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Champion for Good: Gabrielle Shirdan

Our latest Champion for Good is Gabrielle Shirdan, the SVP group creative director at McCann, who recently partnered with us to launch Sound It Out, a powerful new campaign that uses the power of music to help young people talk about their mental health. As part of the campaign, kids discussed what they were going through with some of today’s most exciting musicians, who then turned their feelings into songs.

Since July is BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, it was the perfect time to talk to Gabrielle about her approach on the campaign, the pandemic’s impact on mental health, and the best advice she’s ever heard—suitably enough, it’s a song lyric.

Lonny Pugh: Mental health is such a complicated, nuanced issue that impacts people across all demographics. What were the considerations on our efforts when trying to reach certain communities in an authentic, relevant way?

Gabrielle Shirdan: Sound It Out tells the stories that haven’t been told, and with a focus on mental health in Black and Latinx communities specifically, we crafted the campaign with respect and care for the culture. Staying mindful, we didn’t lean into a “struggle story,” but shed light on the full diaspora and range of emotions.

The kids were the real creatives here—their feelings wrote this work and the conversations were all theirs. To authentically reach this community, my community, we intentionally curated a crew behind the work just as diverse as those who appear in it, with Black and Latinx creatives behind the lens, from our director to our DP to our editor to the style team to the mix engineer. We were careful to ensure this work was real from the inside out.

LP: How has the pandemic influenced or altered your thinking about the conversations we need to be having about mental health?

GS: Mental health has never been more top of mind in the culture, especially in this pandemic, when many of us have been isolated and forced to face our own minds. The time we’re in has made the conversation more necessary than ever. There is also the pandemic of racism in our world, which weighs on the minds and bodies of people of color, making mental health even more of a crisis.

LP: How do you and your team take care of your own and each other’s mental health at the same time the topic is a direct part of your daily work?

GS: My team and I are human first. We would check in with each other and stay on brand by not allowing anyone to just say, “I’m fine.” The best work is made when we aren’t just creators, but consumers, and when we are of the communities and culture we’re talking to—that’s what makes this work real. It was emotional to tell these true stories. Hearing how kids feels can make any adult cry.

LP: Could you talk about your personal career trajectory and your current role at McCann? How did your work and your personal passions lead you to work with us on Sound It Out specifically?

GS: My career trajectory is one of those clichéd stories about following your dreams. I knew I wanted to work in advertising since I was a child, and with Jay-Z lyrics plus my mother’s lessons in tow, I went from an internship at a big shop in Philly to ultimately working alongside cultural icon Spike Lee in Brooklyn to becoming a creative director at 72andSunny. Along the way I created emotionally provocative work for global brands such as Cadillac, Microsoft, General Mills, New Era, AARP, JBL, Ulta Beauty and more.

My love for the culture, for changing the narrative and for telling the stories that haven’t been told is what led me to Sound It Out.

LP: The power of music is at the forefront of the Sound It Out campaign, but it’s such an important piece of so much powerful creative. What does music mean to you personally, and how do you think about it in relation to your ongoing campaign work? Are there other recent campaigns or spots you think have incorporated music in moving or innovative ways?

GS: Music underscores most of my life and work because truly, when I can’t find the words, there is a song that can. I’m a creative with multiple Jay-Z tattoos who considers lyrics to be my second language. Music is such a powerful tool to unlock emotion—it reflects and reports on culture. I could write a whole love song about my love for music.

LP: What has been the most meaningful advice you’ve received, and how did it help you?

GS: To stay on theme, I’ll use a lyric that meant so much to me, I have it tattooed on my body. It drives me every day to create the work that keeps us up and helps us sleep. It was advice that Sean Combs gave to Biggie: “Treat everything like it’s your first project, like it’s your first day, like back when you were an intern, just stay hungry.”