as soothing as the music they came up with for the Pampers ads. "Besides having talented artists who can create very distinct and beautiful music, they truly understood the conceptual ideas of the spots and the business objectives as well," she says. "They always give a lot of options and continue tirelessly until it's perfect. Marlene Bartos, their executive producer, is a former agency producer as well, so her contribution goes beyond what you'd expect from a music house. She even offered executional advice on the directors, editors, etc. She helped make it a seamless process with all aspects, and not just 'delivering' the music."
The studio scored another crossover hit with their "Fences" spot for Nokia and Wieden + Kennedy New York. The ad, shot by Malcolm Venville of Anonymous Content, shows vignettes of people doing their own thing that's accompanied by a hip, updated version of the Cole Porter gem "Don't Fence Me In." As with the Pampers spots, the track migrated quickly to the web and from there to iTunes.
The formula for coming up with hits like this is not that much different when adapting existing music than when doing original compositions, says Bartos; it's all about creating something that works for the project at hand. "We enjoy every aspect of the creative process. For us, it's about bringing a client's visuals to life, whether that entails writing an original piece or taking an existing piece and adapting it to make it really special. Music and sound is half of the story, and our goal is to make sure that half is compelling and unique."
The impact of social media on all kinds of music has largely fueled this new emphasis on creating work that clicks with consumers beyond the confines of their TV sets. If anything, adds Bartos, it's empowered consumers to seek out the tracks they like and make them their own.
"Once something hits the air, it doesn't matter who did it or what it's for," she points out. "When something blows up, it blows up, and if people want it, they want it." As an example, she cites a spot for AT&T that the studio scored for BBDO. "Within a day of it first appearing on the web, the comments in the YouTube views were amazing," she says. "One person wrote that they'd kill to get this track. We were getting comments like 'I have to know who did this,' or 'I'll puke if I don't get this track.'"
And while that's a hell of a compliment, what's the real benefit for Yessian when they create work that clicks like this? "It makes us a legitimate player in terms of creating songs that people gravitate towards and find inspiring," answers Yessian. "It also shows that we're not just composing music for TV commercials but that we approach work from a more strategic standpoint, rather than just 'how do we write this 30-second piece of music and have it fit the picture?' We think about not just the music but also about creating a fan base behind it, so that the music becomes an integral part of the brand."
As the Yessian brand finds its ways into new territories – working in different languages, cultures, time zones, media platforms, you name it – their goal is to make sure clients don't lose sight of the music. "We want people to look at us as a company that not only offers them worldwide production backing on a project," says Bartos, "but that we're going to bring them talent from all over the world, whether they want original music, a license, sound design, a remix, anything."
Anything? Well, yes. And anywhere, for that matter. The studio, Bartos notes, has brought in a feature film composer to work with an orchestra in Eastern Europe for a theme park ride in China. They recently worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, recording in the legendary Abbey Road Studios in England. They've won advertising awards in London for sound design created in Detroit for a Pepsi spot that ran in Russia, and scored music for a Ferrari consumer experience venue that's based not in Rome or Milan but Abu Dhabi. "We've never before had the ability to work so seamlessly on a global stage and across all platforms and all media," she sums up.
Adds Yessian, "For us as a studio, it's great to be able to put things out there that can connect directly with consumers. It shows that we can make music that people want on their playlists, even though it was done for a brand or for an advertiser. And that's a huge step, not just for us but for our clients."
Like we said, that Yessian sound is starting to spread.
Published 31 July, 2012