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How a cracked copy of Photoshop led to a thriving career for Grizzly's Greg Gibson | #GettingToKnow

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Greg Gibson is a creative director and designer living and working in San Diego, California. He is a Partner & CCO at Grizzly, a hybrid creative company based in San Diego and Austin, Texas. 

Over the last eight years, Greg has led the agency’s work for clients including Microsoft, Marriott, Google, Servicenow, and Slalom. Working across strategy, design, and storytelling, he’s led brand and communication efforts for some of the world’s most adventurous brands.

Today, however, he’s talking to us. So, without further ado, let’s get to know him, shall we?

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Tell us a bit about your role! Is there a “typical” day?

I don’t really have a typical day, which is exciting, but the majority of my time is spent with our team and our clients. As CCO, I’m responsible for steering the overarching work product of the agency which means I’m coaching our talent to their potential, nurturing relationships, steering the brands we work with and helping sharpen the ideas we’re sharing with them. 

What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?

The biggest challenge has been the entrepreneurial side of the business - building an independent agency in a secondary market with no outside funding. The entrepreneurial journey is never a straight line, especially in our industry. 

That’s why we talk so much about adventure. But I’m tremendously proud of what we’re building, how we’re competing against national and global agencies for business, the talented team we’ve built, and the great work they’ve done on behalf of our clients. 

What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career? 

I stumbled into the world of design by necessity. I earned a degree in music and pursued a path in music through performing, writing, and teaching. One day, a friend gifted me a cracked copy of Adobe CS4 (sorry, Adobe) to create some show flyers and learn web design for a music instruction business I founded – I fell in love with design.

Music and performing taught me so much. The value of practice and learning the fundamentals. How to collaborate with others and lead a creative endeavour. How to command a room, tell stories, and make an emotional impact with the people around me. 

There’s a great entertainment aspect around what we do. We use creativity as a vehicle for showing up in people’s lives and making them better. That’s  the connection between where I was and where I am today.

What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?

We’ve created some incredible work at Grizzly, but I think Grizzly’s work for Microsoft (including Microsoft WE, and Microsoft Everyday Magic) represents a huge win for me

Our team was a part of the internal shift toward creativity during Satya Nadella’s early years, working closely with teams across the organisation to develop internal brand, bring teams together through design and culture-building, and to create content that would help articulate a new vision for some of the most important teams building the future at Microsoft.

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If I think about a single win that’s had the largest impact on our business, it’s probably our first project with the cloud infrastructure company Nutanix. As their creative partner for half a decade, we guided their growth through an IPO, multiple iterations of the website, three global brand campaigns, and dozens of demand-gen initiatives. Our work with Nutanix was a catalyst for the majority of the work we’re doing today. 

We weren’t just building a relationship with Nutanix, we built awareness and expertise in the enterprise technology category, which has led to work with Servicenow, Zscaler, Digital Ocean,  Moveworks, and more. 

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Our biggest loss is probably an RFP we actually won, but was pulled the week of our kickoff because of a CEO transition. We’d gone all-in on the work, done some of our best work as an agency, and won against the incumbent and other national agencies, only to have the campaign shelved. I still think the winning idea will find its way into the world someday. ;)

Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

IDEO Founder and Stanford D.school creator David Kelley has been a huge influence in the way I think about creativity and design. His design work and his book “Creative Confidence” is foundational to how I think about what’s possible for the world and for our team.

Brian Collins, Michael Beirut and Lee Clow will always be a constant source of inspiration. Paula Scher and Debbie Millman both influenced my early ideas around branding, and the role of design and creativity in shaping our cultural experiences. All of them have created smart, meaningful, and lasting work, which has been a throughline in everything that we do at Grizzly.

If you could go back to your teenage years, would you have done things differently? Do you have any regrets?

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I would give myself permission to follow my passions with more ambition earlier in life.

I’ve always followed creativity, but it seemed much more complicated when I was younger. There were always distractions or societal expectations that seemed to get in the way. I don’t have any regrets, but I would give myself permission to move faster, stay focused, and believe in my potential.

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

Making music. I’d be writing, performing, producing, or doing something in the music industry. 

What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?

Removing the barriers of entry for people who believe this isn’t a path for them. This industry, like others, has a massive diversity, equity, and inclusion problem. We need to create pathways for the talented people out there who have the capacity to solving the kind of problems we solve for clients with creativity, but are unaware of this career path. 

Often these people don’t have access to the communities and relationships and tools in order to be able to pour themselves into developing that craft and fulfilling a career in this industry.

There’s also just a stigma around creativity. I think we can solve that makes this access easier. Let’s stop calling people “creatives” and start talking about everyone’s ability to be creative. At Grizzly, we’re passionate about providing those access points for underrepresented communities and becoming a place for people coming from nontraditional careers paths.

What are your top tips for aspiring creative professionals?

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The number one trait for me is curiosity. If there’s anything that will help you find your way in this industry, it’s an insatiable curiosity and being a life-long learner. Show up like it’s day one every day, because we’re never done. 

Believing there’s always more to learn will keep you interested, competitive, and relevant in a changing industry landscape. It will keep you interested in the people around you. It will lead you toward your gifts, challenge you to be better, and make you a leader. 

What are your top tips for other creative leaders?

Ensure that you really know your people and understand their story. What do they care about? What do they need? What do they believe? How do they work? Why do they show up? It’s about building trust, communicating openly, and creating shared purpose with them.

When you think about your team, what is the thing that matters to you the most?

The most important thing is, “Where are we going?” As a team, we have to be on this journey together, moving in the same direction. The team has to understand where we’re headed and what we want to create, and how the agency is a vehicle for those same things for them. 

Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

A few of my favourite books that have shaped my perspective: Soundtracks by Jon Acuff, Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Beneath the Wheel by Herman Hesse, Let My People Go Surging by Yvon Chouinard and Brand Thinking by Debbie Millman.

In terms of podcasts: Fearless Creative Leadership, Talking to Ourselves, The Daily and How I Built This.

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