Gustavo Sousa, Creative Director, on Finding and Hiring Photographers

April 14, 2017

By Conor Risch

As a Creative Director at Mother, Gustavo Sousa led the agency’s work for Stella Artois for several years. The Brazil-born creative started out in marketing after earning his business degree, then moved to New York and studied design. Mother hired him a year later and he moved to London, eventually working his way up to Executive Creative Director for Stella when he was 29, and in 2013 was made partner. At Mother, Sousa worked with photographers Annie Leibovitz and Bert Stern, filmmaker Wim Wenders, painter Robert McInnis and designer Pablo Ferro, among others. In 2015, Sousa left Mother to concentrate on his own company, Kilo Industries, which is based in New York. There, he’s rebranded and developed a new creative concept for Belgian beer company Hoegaarden, and has done work for Stella Artois and Corona, among others.

Sousa recently spoke with PDN about the advertising industry, contemporary photography, and why photographers should develop relationships with freelance creatives.

PDN: Before you left Mother to establish Kilo Industries, you were considering opening an office for Mother in Brazil. What did you see happening in the industry that caused you to change course?
Gustavo Sousa: Working in New York, for the little time that I worked at an agency here, I noticed how some of the most interesting talent were actually freelancing. Those people were way happier, they were making enough money, they were working all the assignments they wanted to work. If you’re a creative person and you’re happy, of course you’re going to create better, make better work.  The business model for the advertising agencies in Brazil is very old school. Media commission-based income, that’s the main source of income of the agency which is something like [in] the United States…in the ’80s. There are many great agencies there, amazing talent there in Brazil, but I found that the business model was a bit weird. Today it’s much easier and much more effective for [freelance creatives] to find the right balance. They are all working independently on their own things and they bring people together to do something. [Clients approach you] because they really want you, and everybody works much better. That type of project is way better for the client and for the creatives. Not every job works well that way—probably very giant corporate things wouldn’t work that well, but most of the interesting jobs, the interesting projects, that’s the best way to work.

PDN: What do your clients come to you for? A particular esthetic?
GS: In advertising, if you’re working for a client, I don’t know if you should have a defined esthetic. As an artist, I like minimalism, simplicity. My paintings…they’re very simple. That’s what I like. In terms of advertising and as a designer, it just depends on the job. Esthetically it has to be the right thing for whatever the idea is. You start to become not an artist but more of a curator. As a creative, maybe the one thing that I like and that maybe people like about me is I try to be as direct as possible.

PDN: So clients come to you for your ability to bring a team together that’s appropriate for a particular job?
GS: Exactly.

Courtesy of Kilo Industries

In Mexico,Gomes and Sousa photographed Corona’s brewing process and the stories of the people and places around it. Says Sousa, “In advertising, if you’re working for a client, I don’t know if you should have a defined esthetic.” © Courtesy of Kilo Industries

PDN: What interests you right now in contemporary photography?
GS: Film. People went back to using film. Abstraction. I always loved photography and shooting, and I know many photographers. You have to know a little bit of [photography] to work as an art director, but it’s like music: You can listen to a lot of music and like many things, but when you start playing an instrument it’s a totally different thing. Now that I’ve started going back to shooting my own pictures, I am still making up my mind about it. But it’s very funny how at the same time it’s so accessible, and it’s so everywhere—you go to Instagram for instance, everybody takes pretty pictures—not everyone makes that one amazing image. It’s an element of photography that is very delicate and very hard to explain, but when you see something that is really amazing and different, you know. Photography is really fucking hard and it’s an amazing art form and [it’s] very difficult to get it right.

PDN: Where do you look at photography?
GS: The Internet. Bookstores. It’s funny how you can find anything on the Internet, but if you really want to find something amazing, you have to go to a bookstore, to a gallery or museum, because that’s where you find what’s not on the Internet. And also that’s when you get that experience…. It’s a totally different relationship to photography when you’re looking at it in a book versus on a computer. Like listening to a record on vinyl. I look at pictures everywhere, and every time I hear about any photographer I go check them out online, but the things that I’ve found most interesting were actually in bookstores or galleries.

PDN: Now that you’ve opened Kilo Industries, do photographers reach out to you directly?
GS: It works in a few different ways. Many friends who worked at agencies, they left to become photographers’ agents. Some friends became photographers. Today I pay much more attention to photographers than before, because when you are working in an agency, for instance, people are always sending you emails or coming by to show their portfolios, [but] you’re always extremely busy doing a million other things.
And of course you make time to get to know people and find new photographers, but now that I’m doing my own thing, I go and look for that, and I meet [photographers] through friends of friends. I meet many more photographers now than when I was working at an agency.

PDN: One of your first projects for Kilo was work for Belgian beer brand Hoegaarden. You worked with Marcelo Gomes on that. How did you two connect? Why was he a fit for that project?
GS: I met Marcelo through a friend when I worked at Mother. He came by and we had coffee, and when I saw his stuff I really liked it. It’s hard for me to explain why. There’s a sensibility there that I think is very special, very warm. The way he works, also, such a small setup, using film and all that. When I left and I got my first project, I said this idea is about showing nature in a very personal way, and in a very diverse way, and that’s why I said, OK let’s do this together. Also because I wanted actually to learn how to shoot better, so then I thought also: Maybe you can teach me a little bit about what you know. And of course when you see the stuff that we shot, 99.9 percent is his stuff, but it was an amazing experience working together.

PDN: Who are some of the other notable photographers you’ve worked with?
GS: At one point we wanted to shoot something for Stella [Artois], an iconic image. There was an element of fame we wanted to have with it. It was a simple image, but we wanted the best photographer to shoot that image, so we worked with Annie Leibovitz.

In the beginning of our work with Stella, we were very connected with this idea of the ’50s and ’60s, and that sort of Golden Era of photography and cinema, and [Bert Stern] created an image that we wanted to do again, and we actually said let’s not rip him off. Let’s actually bring him to shoot it with us. We did this other job with Nacho Alegre more recently. He was amazing to work with. He co-founded Apartamento magazine and I always wanted to work with him. Sometimes there is a combination of finding the right person for the job, but also I want to work with this person and learn a little bit from her or from him. I think that was the best thing about working with a global brand, because you get to know amazing people.

Related Articles:

Create Spotlight: Visual Storytelling at The Atlantic

Create Spotlight: A New Look for Science Magazine

Client Meeting: How Seattle Design Firm Civilization Works with Photographers on Cause-Based Projects