Jason M. Peterson is an unparalleled talent in his industry. He’s Co-Chairman & Chief Creative Officer at Havas and has over 1 million followers on Instagram. This sounds impressive. It is. But what’s equally striking about Jason is his forward thinking ideas on advertising and his unique abiliities to create change.
Jason envisions a future in which advertising will be created by the people, for the people. Ad agencies will hire social media influencers as their new creative teams. They’ll create volumes of cool content for low costs. Their ads will become frequent and conversational; speaking directly to their audience. Agencies will permeate consumer culture and become gathering places for trendy concerts and events.
For Jason, the future is now. Read on to learn about Jason’s bold ideas and how he’s taking action.
Zack Seckler: You’ve been saying the rise in social media is going to lead to a creative revolution, tell us how.
Jason M. Peterson: Look—it’s happening right in front of me. I’m sitting in my office, which is like a glass conference room, and as you’re asking that question, this kid from Instagram named 6orners, Ryan Chun—he’s a skater kid from Minneapolis who has 50,000 followers on Instagram, takes dope photos, uses his skateboard as a dolly, right? He just walked by with a GoPro rig strapped to his chest, with three people behind him with all this camera equipment on their heads. That’s my creative department. Those are art directors and copywriters.
I’m taking creator people that exist in this revolution that has happened on an iPhone, on YouTube, on Instagram, on Twitter. There’s amazing creative talent out there that are school teachers, kids that work at Starbucks, kids with skateboards that are taking out their phones and making amazing content. That’s my creative department. That’s the creative revolution. We’re going to look back in 10 years and go, “Oh my god, Casey Neistat is Andy Warhol!” It’s a fact. He’s Andy Warhol, and I’m going to hire all these little disciples of his and change how we make our advertising. Not just social—our TV commercials, our direct mail, our point of purchase, our in-store. Our experiential is all going to be led by these kids.
So paint a picture for our audience. When the Band-Aids stop working and the industry really changes, how are things going to look?
How it’s going to look and how I want it to look are two separate things.
How do you want it to look?
How I want it to look is I want a creative revolution. I want to go to a client and say, “No, I don’t want your $600,000 to do this video. I want to do it for a thousand dollars. You can keep that $500,000, but what comes along with that is one hundred percent creative freedom. Let me go out and make it myself, and if you don’t like it there are no revisions—throw it out.” So if I can change that, it becomes more of a creative industry, and it’s creative-led. I believe that you give creative people informed, strategic insight, and let them go make shit. That’s where I see this thing going.
I think what you’re saying is really exciting, because for people on the creative side of advertising—I mean, that’s why we got into advertising, because we like making cool shit. But how do people make money?
This is where I got smart on this shit. I changed all of our scopes. There are no art directors and copywriters in scope. There are no account directors, none of that sort of stuff. There are people that lead and run the business, but I’ve gone from having art directors and copywriters to going, “This little kid has got his camera and his iPhone, he’s the creative department.” These are people who, rather than just come up with an idea and have someone else make it, can come up with an idea and go make it themselves. Then the production costs go from making $100,000 productions to making thousands of thousand-dollar productions. With a lot of our clients now, we’re making content on an hourly basis—thousand dollars, thousand dollars, thousand dollars, versus once every six months.
You have an impressive role at Havas — Co-Chairman & Chief Creative Officer. After years working in the ad industry as a creative, now you’re leading and managing large teams. What’s it like making that transition?
The truth is I didn’t necessarily even want to take that role, because it sounded like an old man kind of title, but there’s absolutely zero difference between me right now and me when I was 25 years old. It was the exact same shit. I’m as involved in the work now as I ever have been. And I’m having more fun in advertising now than I ever have.
I made awesome, cool television commercials. I created a lot of marketing-driven work that was relevant within culture, and still is. Like when I tell these 22-year-old kids who work for me, “Yeah, I created Boost Mobile,” they’re like, “that was everything to me.” But television is a dead medium, no matter what anyone says in advertising. Like, I don’t watch TV commercials. My mom in Arizona doesn’t watch TV commercials. My 15-year-old daughter, who has a 30-inch flat screen TV in her room, hasn’t turned it on in three years.
Social and digital are everything, and the advertising industry’s solution for dealing with digital and social is no solution at all.
Tell us a little bit about how your background and how you came up in advertising.
So, I grew up playing in American hardcore punk rock bands as a teenager, and I got really into the independent music scene. I started writing for Music Magazine when I was like 13 years old, doing record reviews and stuff like that. Then I decided to form my own band with a bunch of my friends. We started playing shows, and I would design all of the flyers to promote the shows, and design all the record covers for the band. I really discovered art and creativity through that.
In the summer of ‘89, my band toured the U.S. We played 48 shows, the highlight being at CBGB’s, a hardcore matinee on a Sunday afternoon. We were living in a van for two months, getting paid five dollars a day and trying to figure out how to live off of that. Right when I got back from the tour I said, “I quit. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to be poor my whole life.” And I really loved the art side of what I was doing, so I was like, “I want to figure this out.” It was the late 80s, early 90s, and I would see these Air Jordan commercials that Wieden + Kennedy was doing for Nike and go, “That’s what I want to do. I want to make that shit. That stuff’s crazy.”
I sold everything I had and moved to Atlanta. I went to the Portfolio School, which is an advertising school there. It was a two year program, which I couldn’t afford, so I went through it in a year.
From there, my first job was in a little boutique creative agency in Chicago. I was the sole art director working at this agency, so I knew I would get a lot of opportunities to make work. I did these posters for the Moody Bible School’s summer picnic in Chicago. They won a bunch of awards locally and caught the attention of this really big Chicago copywriter and creative director named Scott Burns, who was starting an agency in New York with this guy Andy Berlin. Scott reached out to me and said, “I like all your work. It’s crazy. Do you want to move to New York?”
So I was in Chicago for about a year, and then moved to New York when I was 22 years old, in 1992, I believe. I became the lead art director on the Volkswagen account, and from there my career is just making really cool, awesome TV commercials.
So you’ve hired a lot of people off social media, and that’s been possible in part because of your social media presence. You have over a million followers on Instagram. How has being a photographer on Instagram influenced what you’re doing right now?
I’ve always loved photography. I never considered myself a photographer because I love it so much. I’m standing in my office right now, staring at my books. I have thousands and thousands of photography books from the 1930s on—fashion, street photography, art-directed photography.
In the early days, digital photography always fell short to me because I was like, “I’m a craftsman.” You know what I mean? Digital always fell short until the iPhone came out. I took a photo on my iPhone and posted it on social media, and I went, “Dude, if someone told me this is a Hiroshi Sugimoto shot, shot on medium-format, 10-hour exposure, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a Hiroshi Sugimoto shot.’” So the advancement of that really led me to jumping on social media consciously.
I’m on about seven other platforms that you’re going to be calling Instagram five years from now. I jump on these platforms and figure them all out. I have 50,000 followers on Snapchat. I have half a million followers on an app called 500px, which is like a hardcore photography content app. I’m on all these things every day. That’s me working out. I’m a professional athlete, and game day is my advertising job. If you don’t know the ins and outs of social media and what’s going on in this creative revolution, how do you do your job?
So I jump in on these things and understand them from the inside out. Same thing I’m doing with gaming right now. Like, I was up last night until 2 a.m. gaming because I want to understand how Twitch and the ins and outs of all this shit works and bring my clients into it, bring my creativity into it, and make amazing content on it.
I’m sure there are a lot of people who are interested in your photography and want to know what your creative process is like. Can you tell us a little about that?
Yeah. I’m always shooting photos. I always have my camera with me. This morning, I went and got a coffee and walked to the office—beautiful fall light in Chicago that’s kind of crossing across the buildings, amazing shadows. I live about a mile away from the office, so it would normally probably be a 15 or 20 minute walk, but it took me two hours and ten minutes to get here today because I’m walking, I’m seeing some light in the alley, I’m standing there, I’m waiting, I’m waiting, and then I shoot a photo. So usually my process is drinking coffee, walking around, and waiting for shit to happen.
So you’ve walked us through how you’re changing the ad agency structure, and having internal creators versus hiring people out. Who are going to be the biggest winners and losers in the future that we’re talking about?
Well, the losers are going to be creative people that refuse to change. You know what I mean? Like, I always want to feel completely uncomfortable with what’s going on. I’m gonna stick to the gaming thing because we’ve been talking about it: I don’t know shit about Twitch. I don’t know anything about it, but I want to know everything about it, because I know how important it is to a 16-, 17-, 20-year-old who’s a part of this whole thing.
I saw this clip recently of these video game Olympics things in Asia, and I was like, “That’s bigger than the real Olympics!” And I’m old and stupid if I go, “Wow, that’s so weird.” If you have that mindset and you go, “Oh, the kids these days,” that’s when you’re fucked.
What’s hilarious to me is that I already see it with a lot of these millennial kids that I’ve hired. They’re like, “Yeah, I don’t know about these younger kids, I don’t get it.” And I’m like, “You’re in trouble, because the reason you’re here, and the reason you have your career, is because that’s not the way I think, and that’s not the way this company thinks.” You’ve gotta be curious. I always want to feel like I have no idea.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.