The Cannes Festival of Creativity has been highly rewarding for Gabriel Schmitt. The Brazilian creative who moved to the US in 2012 has produced hugely successful work for FCB over the past decade as he moved his way up from creative director in Chicago to co-CCO in New York.
In recent years, he has found himself walking amid the pride of Lions plenty of times, receiving such notable accolades as a triple Grand Prix (including the Titanium) for Burger King’s ‘Whopper Detour’ in 2019 as ECD, followed by a double Grand Prix for Michelob Ultra’s ‘Contract for Change’ in 2021-2022 as CCO. In fact, this year, Schmitt was still collecting Lions with FCB including a Grand Prix in Entertainment for Sport for Michelob Ultra’s 'Dreamcaster' and more Lions for ‘McEnroe vs McEnroe’ to add to his collection of 20 Gold Lions, 20 Silver and 18 Bronze.
So, when Schmitt decided to leave FCB to become Grey Group’s global chief creative last month, he turned a lot of heads. Grey has had its challenges in recent years and had lost some of its global creative firepower ahead of its tenuous merger announcement with AKQA in 2020. Its CEO Michael Houston was moved to a larger WPP role last summer, opening the door for Laura Maness to take the reins last September. But before Maness could help implement creative changes, its global CCO Javier Campopiano departed for McCann this past February.
By the time Schmitt took up the role, Cannes was upon us, which is where Campaign spoke with Grey’s highly-celebrated incoming creative chief, just three weeks into his new gig. He wasted no time in setting out a new creative framework for success that is laser focused on client businesss needs.
Below is an edited version of our discussion.
It’s still early days, but what has struck you about your new role so far?
I don't want to be too assumptive of anything because I'm learning, listening and talking to as many people as possible from all around the world. But what strikes me so far is that this company has all the potential in the world to do more ‘famously effective’ work at scale than it is currently.
CEO Laura Maness arrived nine months ago and I arrived three weeks ago. One thing I’ve learned in my career is that an agency lives or dies by the relationship between the business lead, the creative lead and the strategy lead. But it has to be holistic. It has to be integrated. The amazing thing is that Laura and I are super in sync with how we see communications, what we want for the company and how to get to our goals. Some of Grey’s wins here at Cannes speak volumes about the creative potential that this company has.
Why did you make the move to Grey?
There are two main reasons. One is the partnership with Laura. Her track record speaks for itself. We really hit it off and we have the same values and vision for what creativity needs to be and what it needs to do for brands.
Regarding the second reason, if you look at the work that I led or did in my career, the best-known work and campaigns that I'm most proud of all have one thing in common – they’re all really business-driven. Grey has been saying it’s “famously effective since 1917”. I think that's a very, very clear North Star.
So, when they approached me to consider coming to lead the company with Laura, that part was already a no brainer. What Grey wants to do is exactly the same type of work that I've been doing throughout my whole career. I love that I don't have to adapt to their vision and the company doesn't have to adapt too much to a new creative lead that could’ve come with a totally different mindset. I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel if it’s not broken. To me it's very clear that what we're doing now is an evolutionary challenge, not a turnaround. The place is super solid with a very good foundation.
How can you ensure the execution lives up to this creative potential?
In my three weeks in the job I’ve learned it's very important to build a framework that is very easy to follow around the world. I'm not saying everyone needs to do everything the same, following exactly the same direction, but we need to be very clear about how we go about the work and what type of work we want to do. Our CEO Laura Maness, global CSO Jonathan Lee, global chief client officer Jason Kahner and the larger global team have been working really hard to simplify and distribute this playbook to the whole globe so that we start seeing more of these ideas around the world surfacing more often than they're happening right now.
More intangibly, and inspirationally, how do you get creative teams excited again to build on what they have?
You say ‘intangible’ but I’m going to explain something very tangible that I think will become inspiring to them. To me, everything lies with the business problem. What I’ve learned in my career as a creative, is that the more you investigate the business problem, the closer you are to the clients in a healthy partnership.
You really have to dissect whatever business problem that a brand might have in a way that enables you to develop a very succinct solution-oriented brief. So, to solve that problem you have to provide solutions A, B and C rather than having ideas pulled out of the wind. It’s a very hard proposition to just ‘come up with stuff’. I understood early in my career that the more I investigate the problems, the better the ideas for solutions will be.
If you dissect some of the most famous work around the world and some of the most famous stuff that I that I've participated in, it really shows that. If you think about it, Whopper Detour was a coupon idea. That’s what it is. It couldn’t be more business-driven than that. And if you look at the business results of Whopper Detour, they are amazing, which is why it became such a famous idea.
If you pay less attention, you might think it was such a crazy thought that only Burger King could have done because of their tone of voice, yada, yada.... Sure. But the starting point was a very clear briefing with a very clear problem that we had to solve. We presented a couple of solutions to the problem and Fernando [Machado, CMO of Burger King] rightly picked ‘Detour’.
The second you get to the business problem is when it becomes a really exciting conversation for the creatives. I don't think that the industry at large fosters the mentality enough with creatives that they are business people. We are business people and we have to be business partners of our clients. The more we do that, the closer we are to the real business issues they have and the more they understand that our agenda is the same, which is to build their brands and bring business results always through creativity.
Do you think the work celebrated at Cannes has over-indexed on purpose without a commercial component?
Absolutely. And I think that's not healthy. I am a huge believer and proponent of brand purpose, not purpose per se.
Every brand purpose when investigated enough and worked hard enough will lead into interesting societal conversations, and then it can lead brands to more purpose-driven work. But when a brand starts helping a cause for the sake of it, it can become a dangerous game because sometimes they don't have the right to speak about a given issue or challenge.
But when it's very clear that the brand plays within an area where there are related societal issues, that’s fair game. Beautiful. To me, the secret is always going back to the brand purpose -- always.
As I’ve started having meetings with creative leads around the world, they're showing me the biggest brands they work with and what the work is. But there have been a few times where I ask to take a step back to give me the brand purpose and overview. What is this toxic situation the brand might in? Who are the competitors? How are they sales wise? I first want to know the diagnosis of where the brand is at. Then, after that, tell me what the work is and what the strategy is.
I want to see the connection between brand purpose and the strategy you’re using. Otherwise it might sound cool but it could be off strategy, which to me, kills any good idea. To me there are no crazy ideas, there is only ‘on strategy’ and ‘off strategy’.”