Yamamoto Lately
November 2019

For our Chief Creative Officer Grant Smith, “every opportunity can be a creative opportunity.”

In a recent interview, Grant spoke about the biggest lessons he’s learned throughout his career, the thrill of savoring the opportunity to create and what creatives need to do to reckon with the technology that’s shaking up the industry.

An award-winning creative leader, Grant recently joined Yamamoto this September as Chief Creative Officer, arriving from a two-and-a-half-year run at McCann NY, where he led high-profile work for clients like the New York Lottery and Chick Fil-A. Prior to his role at McCann, Grant was an EVP, Senior Creative Director at BBDO. In that role he oversaw the launch of AT&T’s famous “It’s not complicated” campaign and led campaigns for clients like Visa, FedEx, Snickers, Mountain Dew and Foot Locker.

Grant launched his career at Cliff Freeman & Partners as a copywriter after an art career in Chicago that he jokes he is “super happy” never took off. He has been the recipient of many of the industry’s top awards, including Cannes Lions, D&AD, Effies, ANDY’s, The One Show and the CLIOs.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced while working on a project, and how did you get around it?

Every project has some challenge. I’ve had my budget reduced by 50% a day prior to a shoot. I’ve had the script killed while shooting. I’ve had clients so angry at the agency, they started every call by yelling at me. I’ve had clients who needed to spend almost two years’ worth of budget in less than three months (which is way harder than you’d ever believe). I’ve had digital partners insist they could handle creative for over 1000 microsites only to discover, two days before it went live, that all the sites needed to be rewritten. I’ve had projects where the production company went bankrupt mid-production. And I’ve had celebrity talent refuse to do a second take, with a “Nah, I’m good.” And leave.

To get around every challenge you need to do two things. First, get out all the frustration as quickly as you can. Then focus on what is still possible. How can you craft, reimagine and rethink the project? It’s actually a hugely liberating creative experience. And, usually, the project turns out just fine, sometimes even better.

How do you learn or grow in your role?

Growing isn’t easy. The transition from creative to creative director can be tough. It’s like a second puberty. And it’s just as gross and embarrassing as the first one. Except there’s no 5th grade PE coach showing you a film that explains all the changes you will face now that you’re a creative director.  No one teaches creatives how to become good managers or how to talk with clients. They just hand you a bit more money and (maybe) give you an office with a door. Almost without exception, it’s a painful experience. And I know for a fact I stunk at it. At first. Then I got better. I was lucky to be around great people who were encouraging and patient and took the time to teach me.

Name one thing the average person gets wrong about your job or industry, and what your response to them would be if correcting them.

I don’t think correcting people works. No one likes being corrected, even if they’re way off base. But lots of times people look at advertising creatives as boozy hacks who just don’t care. I get it. Sometimes we’re boozy. Sometimes I wish we could be more original or compelling. But we care. All of us care. Even the people who say they don’t. Especially those people. We all care a lot. Maybe too much. Hence the boozy.

Have there been any moments in your career that you consider “pivotal”?

Working at Cliff Freeman I learned that every opportunity can be a great creative opportunity. Which is the most optimistically brave attitude you can have in this industry. The small amount of heartbreak you feel discovering you’re wrong is nothing compared to the insane delight you get from being right.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming talent in the industry?

Be a creative for as long as you can. Don’t be in a hurry to become a creative director. Spend lots of time learning everything from everyone. And always say yes to everything, until you absolutely have to say no.

What’s been the weirdest or most promising development in the industry in the past year? How has it impacted your work?

I think we’re seeing the start of a huge shift in creative advertising. Breakthrough creative is being embraced as a reliable and sustainable model for growth. We’re seeing big brands leaving their vendor or bespoke agencies for more engaging and provocative creative solutions.

Name one troubling development or problem that has arisen in the industry and how you’d respond to it?

AI is going to be a huge challenge for our industry. It works well to collate massive amounts of data in real time. But some folks want AI to cure their indecisiveness with strategy and creative. Which is a terrible idea. Here’s why: Let’s say you’re a retail chain with very similar competitors. It’s already hard to stand out, so you decide to engage an AI shop to help make your marketing 100% data driven. Then, your competition does the same. Which is great, except it isn’t. An AI’s purpose is to organize data and produce optimal outcomes.  And every AI in your category will have the same optimized consumer data. Every AI in your category will also know the best time and place to reach your customers. And every AI will offer the highest performing messaging. Which means that every AI will produce exactly the same creative content, on exactly the same channels, at exactly the same time. Your message will be totally optimized and will also be exactly the same as everyone else’s. The truth is that making a brand distinctive and memorable is something that humans do very well. Mostly because we understand that data is a tool, not an answer.

What’s the most formative book you’ve ever read?

The Princess Bride. If you haven’t read it, I’m jealous of you, because you’re in for a real treat. It’s 10,000,000x better than the movie.

Name one device that you cannot do without.

Brains.