To call Robert Souza a people person is a serious understatement. This is a guy whose career is without a doubt the product of relationships he’s been building for twenty years. He started off in fashion, working his way up, and left nine years ago to launch his own company, Souza & Associates, a Manhattan-based integrated marketing and event management firm specializing in luxury lifestyle brands. In spite of—or maybe because of—his early experience at a large company, he now flies light and keeps the number of people on staff to a minimum. “The minute I hire a team,” he says, “There needs to be a lot of money in my bank account, or someone needs to buy me. Staff needs infrastructure. They need training. I don’t want to be in the office.” When he’s not running around town having breakfast, lunch, or drinks with someone new, he plays on a hockey team. “It’s my Zen,” he says.
I’m curious to hear about your work and how your business has evolved. What’s changed, what’s the same?
The clients we have today and the clients we had eight years ago are all luxury lifestyle brands. People say to me all the time, “What if you expanded into fast retailing models? You would be a billionaire.” But that’s not my comfort zone, it’s not where my network has value, it’s not my passion.
What do you mean by “fast retail models”?
So my client would be a Valentino, and fast retail is like Uniqlo.
What about a Valentino-Uniqlo collaboration?
That’s the stuff we would love to do. Our goal is to put people together and make amazing things happen.
You’re a connector.
Yes, but we’re making value happen. A lot of people are connectors, but their connectivity is service, because their ability to really curate relationships or matchmake is inexperienced, or they make bad choices. We spend a lot of time understanding people and companies and businesses, nuances, chemistry. Here and there we see an opportunity to put somebody together, and that collaboration, that relationship that we build turns into an event opportunity, or it’s part of an event opportunity. Or it’s an endorsement deal, a licensing deal, a joint venture.
So that means that for you, no day is like any other day.
If I could summarize it in one sentence, it’s really about collaboration and partnership for the purposes of event marketing, for the purpose of brand collaborations…and by the way, did that partnership between Valentino and Uniqlo actually happen?
No, I was just pulling it out of thin air. But wouldn’t that be amazing? You should get on it. Except I’m not sure that would really make sense for Valentino.
That’s a great question—why wouldn’t I do that? Well, we’re too small an agency to be a pioneer, to go to a Zara and say, “This is something you should do.” They’ll say, “What are you talking about?” We wouldn’t even get in the door with that idea. And once the idea is actually pioneered, we’re too small of an agency to actually do the deals.
So where do you come in?
We come in for people who don’t have any distribution. We can’t help a big brand pioneer anything, but what we can do is help an upcoming brand become a big brand. We find those partnerships that a small brand wouldn’t be able to find on their own.
Like a Rebecca Minkoff a few years ago.
Exactly. Or we’ll help a big brand, but in a category that nobody thought of.
So like a company that should be in lifestyle but wasn’t considering it before. Or food, or whatever.
We have a deal that I can’t speak of right now, with a couture label and a really big luxury hotel. So you can imagine…designing a suite, etc., etc.
So you started your company nine years ago. What were you doing before that?
Tell me a little about that.
I grew up in Toronto. In 1987 I quit high school and took a job. I was working at a factory and showroom. It was a multi-brand showroom, but I worked only on Hugo Boss. It was a small company in 1987, so people would ask me to do different things. People would say, “Oh Robert, can you do me a favor? We’re overwhelmed. We need somebody to sell ties.” Or: “These mannequins need to be dressed. Can you do it?”
So you got to learn everything.
Right. It was this great moment of being thrown in, but it’s all about timing. In 1987, Boss was so hot that you would have had to be really bad not to get most of the order done. But it was a natural for me, it just came to me.
What did you love about it?
The marketing, the lifestyle. Seven years after I started, I was in Victoria on a road trip, and I get a call on my Motorola 3000. It’s the president of Hugo Boss Canada, this amazing dude, the Richard Branson of our era in fashion. A very powerful guy. And when I say powerful, I mean in that when Don Johnson or Wayne Gretzky came to Canada, they called one guy—my boss Eric Silverman. I learned so much of my marketing from him. When he called me he said, “Hey, I’m about to announce this to the company, but I want to tell you first: I’m going to be the president of Hugo Boss North America. I’m moving to New York in a few weeks, and I want you to fly there tomorrow.
Okay. How did you feel in that moment? That was the pinnacle of everything you had been working for.
I didn’t even know what New York meant. He said, “I’ll have my assistant book your flight. You’ll be going tomorrow.” I said, “Okay, whatever.” I didn’t really work for a company, I worked for a guy. I wasn’t excited yet. It was just another travel trip. When you’re in Toronto, and you’re like the king of Toronto, which I was in 1994, you don’t care to leave at all. I had a two bedroom apartment on the water, a car. I was living it up on $40,000 a year. I could go to any club in Toronto. I had an expense account. So then I get this call, and suddenly I’m sleeping on the floor of the Paramount Hotel for eight days. After that, I was at the Pierre for three months.
When did it become clear that you were going to be staying in New York?
It became clear when they finally made me an offer that tripled my salary, which I found out didn’t mean shit in New York. I was sleeping on a couch on 57th Street that I was renting. And the couch was $800 a month. But that’s when I decided that, despite being broke, I was in New York, and I was going to leverage this membership. Joining Equinox to sit at the health bar for $200 a month is a waste of money. Joining Equinox, taking the classes, and hanging out at the health bar is different—you have to do all of it. Don’t be a member of New York to work here. You can have a better life elsewhere—you can have a yard, you can barbecue. And I want that one day. But right now, being here—I want to go out.
So then what happened? Why did you leave fashion?
I was in New York for four years. Then Hugo Boss Germany asked me to move to Miami and open up a headquarters for them in South America. So I did that for two years. Then the parent company asked me to come back to New York so they could do an acquisition. The acquisition fell through, and then they bought Valentino. So I ran marketing and sales for Valentino. I left in 2006 and started my own company.
Why did you leave?
The industry made a transition to analytics. I’m not that guy. I’m the relationship guy for sure. I’m definitely the salesman. I’m not a numbers guy.
What’s your favorite thing about what you do?
People. My favorite thing about life, and my biggest hobby is people. I could spend all day, all night with people. What I can’t do is be alone. I hate it.
What do you love about people?
They keep me alive, they keep me awake, they keep me interested. I get bored with myself. I like to read papers, I like to watch a movie with my family and friends. But there’s nothing that beats conversation, meeting new people, interesting experiences. I get bored really easily.
What’s your most satisfying accomplishment to date at large?
Creating relationships. Out of everyone I know, I’m probably the one who works the hardest to stay in touch. I email people who never email me, who never call me. I somehow keep the whole thing alive, and bring everybody together, and magic happens.