Laura Serra, executive creative director of Mosaic North America, speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about her journalistic past, changes afoot at her agency, a couple of secrets about what she gets up to outside of agency life
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Canadian production company FRANK Content is a proud supporter of Little Black Book as its partner for the Canadian market. As part of the relationship, LBB is sitting down for a chat with the brightest and best minds from across Canada's advertising industry. Today, LBB’s Addison Capper has the pleasure of chatting with Laura Serra, executive creative director of Mosaic North America. She speaks about her journalistic past and its skill crossover with adland, the benefits of being pigeonholed into a tight corner when it comes to a creative brief, and big changes occurring at her agency.
LBB> How did you wind up in advertising? You were a journalist before, right?
Laura> I came into this business in a bit of a wonky way. I started my career in journalism at the Globe and Mail and never really had any aspirations of working in advertising or marketing. I wore a bunch of different hats at the Globe and Mail - at the end of my career there I was the society reporter, basically the party reporter. I was bopping around the city, covering events, reporting on TIFF and just really any major thing that was happening in Toronto.
LBB> So what happened for you to divert?
Laura> At that time in my life, I also started a charity that was dedicated to animal welfare. It was called 'Paws for the Cause', raising money for a scholarship at a local veterinary school to help students fund their veterinary education. At that fundraiser, I ended up meeting an advertising team - and a creative by the name of Hayes Steinberg in particular - and they offered to do some pro bono work for the charity. We ended up working together and through that experience, I fell in love with the creative process. I took a very big leap of faith and I ended up joining that agency. I left my career in journalism and that's where my story in advertising began.
That was at Bensimon Byrne, a very well-respected ad agency in the city. It was under the leadership and creative guidance of Joseph Bonnici that I learned how to be a creative. He taught me the ropes, gave me amazing opportunities and that's where I ended up meeting my creative partner Meredith Klapowich. Together, Meredith and I moved through Bensimon Byrne, worked on projects across all three of their agencies including One Method and Narrative, and ultimately, I ended my career at Narrative as creative director of the PR arm, which was a huge learning curve and experience; learning how to be both a creative and in PR.
LBB> What are some of your fondest memories of that time?
Laura> Working with Meredith, we did a lot of amazing things together and even though we don’t work together anymore she’ll always be my creative spirit animal. We won the Canadian Nike business together and that was really a turning point in our careers. It gave us access to so many other things and taught us a new way of working because the Nike models were very specific and very challenging, but also very exciting. The other big one was working on Casey House where we opened a restaurant that was fully staffed by people living with HIV/AIDS to shine a light on the stigma that still exists. That campaign elevated our careers on a more global level because winning big awards gave us more attention, of course.
And then I broke my leg and I had a bit of an existential crisis. Being physically unable to do anything and being at home really got inside my head. I was like ‘what am I doing? Is this what I want?’ And so, I quit my job, which as somebody who loves to work was a crazy thing. And I just spent the summer rehabilitating myself and rehabilitating my leg and travelling when I could. I was off for probably four months which was the first time in my life I'd ever done that.
When I came back into the city and I could walk again, I was ready to tackle the world, so I spent quite a few weeks trying to meet people from different agencies, which I'd never really done before. I ended up really connecting with the ECD at Mosaic, Jess Willis. I thought she was just really different from everyone else. She wanted to turn the system upside down, blur the lines between above the line and below the line and stop the division that happens between traditional ad agencies and below the line ad agencies. She was just a real feisty visionary. And so again, I took a leap of faith and I joined Mosaic. I understood traditional advertising, I understood digital and design and I understood PR, but the one piece I didn't quite get was experiential. At Mosaic, I've been able to learn that whole process and that whole side of marketing. That brings us to the present day where I was hired as a GCD but was promoted to ECD about three months ago.
LBB> I encounter quite a lot of creatives who were once journalists. Do you think the skills are quite interchangeable?
Laura> For sure. When you're reporting on something or when you're writing editorially, the best way to approach that is to always be agnostic of your own personal opinion. In advertising, you're kind of doing the same thing. Even though I draw from personal experience to inform a creative idea all the time, I have to become whoever the audience is. If we're targeting 18-year-old gamers, I try to put myself in the mind of an 18-year-old gamer. I also think that it's important to consider what gets real people talking about an idea – not just industry people – real people. So I do think I have a bit of an upper hand here because I was on the other side of the media fence. I was literally the one receiving pitches so when creatives put their PR headlines in decks, I have a keen eye on what will actually fly.
LBB> You’ve been at Mosaic for almost two years. How have you found the switch to more experiential work?
Laura> Even though Mosaic is known for being an experiential agency, it’s been undergoing quite a transformation - that I’d say started when Jess Willis joined the agency several years ago - and is now at the height of change since Sub Niijar joined as president in the fall of 2020. I know that every agency is touting integration but Mosaic genuinely is because we have people who with expertise in every facet of marketing from brand strategy, brand design and more traditional advertising, which is the world I come from, but we also have the OGs of XM and true experts in shopper marketing, retail, and integrated commerce. I've never worked for a place like this and I’m still learning so much especially when it comes to driving conversion - like how can we translate our big brand idea into retail? What does that look like at the point of sale? We think through it all.
LBB> Someone told me recently that they felt there was a bit of a creative revolution going on in Canada. Would you agree with that?
Laura> I think if you look at the global shows this year, there were a lot of great Canadian winners there. I don't know that I would call it a revolution though, I think there's always been good work here. Maybe we're just talking about it a little bit more or the agencies here are PR-ing themselves really well!
I think the thing about working in Canada versus New York or a big American city is that there's less here. There are fewer people, fewer brands, less money, less out of home space. Literally less of everything. Launching a campaign in the USA or Europe, you have mega-centres with mega-placements like Times Square or a department store in London. In Canada, we just don't have that. But what I think that means is that we are actually scrappier creatives. Because we have to work with less, we use more tools in our toolbox. We don't have huge, American influencers on YouTube, Instagram or TikTok or any real celebrity culture. We don’t have huge American budgets. I think that's why you're seeing craftier work coming out of Canada because our box is smaller which is inspiring bigger ideas.
It's just like a brief. For me, if you have a really narrow brief, you're going to produce the best work. There’s this misconception that 'creatives want an open field to play in'. Maybe some do. I don't. I want to be pigeonholed into the tiniest, little box where I can barely move. And that's where I feel like the best ideas get better.
LBB> Tell me about your new YouTube work! That must have been a huge undertaking.
Laura> Our latest campaign for YouTube is one of those special moments in your career where a great brief drops at just the right time, with smart clients, and a killer team to knock it out of the park. There’s a bit of magic or alchemy that happens when all roads lead to the same place and that, in combination with having killer production partners, really made this a dream job.
Beyond being able to blow something up with ASAPScience, because who doesn’t want to blow something up, I mean this when I say that it was nice to put something out into the world that really matters and really effects the lives of Canadians. Every day. YouTube is such a fabric of our lives that I think sometimes it’s easy to forget the impact the platform is really having on our lives, regular people who use it every day, but also the creators, the people who really rely on the platform to make money and run their business.
I also always get an extra kick out of working with real people or in this case, creators, and inserting ourselves into their lives, meeting their families, and seeing first-hand how the work we’re doing is actually making their lives feel a little brighter. I mean, what else do we do this for?
LBB> What’s another piece of recent work are you particularly proud of and why?
Laura> Earlier this year, we launched a CBD-infused sparkling water for Canopy Growth called 'Quatreau'. They already had their brand ethos, but we worked with them on their brand strategy, positioning, whole brand identity, tagline – everything. They had some work in progress package design but ended up redesigning everything. On the hero brand spot, we partnered with an incredible production house out of Barcelona called Trizz, which led to a friggin' beautiful piece of content. Despite being in the height of Covid, they were able to produce a truly inspiring piece of work that’s super technical and revolutionary. We also did all of their trade assets, which is a super interesting part of the process because oftentimes you need to ship this work long before the brand campaign is baked. This is a great example of the new Mosaic model in full form doing everything from in-store trade assets all the way up to brand positioning and broadcast.
LBB> Do you have a creative hero? Who?
Laura> There's one in particular, and I met him earlier this year, which was very cool. Anselmo [Ramos], the founder of GUT. Anselmo to me, especially becoming a creative leader, is the guy who I still look to every day. I try to be a disciple of his in the way he thinks about what it means to be creative and what it means to be a creative leader of an agency.
LBB> His poetry-like commentary on the advertising industry...
Laura> Exactly. It's a bible for me and I honestly look at it every day.
LBB> What do you get up to when you're not at work?
Laura> I write poetry! I don't really tell a lot of people that. Some people know I write under a different name – see if you can find me haha. I like to write about modern life but in classic forms, the Shakespearean Sonnet being a personal fave. I live in the city, but when I can, I like to be in the country, surrounded by animals, and I can very much see myself making that move one day. I feel most myself in the country.
I also secretly (and now not so secretly) am trying my hand at commercial directing, which is an incredible creative outlet. It’s super hard but really fuels my fire. An old dear friend of mine and accomplished director, Jamie Webster, took me under his wing and taught me some of the basics, which I’m very grateful for and hope to do more of. I think some of the best commercial directors actually come from agency land so I’m excited to explore that more. I'm also really into cooking. My brother is a bit of an Instagram Chef and cooking Italian food is a big part of our family and my heritage, so trying new recipes or making pasta from scratch is also a bit of a creative outlet for me when I'm not working.
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