Deskside

Everything You Need to Do to Build Your Personal Brand

From Desiree Gruber, a bonafide expert in the matter.

By: Laurel Pantin
Photography: Renée Rodenkirchen

In a nutshell, Desiree Gruber is our hero. As CEO of multimedia, brand management, and production at Full Picture, she’s helped bring things to life like…Project Runway, Heidi Klum’s everything, and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Full Picture goes way, way beyond the scope of what you’d expect from a branding and public relations agency, offering a full spread of content creation, social-media branding, and production across TV, fashion, and digital media. She’s won a Peabody and has been nominated for 11 Emmys. Not too shabby.

As if that’s not enough, she also has a chic AF scarf line, Theodora & Callum, and is on the board of God’s Love We Deliver and Unicef. She also helps her son catch Pokémon and makes us feel like total underachievers. So when we were given the opportunity to pick her brain on everything from the ideal way to unwind (hint: even that is work-related) and the most glamorous first-major-paycheck purchase in the history of the world (hint: it involves Naomi Campbell) to the ins and outs of building your personal brand online (no hints here, just read it), we shouted, “HELL, YES” before tossing ourselves into a cab and planting ourselves outside her office. What we got from her was pure career-advice gold.

 

What exactly does she do?

“We say we help people and brands tell their stories, and we do that in multiple ways. I had a PR background and started Full Picture because I wanted to be able to help people in other arenas, too. So we added content production onto PR. We create television shows like Project Runway, which we are co-creators of and executive producers of, and we create digital content—which, when I built Full Picture 17 years ago, was not something that we were grappling with. It wasn’t something our clients even requested. That became a category we got into because of need. It just made sense. We consult for clients and help them create connections and strategic relationships that take their brands to the next level. We consider that a part of storytelling because today you need to have other people that tell your story. It used to be more direct: ‘OK, here’s my brand. Bring me the media.’ Now brands have the opportunity to create content the way they want it.

“[As CEO, I’m] chief cheerleader, strategist, partner, problem-solver. At my level, I’m not in the weeds day to day with what we’re creating. But people come to me and say, ‘We’d like to make this happen. How do we find so-and-so? How can we cut the red tape here?’ I think of myself as a problem-solver first and foremost.”

 

How social media has changed the PR and media landscape:

“It’s forever changed. I tell my team this every day. People don’t realize how fast it’s coming. Brands have to develop their own story lines, their own content, their own cadence. What do they want to tell their customers? I think it’s so exciting to be in the business today because we can do so much more storytelling on so many levels.

“But I’m sure that there are so many people who are scared of it. It used to be that you’d call the New York Times, USA Today, People, or Time, and your story was set. Now it doesn’t matter. It used to be that whoever was on the cover of Rolling Stone, that was it, and it would set off a whole change of next waves to follow that. It doesn’t work that way anymore. It used to be if you were the Sexiest Person Alive, you were made for that entire year. Now we don’t even know who the Sexiest Person Alive is because there are too many other things to look at. You have to know, more than ever, the specific people that you want to talk to. You used to be able to have a scattershot approach—just send it out and hope that the right person gets it. You can’t do that now. You have to be with the blogs of the people you want to reach, the influencers that the people you’re trying to reach are looking towards. It’s a lot more difficult and a lot more exciting. For the first time, brands have the opportunity to get out into the field and tell their stories directly. Before, if you made it in print, that was your cornerstone. Now it’s like for social media: Where are you placing it? How are you telling that story? It’s the same story but on such a different platform.”

 

How to stand out amid the noise:

“To stand out in today’s market, you have to have authenticity. You have to know who you are and then find people who share that and care about that and want to connect with you. The best brands are the ones that are finding people who care about their message and who are carrying that for them. You can’t just carry your own message anymore. If you look at the number of people who have high followings on Instagram, it’s the people who have a lot of people interested in carrying their brand message for them. Michael Kors has the most tagging in fashion because women want to be known for and seen wearing that bag. You can’t archetype that virality of women really wanting to carry that message. I think Coach is second.

“You find naturally who’s coming to your brand and to your products. You’ll get feedback. We’ll interview clients and ask them, ‘Who are your five biggest fans right now? What are the best posts you’ve seen about your brand that you didn’t do?’ It’s almost like fan art. I worked with one celeb a long time ago, and he had a fan who kept writing him and writing him. And this was before IMDB. And he actually ended up hiring the fan to do his social media—it was so smart because the girl really cares. It’s an amazing time that you as an individual can stand out. Before, how would you have ever gotten Justin Bieber’s attention? You would have had to go interview. You never would’ve gotten noticed. You have such a dialogue today.”

 

The dos and don’ts of personal-brand-building:

“My advice is to narrow your scope on your social media. If you’re trying to create an image, you can’t Instagram your pizza every night. If you’re a beauty blogger, stick to things that are really only going to be topical there. You can show a little bit of your personality in other ways; I would stick to three categories max. I’m a mom first, so I can’t resist doing the mom stuff there. And I do fashion. I love food and I love wine, but I don’t really let myself go there. You don’t need to see me Snapchatting my spaghetti, it’s too much. You don’t have to go there. You can’t imbed an image of yourself in my brain if I look at you and one day you’re on a floaty in a pool, then you’re eating spaghetti, then you’re snuggling with a panda bear. I don’t know what the hell you’re about. If you want to have your personal Instagram and have your friends follow you, do that! But if you’re trying to create a brand online, it has to be edited. Tell [your followers] what you’re going to tell them, tell them again, and then tell them what you told them. I need to look at your social media and know that there is some through line there and that you’re ferreting out something I have not seen before. If you’re teaching me something new or showing me something I haven’t seen before, then I’m interested. It’s like the saying ‘When you get dressed, take off one accessory.’ Same thing with your social-media presence: Take one thing off.”

Which platforms she’s excited about now:

“I’m excited about all the different platforms of social media. I think augmented reality—especially today with Pokémon—is so cool. I have photos of my son in our lobby and there was a Rattata there. There’s a photo of me and my husband with the Rattata. You see the cartoon character floating next to us. You’re seeing the world through something else. There’s [virtual reality] and then [augmented reality], and I’m more excited about AR. You can actually be in your closet, and someone could teleport in and start suggesting things for you. It’s very exciting. Magic Leap is one of the biggest companies that is doing that, but AR is in the future, it’s not here yet. I mean, it’s here with Pokémon Go, but that’s not really the full thing. You have to wear glasses, and then it projects onto your retina, basically. You could literally watch Michelle Obama’s speech in front of you without a screen.”

 

On picking the right partners and starting Project Runway (and launching a scarf line on top of *everything* else):

“I’ve made a career of getting into business with really smart people, so I try not to create new projects without someone who is a superstar in that industry. Stefani Greenfield was someone we’ve worked with and we were talking about a deal with HSN for a line called Curations. We’re talking, as new moms, about how to style up your jeans and t-shirts when you have no time and you have spit-up all over you. And we both realized that scarves are everything. [Theodora & Callum] was created from that. I don’t create things in a vacuum. We do it because we partner with someone who is the absolute best in their field.

“Today, Madame Tussaud’s called and said that they want to do a Madame Tussaud’s Project Runway wax thing. Can you believe that? I’m amazed. I’m thrilled. But it’s such a testament to how interesting the behind-the-scenes of fashion is. When you see someone hot-gluing at midnight, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit. This is hard work.’ You don’t realize until you see it how much work it actually takes.”

 

The importance of giving back:

“I lost my oldest brother to AIDS in 1989, and it obviously had a huge impact on me. It inspired me to want to make a difference at a time when not enough people were talking about AIDS. So I got involved with God's Love We Deliver and have been on the board now for about 20 years. It’s such an amazing organization. I’ve seen it through a lot of years and a lot of transitions, and we’re in a great spot right now. We have the beautiful new building, and people like Michael Kors are donating a lot of money. It’s something that is super close to my family and my heart. We want to make sure we’re supporting them in any way we can.

“I got involved with Unicef when I had my son. There’s certain things that you hear over the years, and they don’t bubble up or come into your world in a way that feels meaningful, and then all of a sudden I had a child and someone was like, ‘Do you realize that there’s all these women who can’t feed their babies?’ They started telling me about Fluffy Butter, which is how you feed children, globally, when they don’t have any nutrition. It’s like a little protein pack. You realize that it is just so unacceptable. So I got involved with Unicef. It’s been eight years now. I’m on the New York board, and it’s super exciting. I’m not working in the field, holding babies and weighing them. I work here, in America, where I have different relationships and I bring them to bear for them. Whether that means getting major donors on board and helping to open doors for them or getting creative. Obviously, I’m so passionate about what they do that I’ve been able to get some of my friends out with them, too. Heidi Klum has come out on a few trips. We’ve honored her, and she has been a great ambassador for them. She went to India—Unicef ended polio in India, which was a huge thing. It’s super important to me and my team to focus and give back in some way. It’s just the way I was raised. I love talking about it with people and friends and inspiring them to give back, too.

“And Im continuously inspired to support new mission-driven initiatives. For two years, my team and I have been working with [former] First Lady Michelle Obama’s non-profit organization, Let Girls Learn, which is working to educate 62 million girls around the world who are denied their right to learn. We were lucky enough to work with MAKERS, the leading women’s empowerment platform, and Diane Warren, the Grammy-winning songwriting legend, to produce This Is For My Girls, a song where 100 percent of proceeds are going directly to get girls in school. You might have seen FLOTUS and Missy Elliott sing the song with James Corden in his viral Carpool Karaoke Segment.”

 

The best and worst advice she’s ever received:

“The worst is probably just someone who says, ‘Just get what you need and get out.’ It was a painful experience for me, and I still cringe when I think about it because that is just not how I do business at all.

“The best advice was to find your own mentors who do not know that they’re your mentor. I’ll read articles and follow up with [the authors] in a way that I think I have met them and they have given me this advice in real time. Jack Welch is someone who I really admire. One of his books says it doesn’t matter what’s going on in your mind and in your office—when you go out there and are interfacing with the team, it’s always about understanding their issues and making sure you’re hearing them no matter what is on your own mind. When you’re out in the field with your team, it’s about supporting their issues. I met Jack Welch a few years ago and, like, jumped on him [laughs]. I made him my friend, and I just love him and his wife, Suzy. He was someone who was a mentor from afar before we ever met in person. I’ve always shared his books, they’re always in the Full Picture library. I love what he stands for: getting out of your own head.”

 

Her biggest fashion guilty pleasure:

“Shoes. It’s so hard to resist new shoes. I’ve made it so that I have a lot of room for shoes. I’ve been working on doing one in, one out. I’m big on Real Real.”

And the very glam way her obsession started:

“I went to Manolo Blahnik with Naomi Campbell, who was my client. I had no idea how much shoes could cost. We were in the store trying on shoes, and they’re crocodile. I was like, how much could they possibly be? Like, $500? There’s no price on them. I was like, what’s the most that these shoes could cost, especially since I’m getting a 30 percent discount. They were $2,400. I literally had a tear come out of my eyeball. Like, that was my salary. I had to just buck up and say, ‘Sounds good!’ So I wore those shoes a lot. Those were my first pair of Manolos, and they were crocodile. You should slide into Manolo with a little suede something. Not me. I went right into Manolo, raring to go. That was my first big purchase. It was way more than I could afford. It wasn’t like I could call my mom in Miami, like, ‘Mom, I accidentally bought a pair of crocodile Manolo Blahniks with Naomi Campbell!’ There was not going to be any sympathy there [laughs]. The style was called the Evita. I still have them. I said, ‘We can archive them, but I can’t throw them out.’ They’re worn, but I won’t throw them out.”

Her ideal day off (surprise—it’s not exactly a day off):

“I never get a day off—I would be so psyched. This is so nerdy, but, literally, I would go to my TekServe and spend like, a half hour with them teaching me tech stuff. One of the techs there is awesome. If my husband takes our son to Taekwondo on a Saturday, I’ll go around the corner to TekServe and hang out with the geeks there and have them give me lessons. One of the things they told me is that you’re supposed to use Siri, it saves you so much time.

“I love to be out in the city alone. I love Upland—I represent them, and it’s my favorite place. I’d eat a pizza, and I’d probably stay within the vicinity of where I live. I’d do a little shopping, probably. I’d go to Barneys Downtown. I just met a stylist at Saks who is amazing. They have this truck that delivers things to you. I’m obsessed with ordering things from them. They leave it with your doorman. You try it on and then put it back downstairs. It’s amazing. I don’t feel the need to go out and about. We all know what we like by this point. Then I would stay in and watch Netflix. I’m obsessed with Chef’s Table.”

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