When it comes to the professional world, Sabaa Quao, BComm 89, believes that creativity is one of the most valuable skills you can develop — he even credits it for his own enduring success.
“My advice for anyone is to enhance your creativity. No matter what industry you enter, if you can be creative, that’s an advantage you can count on,” Quao says.
“People are afraid of creativity because it involves taking risks, even though it reliably generates net value.”
Quao, a career entrepreneur and business strategist, stepped into perhaps the most prestigious role of his career in September 2022. As chief creative officer of Cossette, he is now the national creative leader at the award-winning marketing communications company with roughly 1,000 employees across Canada and a client roster that includes McDonald’s Canada, the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and TD.
‘You can write your own ticket’
Quao’s entrepreneurial journey began when he was designing logos and T-shirts in Montreal as a youth. Now based in Toronto, he says he only realized the full potential of creating successful businesses while studying at Concordia, where he majored in marketing with a minor in entrepreneurship and small-business management.
“In the 1980s, everyone wanted to be an investment banker, but I’ve been interested in the hustle and grind of entrepreneurship since before it was cool,” he says.
Harold Simpkins, BA 67, MBA 78, a marketing professor at the John Molson School of Business, gave Quao his first glimpse into the advertising world by introducing him to industry professionals at marketing agencies. There, Quao discovered endless possibilities for both artistic exploration and financial success.
“[Harold Simpkins] said, ‘If you can be a creative person and a business person simultaneously, you can write your own ticket.’ That phrase stuck with me,” says Quao.
Creating cultural assets
Following his studies at Concordia, Quao attended design school in Toronto and founded XCORPORATION. As part of a team of three, he helped launch new brands, often introducing digital concepts to consumer audiences during the technology boom of the 1990s.
The company’s small size belies the immense impact it achieved. One notable mandate was the development of the inaugural launch campaign for the Toronto Raptors basketball team, which included branding an Air Canada plane, designing tickets, creating radio ads, billboards and public-transit ads.
“A point of pride for us was that teens were stealing our posters from city buses,” he says. “We created these little cultural assets that people wanted to keep.”
Quao completed an MBA and held various positions at companies where marketing, technology and culture intersect — for both existing organizations and those he founded himself.
His last post at a traditional creative agency was with The Hive between 2009 and 2012, where, among other things, he continued to flex his entrepreneurial muscles by managing a new decentralized, open-source digital ad agency from within the company.
He then co-founded Newsrooms, which helped brands stay connected to consumers in the social media age. For the past three years, he’s been working with co-founders and investors on the launch of Wealthie Works Daily, which Quao calls “a financial service and a media company rolled into one.”
He is also the co-founder of Filminute, an international one-minute film festival launched in 2006.
Throughout his career, Quao has strived to guide others towards success. In 2022, he formalized this commitment by becoming a mentor at the Black Wealth Club, where he helps emerging leaders navigate the professional world and achieve their goals. He currently mentors three aspiring entrepreneurs — one from Benin, one from Cameroon and one from Nigeria, who now live in Montreal, Los Angeles and Toronto, respectively.
“I help these individuals recognize the combination of skills and experiences that sets them apart from everyone else,” he says.
“I call it their unique advantage.”
An eye on the future
Although Quao lived in London and has travelled extensively, he still believes Canada has the opportunity to lead on the world stage.
“Canada has greater potential than any other country in the world,” he says. “I truly believe that. To achieve that potential, we have to expand internationally.”
Quao balances building a fintech startup with his leadership role at Cossette as the Quebec City-headquartered firm is on the cusp of its 50th anniversary. His experience in financial services and continuous content marketing — which applies to every client using new technology to grow their business — is part of his own unique advantage.
“It’s an exciting time to be able to come on board with the executive team to help define the next 50 years,” he says.