By T.L. Stanley

Brendan Gaul, EVP, Global Creative Director, UM Studios

Clean & Clear was a fading brand in the Johnson & Johnson portfolio, no longer relevant to its teen target and desperately in need of a marketing makeover. Enter Brendan Gaul, EVP, global creative director and head of UM Studios, who spearheaded a turnaround plan in early 2014.

Original content under the banner #SeeTheRealMe allowed young girls to tell their personal coming-of-age stories through social media. Live events, concert tour sponsorships and TV tie-ins supported the campaign. But the centerpiece was a mini-documentary series shot by renowned music video directors with subjects like pop star Demi Lovato, WNBA player Skylar Diggins and this spring 14-year-old transgender activist Jazz Jennings. The response from consumers was immediate, says Amy Pascal, director of North American digital for J&J, with a new wave of momentum, goodwill and sales bubbling up in March with the breakthrough addition of Jennings.

It’s an example, she says, of Gaul’s keen ability to find the right influencers and match them with an insightful, zeitgeist-capturing concept. “He’s great at developing creative, forward-thinking ideas that break through,” Pascal says. “He brings us closer to our consumer by understanding their world.”

Gaul, a former McCann-Erickson creative director on the J&J business, believes it’s not enough for marketers to simply churn out content. They need to “have the courage to actually say something, create work that’s provocative that people will talk about—that’s the new challenge.”

More than a dozen of #SeeTheRealMe’s 124 videos have passed 1 million views—the Jennings video was on YouTube’s leaderboard of most-watched ads in March. The series has racked up more than 38 million views total, with coverage in Time, The New York Times and other national outlets.

Not that the campaign was risk free, especially its embrace of Jennings, the first transgender girl to star in global advertising. But Gaul wasn’t daunted. “Sometimes it feels like you’re back in high school and everyone will comment on what you do,” Gaul says. “But you can’t let that change who you are.”

During Gaul’s tenure at UM—he recently added global duties—he’s brought the same sensibility to Sony, the U.S. Postal Service and BMW, marrying “the ancient art of storytelling with the new content models of media today,” adds Daryl Lee, UM’s global CEO. “He’s a rare creative media talent” who has “pioneered branded content.”

Gaul’s Effie-winning work on Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 exposed the superhero on nearly every piece of USPS real estate from trucks to stamps and pulled in Marvel legend Stan Lee for a commercial cameo. Gaul forged a partnership with Men’s Health magazine for J&J brand Rogaine for “Grow Your Game,” a program that helped five men tackle hair loss and redefine their lives.

He’s excited about emerging technologies like Oculus Rift because, as he says, “there’s always a new story to tell, and these will provide new ways in.”