Cossette made a splash in the Canadian advertising scene last month - announcing the arrival of a brand new chief creative officer. The person in question? Sabaa Quao.
With over 30 years of experience, Cossette’s new CCO is a creative leader, serial entrepreneur, and business strategist. Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, he declares himself an avid believer in the power of representation and mentorship, and has previously built and launched several platforms and companies across the content, tech and culture space.
Due to the lessons learned through these diverse experiences, Sabaa brings a unique and forward-thinking approach to the agency - while leading their creative output on a national level.
Speaking to LBB’s Josh Neufeldt, Sabaa discusses what compelled him to join, how his first month has gone, and why his past entrepreneurial ventures have shaped him into the leader he is today.
LBB> How did you get started in advertising? Tell us your story!
Sabaa> I completed a BComm in marketing, with a minor in entrepreneurship. That gave me a solid framework as a start.
However, the deciding factor in me becoming a ‘hands-on’ creative person was my completion of a communication and design degree immediately after undergrad. With that additional design capability, I could now visualise an idea and make it ‘real’, even in some rudimentary way. That changed everything.
I was impatient to get started and ended up launching my first communication and design company immediately after graduating from OCADU (then OCA - the Ontario College of Art). In the first few years of the business, I had some advertising agencies as clients, so I found myself with one foot in the advertising world and the other foot in the design world.
LBB> How did you feel about advertising when you were growing up? Was it something you always felt destined for?
Sabaa> I wandered in and out of advertising via design and marketing. As I gained more experience, advertising projects remained a steady part of my overall portfolio.
I move between many creative worlds, but at the core I love building stuff out of thin air. I do that for myself, and I do that for clients on brands, launches, and corporate ventures. If I’m working on a client’s project, I embrace it as my own - and that means I bring some additional instinct and entrepreneurial fire to it.
I was 10 years old when I decided that I would be my own boss and invent things. I knew I would find my way in the world as a ‘creative’ person, but the way in which I went about it was broad. Graphic design and advertising were drivers, but art, architecture, fashion, and product design were always on my radar and remain important influences.
LBB> Congratulations on your new job as CCO at Cossette! Can you tell us more about what it means to you? What led to your decision?
Sabaa> Thank you! I was busy building a media and fintech company when I was approached to consider the CCO position at Cossette.
Cossette’s scale and the timing of their inquiry got my attention. The agency is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, and I get to collaborate on the company’s next evolution. The vision they’ve tabled is inspiring, and there was no impediment to adding my vision to the mix.
I’m also able to sustain my position and stance as an entrepreneur. I learned that Plus Company - the agency network that Cossette is a part of - is stacked with entrepreneurs. Suddenly, the discussion wasn’t so weird at all.
As of right now, I’m still launching my own personal venture - Wealthie Works Daily
. I have co-founders and investors whom I’ve been working with for three years. In discussing the offer, I proposed something provocative to Cossette, and I’ll have news to share soon on where we landed.
LBB> Wealthie Works Daily isn’t the only company you co-founded before Cossette. According to your profile, you also launched Newsrooms and Filminute. Tell us more about your entrepreneurial experiences! How did you come to launch businesses so prolifically?
Sabaa> Each venture is informed by the last. Filminute
, the international one-minute film festival, is now 17-years-old. Filminute is how and where I learned to build simultaneous international content marketing campaigns. Each year, 15 to 20 countries are represented on Filminute’s shortlist, so we build campaigns to reach audiences in each country while also addressing our overall audience of indie filmmakers and film fans worldwide.
One-minute films trained me to see how stories can be told efficiently and well, but also from dozens of cultural vantage points. I can appreciate the thoughtful stillness of an Iranian film as much as the pacing and production of an American short film.
I then mashed up journalistic approaches to telling stories with broadcast production methods, and that’s how Newsrooms
was born. Building a ‘newsroom’ around a brand remains a fit for companies facing the always-on pressure of online audiences. News networks never turn off, and the good ones maintain great discipline around telling stories well and accurately. Companies and brands have similar expectations, but where we diverge from ‘news’ is that the conversion is driven by marketing goals, metrics and outcomes.
Wealthie Works Daily brings all these experiences together. It’s as much a media company as it is a fintech. Content built around business news and financial literacy will drive Wealthie’s e-commerce and audience conversion. We sometimes describe Wealthie as ‘Sesame Street meets Bloomberg’. By teaching kids and families about money, we’re promoting their long-term financial stability and well-being.
LBB> How does your entrepreneurial mindset aid you in your creative leadership roles in advertising?
Sabaa> The entrepreneurial mindset is committed and fierce. We commit to being creative thinkers and doers, or we don’t survive. Every day, we face the reality of turning ideas into something practical and sustainable.
I want my creative teams to operate with that same fierce mindset and to take ownership of ideas - which will be measured in terms of practical outcomes. Creativity is the operating system. To arrive at the best possible outcome, we must sometimes apply our creativity where it’s least expected.
LBB> Since joining at the start of September, what has your first month at Cossette been like? Was the experience what you expected it to be?
Sabaa> During the first month, I was exposed to an endless stream of briefings, team meetings and clients. An agency of Cossette’s size has a massive reach and impact on businesses, industries, and on Canada’s economy. Seeing it all in play on this scale is far more exhilarating than you’d imagine.
I’ve also found that there are categories of business where Cossette has achieved deep expertise, and even industry dominance. However, I think they’re too quiet about it.
Last but not least, it’s personally satisfying to be working in English and French. I grew up in Montreal and have been away for most of the past 25 years. It brings me much joy to be back home, but also to ‘listen’ to a way of thinking and existing that is unique in North America.
LBB> What are your main aims and ambitions for both your work at Cossette, and Cossette as a whole? How would you define your leadership style, and what has been the biggest influence on this style?
Sabaa> Ultimately, we bring business and creativity together. It’s what I’ve done my entire life, and I’ll continue to do it at Cossette. As a longstanding institution, Cossette has had a major impact on our country. I’d like to add to that impact in a significant way.
The biggest influence on my leadership style has come from building creative teams. I’ve often helped spot and nurture young talent. I also like to bring unique combinations of people together to make a project work.
I’m still in touch with some of the people I taught, trained or collaborated with decades ago in different countries. Mentoring and teaching has strengthened my knowledge and my networks. Many of these people give me something back as creative collaborators, business partners or reliable sounding boards when I’m tackling a unique problem or project.
LBB> As CCO, how would you describe your values? And how do you go about reflecting them on a day-to-day basis?
Sabaa> I believe creativity is the most valuable resource on the planet. I value it, and I help creative people value themselves and what they bring to the world. We don’t turn our creativity on and off. It’s always on, and that’s the best way for it to grow.
I’m fascinated by epistemology - how we come to know what we know, and how we come to believe what we believe - on both an individual and societal level. Reflecting on knowledge and then thoughtfully applying it is the only way humanity moves forward.
LBB> What are your thoughts on the Canadian ad industry in general at the moment? What are the main factors affecting conversations with clients?
Sabaa> I believe that Canada has more potential than any other country in the world. We’re educated, diverse, and we might be in the best position to show the world better ways of living and being. Canada needs our people, businesses and ideas to flex their creative muscles more frequently beyond our own borders. As such, I want more Canadian companies and brands to have that ambition and see it through. Our creative, marketing and advertising agencies will always play a role in that export process.
LBB> Outside of work, you’re a mentor for the Black Wealth Club and an advisor for Sheridan College. Please tell us more about what you do and your experiences with these programs.
Sabaa> At any given time, I’m mentoring a handful of people. Right now, within the framework of the Black Wealth Club, I mentor three aspiring entrepreneurs who hail from Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon, but are living in Montreal, Toronto and Los Angeles. We have something in common (I’m from Nigeria and Ghana), and I help them navigate entrepreneurship and their personal and professional growth.
My goal is to inspire, nurture and mentor 100 entrepreneurs. Of these 100, only ten will create businesses that survive and thrive. That’s the sad reality of entrepreneurship - only 10% of businesses will make it, so I’m aiming for those ten wins.
I’ve had close to a 20-year relationship with Sheridan College. I’ve seen interactive and web design evolve into the digital product design discipline of today. Seeing and speaking to students as they learn a discipline keeps me current.
LBB> What helps you de-stress after a long day at work?
Sabaa> Seeing my kids grow up and thrive is something I enjoy daily. I have two teenage boys, and I’ve been a single parent to them for much of their lives. They’re unique, creative individuals and they express their creativity in a completely different way than I do. Listening to their take on the world is a luxury for me.
I also read a lot - something I didn’t always take as much time to do until the pandemic hit. I’ve found reading to be a way to relax my mind while learning at the same time. I’m never stressed after I read. I devoured 30 books last year! Just thinking about some of the concepts and ideas I came across sparks my imagination and energises me.