Szymon Gruszecki’s past experiences are a mix you’re unlikely to find in another production company CEO. Growing up between Poland and the USA, he was a punk-rock skateboarding and snowboarding obsessive who became an influential figure in capturing that culture through his many years photographing, filming and publishing magazines on the scene. Then his career took him to the corporate media world of MTV Networks and Red Bull during its transition from drinks manufacturer to disruptive digital content hub. Eventually he found his way into the exhilarating world of commercial production and today he brings all of this experience and attitude to bear as CEO of Warsaw-based production company Graffiti Film.
Fascinated by the twists and turns of his life story and what it means for his company today, LBB’s Alex Reeves delved into Szymon’s background.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Szymon> I grew up in a really dark, socialist Poland. This was a different world. And I grew up in a small coal-mining town where my parents as engineers were building an electrical plant. That gave me a different perspective. When people in Western civilization now say they're socialists, or they sympathise with a left-wing economic model, I say, you don't know what we've been through. Go to Belarus and live there for a month and come back and tell me you still want to change capitalism and democracy to a communist model.
Anyway as a kid, my parents had higher education would seek better job opportunities. You had to apply to the government to release your passport if you wanted to travel to a different country, even an Eastern Bloc country like Czechoslovakia or East Germany. They would try to travel to Western countries as physical labour, France for grape picking or Sweden for work in construction.
LBB> How did you end up moving to the US?
Szymon> My parents started going to the States where they had family who'd emigrated earlier. They would build houses or sweep floors in supermarkets. Making money there had huge value in Poland back then. You could work a housekeeping job for two years and get a huge apartment in Warsaw.
Eventually my parents told me we were going on vacation to America, to see friends and family in Florida. I'd just finished primary school. And at the end of the two-month vacation they told me they wanted to stay, to emigrate to the United States.
I said "Fuck this. No!" Already at that time Poland was in a transformational period. The Communist bloc had broken down, the Russian grip of Poland had loosened and I saw these changes. My parents didn't see them yet because they still felt the breath of the Russian regime on their necks for their whole life, but I knew that the changes were all around us. One day, a big building was a Communist Party headquarters that had a Lenin portrait seven floors high; the next day it was the hottest skateboarding spot because of all this marble. I saw this change. I was a young skater dude on the streets in colourful clothing, in the punk rock scene - everything was blooming. But my parents were telling me we were gonna stay in Tampa, Florida. I said, "This is a swamp". It was the most boring place I could imagine.
Anyway, I got stuck in Florida. My parents were working night shifts. I saw America from not just the bright Hollywood side but the real suburban reality. And I decided I was going to go to Poland as soon as I was 18 years old. I was so stubborn about it that, in my third grade of high school my mother said we would go back to Poland, to our old apartment in Warsaw. My father stayed behind.
Soon after that my mother passed away. I was a kid in Poland, 16 years old with his father away and not sure whether I should go back to the US or not. I decided to stay. And from that day on I was on my own. My dad got remarried and I was a lonely kid in Poland.
LBB> How did you pick yourself up and build a new life from there?
Szymon> I felt okay with it after a while, and I realised that I need to get some money. I started looking for jobs, and because my English was so great I got a job with this American publishing company. Back then, there was a lot of American investment in Poland, so there were jobs everywhere.
I was also really into skateboarding and snowboarding culture, so I was photographing and filming those two cultures. And eventually I got picked up by this magazine that was starting. Because I liked writing, I became editor-in-chief.
After two years I decided to open my own magazine with my girlfriend, who was studying economics. In five years, we had three publishing titles.
For the next six or seven years, we were kids running a booming publishing company and it was awesome. We made a tonne of money because alcohol and tobacco advertising in print was legal back then. And they could sponsor sports events, so we were super lucky to have all the money we wanted to throw at skateboarding and snowboarding events sponsored by beer.
That ended and we started having a bit of less fun. I broke up with my girlfriend and partner and started a different publishing company with different partners.
LBB> How did you end up becoming a producer from there?
Szymon> When I was still in high school I wanted to go to film school because my big plan was to become a director. I briefly went to Warsaw Film School. It was a weekend school because I was running my business, and after that I wanted to apply to Łódź Film School, which is world famous. But I never did because the work at my office got so overwhelming.
10 years or even more down the line I have this business where I'm a publisher, all I have to worry about is finding advertisers, it's not really that creative anymore. I'm kind of bored. I'm thinking maybe it's time to get back to film. Along come these two guys bringing an American feature film service production to Poland. I tell them “I've got time, I can leave my company for as long as they want, can they hire me as an electrical assistant or whatever? I'll just carry cables.” They said I knew English so well and they had American actors, an American director and asked if I could be an assistant director. I said, "Yeah, sure. What does an assistant director do?" They said, "We'll show you, don't worry."
I ended up for two years in Łódź in central Poland with a Polish production service company, an American crew, American producer, American director and American cast, working as an assistant director.
LBB> What did you learn from working in feature films?
Szymon> I worked on two US movies and the experience was awesome. Each had a 40-day shoot and half a year prep, so it took me a year to learn the ropes of how a set works, how a production is set up.
I started to feel like this is something that I want to do. I did another Polish feature film and I started to get offers to do more.
I got picked up by this producer and he says, "I have a feature film, I've heard that you're good at English and you're a first assistant director. Can you go on set, away for four months?” My wife and I had a second baby coming. And I said, "I'm not going to do that. This is too much. I want to be with my wife and my kids."
LBB> So you took another change in career direction?
Szymon> I got picked up by MTV Networks for an awesome job as production director. They had like seven or so channels like MTV Classic, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central. All these channels had producers who'd produce locally-based shows for them, so they needed someone in charge of their budgets.
For the next four years I had two little kids and I was overseeing production and MTV. I loved it. This was the first corporation that I’d worked for. So now, when I'm talking to my clients I can see the client perspective, because I've been on that side. I learned the corporate structure of MTV.
LBB> How did you end up at Red Bull after that?
Szymon> Red Bull came to me. They remembered me from my publishing companies. They had this super secret project - this idea where they were going to prove to the world that the energy drink is not the only thing that they do. The owner, Dietrich Mateschitz said he was going to become a media mogul and he had this project called Red Bull Media House. He invested a lot of money into it. One part was a publishing house with a monthly magazine called The Red Bulletin. It was centrally published from Vienna, but had regional editions everywhere. I was in charge of the Polish addition. This monthly magazine would be given away for free as an attachment to the biggest daily newspaper in every country. The biggest Polish daily newspaper had a circulation of over half a million copies so that would mean that we were the biggest magazine in the country by far. So this was amazing.
The crew that we were working with in Vienna was the world's best. At that time Red Bull had so many resources that if they wanted to hire anybody, they could hire them. So we had an awesome opportunity to work with the world's top editors, photographers, writers, designers, and that experience was just mind blowing. And I loved it.
After four years, the Polish office said the central office wanted us to start making money on this, suggesting they could get some advertisers. The Polish office said they had no idea how to sell advertising. They were an energy drink company - they knew how to sell cans of drinks so, they dropped it.
LBB> So that’s when you ended up at Graffiti Film?
Szymon> I was kind of on the street. What am I gonna do now? I've been in publishing and producing at MTV, but what's cool?
At that time a friend from Cheil called me up and said maybe I know how to produce a TV advertisement. I said, "How hard can it be?" He hired me to do a commercial and it went well.
It was exciting, because it is much faster-paced than television, a much bigger responsibility than anything else I'd done. You get to work with people that are top-notch specialists. I wanted to do this. I wanted to get picked up by a production house. There were these two production houses that were really good. Both were interested. One of those two companies was Graffiti Film.
The two owners said I could be the managing director that will bring the company to the new standard. They started this company 26 years ago, had all these clients, this huge portfolio, years of experience, a really good name.
I said sure, I was going to bring this company to a new, fresh level, starting with redesigning the branding. Then we were going to think about new people, new perspectives, new ways to make business. I was so supercharged.
I brought it to them and they were like, "Oh no, your changes are too big. We cannot have it." And I'm like, "You hired me, but you're not letting me do my job because you're too attached. You've done this for so many years, you're afraid of the smallest changes."
After a while we had a serious conversation. I said I cannot be a managing director, but I'm really excited about production jobs. I was managing the producers, I liked their job, so I asked the owners to let me stay and learn that job. They let me and I became a really good producer.
LBB> What were some of the productions that were really important for you developing as a producer?
Szymon> The main step was Nestle, which was a company that we’d had a relationship with for 10 years. At the time I started producing, Nestle we were not winning any more bids with them. I went and talked to Nestle and we fell in love, it was a brand new beginning for us. We signed another three-year-long contract. We're actually in the 15th year of working for Nestle Poland right now. It's our top client, we love each other. That was the first time I felt I brought something to this company that they didn't have before.
The second milestone was Pepsi, because the Polish Pepsi marketers were also in charge of the Eastern European region - 35 countries spanning from Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, down to Turkey, the West Bank and Kazakhstan. So different cultures, different regions, different religions.
We got to do this huge project for Pepsi where the client had this huge problem. They needed a lot of snow, and they had no idea how to do this within the budget, because there was no snow anywhere. I was more lucky than smart. I knew all the glaciers in Europe because I'm a snowboarder. I called some people and two weeks later we were up at 4,000 metres on a beautiful glacier shooting a great video with stunt doubles, snowmobiles, ski lifts. A huge production, done in two weeks.
From that point on we were booming. Everybody knew we knew how to do stuff quickly, were not afraid of challenges, and were smart. We didn't necessarily have to operate with service production companies in every country because we could put a lot of stuff in trucks and move it across Europe. That was it. We had a new beginning, a lot of new clients. This was a time when I was producing with the biggest budgets in Poland. We had more work than we could ever imagine.
LBB> Three years on from taking ownership of Graffiti with your two partners (Franek Rogala and Kacper Wantoła), what are your priorities moving forward?
Szymon> We're re-establishing ourselves as a top production house in Poland. We want to expand a lot this year. We will refocus on production service. We do production service occasionally, but it's not because we don't know how, it's because we were so busy with the Polish market, which is huge, booming and demanding. But now we're in a situation where everything is set, the team is awesome.
We just did a big shoot for this game trailer with talent from the US and the UK. We're so ready to start bidding and pitching for companies to come and shoot in Poland.
We are in a mindset where the pandemic's nearly over, people are ready to meet, to travel again. We can take on any kind of project in the world, and do it here in Poland as a production service. We're actually going to be very price competitive, we're going to bring in the best talented crew, and we're going to show the best locations or huge set builds. You're in the European Union. It's financially super safe; if you give me an invoice, I'm obliged by European Union law to pay it. But we're still cheaper, and we're a safe place to come.
LBB> It's interesting because it comes back to when you were talking about as a teenager, and you really wanted to go back to Poland. You clearly have a deep affection for your country.
Szymon> I deeply believe that's true. This is an awesome country. I left America to live here.
So come on over and just check it out for yourself. You're gonna love the people. You've got top notch crews that are working hard. And the level of openness and positive energy here is huge.
This country went through tremendous change in the past 20 years, joining the European Union, joining NATO, becoming a booming economy. People were so hungry for work and to make money that we made this country super hard working.
If you have a project that's longer than two days, it's definitely worth the travel cost and the hassle. Of course, there are people who are not willing to travel. You don't have to. We'll send you a live feed and we'll do it over here. Other than that, I'm saying come on over. See for yourself, whether it's a eight-hour trip from LA or a four-hour flight from London. Shoot with us, it's gonna be awesome. You're gonna love our crew, you're gonna love our office, and I'm gonna hopefully give you some of my love for my country.