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Jason Harris is the CEO and co-founder of acclaimed ad agency, Mekanism. They do fantastic and progressive work for some of the best clients around. Brands like Peloton, Jose Cuervo, and Ben & Jerry’s.
Have you ever heard someone say that an idea “has legs”? What they mean is that the idea can endure and stay relevant over time. Because that’s what good ideas do—they stick around.
Jason Harris is the CEO and co-founder of acclaimed ad agency, Mekanism. They do fantastic and progressive work for some of the best clients around. Brands like Peloton, Jose Cuervo, and Ben & Jerry’s.
As a seasoned ad man, Jason knows a good idea when he sees it. And he knows how to present that idea to a client while be a true collaborator in the process.
In this episode, Jason shares what he’s learned from running an agency for over 15 years. He talks about the power of branding, building community, and why great storytelling is at the heart of his agency’s success.
It’s not often we get to speak with people in Jason’s shoes. If you work at agency—or aspire to start your own some day—then pay attention to this one. Because to survive and thrive, it takes more than just putting out great work.
Jason: Okay. 2025 is four years from now. I think if you can measure success, if you can measure the work that you're doing, you're going to be just fine. If you are putting work out there, and then waiting for your client to tell you if it worked or not, I don't think you're going to survive.
Greg: Welcome to The Futur Podcast, a show that explores the interesting overlap between design, marketing, and business. I'm Greg Gunn. Have you ever heard someone say that an idea has legs? What's that really saying is that it can endure and stay relevant over time because that's what good ideas do. They stick around. Our guest today is the CEO and co-founder of acclaimed ad agency Mekanism. Now, they do fantastic and progressive work for some of the best clients you can think of. Brands like Peloton, Jose Cuervo, and my personal favorite, Ben and Jerry's. I could eat their Brownie Batter Core all day, but I digress.
Now, as a seasoned admin, our guest knows a good idea when he sees it, and he also knows how to present that idea to a client and be a true collaborator in the process. In this episode, our guest shares what he's learned from running an agency for more than 15 years. He talks about the power of branding, building community, and why great storytelling is at the heart of his agency's success. Now, it's not often we get to speak with people in his position. So if you work at an agency or aspire to start your own someday, then pay attention to this one because to survive and thrive, it takes more than just putting out great work. Please enjoy our conversation with Jason Harris.
Chris: Jason, I'm so glad to have you on the podcast. One of my reasons for having you on is because I've not worked in advertising for a number of years now, so it's nice to hear from somebody on the other side. We're a service provider, a motion design production company for many years, and so it's neat to have you on the show. I think it's going to be great to hear your story about how you do what you do besides the different philosophies that you have. So for people who don't know who you are, Jason, can you introduce yourself?
Jason: Yeah. I sure can. I'm Jason Harris. I'm the CEO and co-founder of an advertising agency, Mekanism. It's M-E-K-A-N-I-S-M. We've been around about 15 years and work with a lot of well-known brands like Peloton, Ben and Jerry's, HBO, Alaska Airlines, Jose Cuervo. I could go on and on. We have about 30 clients, and we have offices in San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and Chicago, and I also... Two other things real quick. I co-founded a nonprofit called Creative Alliance, which is a group of a hundred companies that do pro bono, social good work, advertising-related, media-related, and then I also wrote a book called The Soulful Art of Persuasion. Those are my highlights for you, Chris.
Chris: Beautiful. Well said and very succinct. So I have a question for you. As a person who studied economics, how does somebody who gets a degree in economics wind up in production and then starting an agency?
Jason: Well, that's a good question. I did that economics degree for my parents.
Jason: I knew since I was 12 I wanted to go into advertising, into this industry, and I really, really wanted to major in art history, but my parents were footing the bill for college. I was blessed for that, and they really felt a business degree would be important and useful. It turns out they were partially right, but I never was going down the economics field or a financial industry field. Yeah, I never wanted to.
Chris: How did you know at 12 that advertising was a thing that you wanted to do? What was it? Do you remember seeing anything or hearing something that was like, "That's what I want to do?"
Jason: Yeah, it was... I don't know if... I'm probably older than you, but there was Leggo My Eggo. I remember like [crosstalk].
Chris: I remember that. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: Leggo My Ego, the Kool-Aid Man. The Kool-Aid Man who would bust in and spilling Kool-Aid out of the top of his jug, and he'd break up the school dance or whatever the kids were doing, and they'd yell for the Kool-Aid Man.
Jason: I thought that was awesome, and then Life Cereal, Mikey likes it. For some reason, I saw those ads all the time. I was a TV junkie when I was 12, and I realized I love watching shows, but I also realized somebody makes those, like that's a job. Since I love TV, that seemed like a good career I want at. I didn't necessarily know, "Oh, it's advertising, and it's service business, and this is how you bill." I didn't know any of the details. I just knew that it looked like a lot of fun. It was a blend of business and creativity, so that...
Chris: I see.
Jason: I knew that early on and just followed that, followed that path. I was lucky that way.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: So that. Ever since I got out of college, I've been in the industry for 20 something years.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). We must be very similarly aged because I know exactly what you're talking about. It probably was during the Saturday morning cartoons.
Chris: Really, the only time you go watch cartoons on probably like ABC or one of the three networks that you would see these commercials.
Jason: That's exactly right. Yeah.
Chris: But you had a very high level of awareness to be paying attention to the things that happened between the things that you tuned in for, and seeing that, and thinking to yourself like, "Wow," because doing something in the visual arts, being a creative professional was so far away from any reality I had seen. So hats off to you for recognizing it early on.
Jason: Then, the other pivotal thing... I don't know if you've heard me talk about this. I want to make sure I'm doing fresh content for your podcast.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: But Kiss was a huge influence on me as a kid, and I joined the Kiss Army, and I painted my face. Gene Simmons spits blood. I had these blood packets. I'd run around the house. I'd buy all their albums and listen to their music, and it was, for me... I felt like I was a member of this really cool club, and I realized... I couldn't put it into words at the time, but I realized the power of branding, and community, and being part of something, and being part of a tribe, and how good they were at branding themselves. They had the Star Man and the Cat Man. They really just were... I've never seen anything like it. That was my first taste of brand building, and I wanted to be part of it. That also spurred all my love of branding and marketing.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. Also, another interesting touch point here because from my dad's side of the family, I have many uncles. It's a very big family. There's 11 of them.
Jason: Oh, wow.
Chris: One of the younger uncles, yeah, he had the Kiss album, and I remember going through the LPs and knowing... I didn't know how to put it on the record player or anything. I was just looking at it, and the images alone told a story to me that these are like aliens from another planet. They wore these high platform boots, and they're just not... They're not human. They're otherworldly. I remember talking to my cousins like, "I don't know what these guys are." We started telling stories about them. So that is very much the power of branding and storytelling, and that you can look at a single image, and it starts to connote something.
Jason: Yeah, that's right. You knew there was more behind it.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: They wrote their own mythologies of their characters, and they always appeared in character. They stuck to that story, and before Kiss was Kiss, which... They have 30 gold albums. They're massively successful. They were playing in dive bars in New York, and no one was coming to see them when they were just like ugly dudes from Queens. All of a sudden, they created this persona, and characters, and the story like you said, and then they blew up. I think that's the power of storytelling, and mythology, and creating that backstory, and brands. We do that with brands. We tried to make sure that's authentic. It's not manufactured storytelling. But in their case, with a performance or band, that's permissible. You can [crosstalk] your story and create your story.
Jason: I took my kids. I have two young boys. I took them to their first concert, and it was a Kiss concert. We all painted our faces, and they hate the music. They're into hiphop, and they're like, "Dad. Dad, like it's fun to be here and watch them spit fire, but like I want to go home."
Chris: Right, right.
Jason: The end, but now, I made it so like their first concert, they have to tell their friends, was a Kiss concert.
Chris: You've done the Kiss Army proud on that one.
Jason: I did.
Chris: Now, I know you're critical of their music ability, but you're a great admirer of their branding and how the Army supported them and got them to those 30 gold albums.
Jason: Yeah, I think their music is terrible. Well, I didn't really know it. I was so immersed in the culture and the stories, and I would read... I'd buy comic books about them and read them. My lunchbox was a Kiss lunchbox. I didn't really... The music was secondary. It was the mythology and the story, and those images that you reacted to, they're so powerful. That's really what drew me to them, and the music was not the main focus for me.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, you talked a lot about story.
Chris: We're talking about someone else's story, but I would like to spend a little time on your story.
Jason: Yeah, [crosstalk].
Chris: What's going to be confusing to my audience listening to this is, how does a guy who wants to do this... Okay. So you got the economics degree for your parents. So you checked that off the list. How do you go from that to getting into being a production company in the visual arts because that's a pretty big gap there?
Jason: Yeah. So I knew I had this entrepreneurial spirit. I knew I wanted to be in the industry, and so my first part of my career was working at different agencies and different production houses to learn different aspects of the career, so I could really figure out what I wanted to create. So a lot of entrepreneurs, they want to start right away like, "I want to do my own thing," right from the beginning.
Jason: My path was a little bit different where I knew I wanted to do my own thing, but I knew I had to get my sea legs underneath me, and I needed to know what I wanted to build, what I responded to. So I learned from different bosses, and managers, and coaches, and places what I loved, and I would always keep a journal of different things that... "I don't like this. I love this," and I would keep that for years and years to really form what I wanted to do. Then, jumping to production company, which was the first company prior to Mekanism that I started. That was really trying to create white space in the industry and create something that had been done before. So I created a company that would create long-formed TV shows for brands, and then they would sell the ad space in between that content. So they'd basically get free content and then sell ad space because it was branded content. So it was light. It wasn't like advertising.
Then, the brand would get 44 minutes instead of a 30-second ad. So that was my approach, and I thought that was new. I learned that from working at other places about what wasn't being done. I did that for about two years and quickly burned out on it because I had... I don't know when you started your different businesses. I didn't have any partners, and without partners, I burned out over those two years rather quickly because you're coming up with the concepts, you're doing the production, you're doing the invoicing, you're pitching the idea, you're packaging it up. That was fun for six months, and then the other year and a half, I was just running on fumes. So the second incarnation, second company was really about joining with partners and dividing up roles which... It's been 15 years. That's sustainable. The thing on your own, for me... Some people thrive on it. For me, it wasn't sustainable.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So I think the first company was... Was that Plan C and then now Mekanism, right?
Jason: Yeah, Plan C. You really went deep.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: You went deep. You went into the dark web to find out all this stuff.
Chris: I did. I use this platform called LinkedIn. I just looked at your bio there. That's how I figured it out.
Jason: Oh, right. Okay. I have heard of it. Yeah, I've heard.
Jason: Wait. I have a question for you.
Jason: Did you start your different sort of incarnations by yourself?
Chris: Yeah. I've always been... Well, I shouldn't say that. I started my company in 1995 doing motion graphics, and I got start because one of my uncle's business partners was one... He created hotel chains, so he's like, "I need a design company. Do you want to start this?" That was the impetus for me to start. Ultimately, that dissolved really quickly, and I've been mostly on my own since then.
Jason: That's great, and that works, but I guess you bring in other talent in areas that you, yeah, need.
Chris: Yeah, and I'll tell you why.
Chris: I know exactly what you're talking about, what you're going through. It is a...
Chris: To be an entrepreneur is a really lonely, thankless endeavor where you're carrying the weight of everything on you, and it's a lot to do. So the impulse to like, "I need to have a partner," I've tried it. It just hasn't worked for me because I think and work on a different frequency, and then I bring up partners. It seems like we agree at the beginning, and then it just falls apart almost immediately. So I've made a promise to myself no more partners. I've tried many times, and I've failed.
Jason: Well, you know yourself. With a partnership, because we're talking about Kiss, and fans, and music, it is like a band. We're fortunate that our band has survived, but there's always some type of conflict, and there's always... People need different strengths, or it won't work. But just like most... I mean, Kiss is still together for the most part. I think they stopped touring, but most bands aren't The Rolling Stones. They break up.
Chris: Right. They do break up.
Jason: They break up like The Beatles, like almost any... Led Zeppelin. Any band you can think of, it's very hard for those partnerships, and business is like that. It's hard for partnerships to grow together and not grow apart.
Jason: But we're fortunate, so knock on wood.
Chris: Yeah. So I want to circle back to something because I want to make sure. So a guy with an economics background starts getting... You get your foot in the door at a variety of production companies and agencies just doing whatever so that you can get enough of experience and skills? Is what how you did it?
Jason: Yeah, that's how I did it. Yeah.
Chris: Do you think in 2021, that's still possible for somebody to do that, or was that an opportunity and a reflection of the time?
Jason: There's always cycles where the economy is bad. It's hard to get a job. It's hard to start.
Jason: But my advice would be for people that are starting now. If they know what they want to do or they know the industry they want to get into, don't be so picky. Don't be so picky like, "I want to be a creative director, so I have to start doing this job," or, "I want to be executive producer, so I'm going to start doing X job." The trick is just to get some experience and get in the door somewhere. Don't be so precious about... because I started at shops that I maybe didn't want to work at or I was doing jobs that I felt like wasn't right for me. But my advice is just get started, and don't be so picky, and let that momentum start rolling because the hardest thing about breaking in really to any industry is that first step. If you can do that first step, that's the most important thing.
My advice for people that are entrepreneurs or starting companies, it's the same thing. When we started Mekanism, we would do work for companies. We'd pitch ideas, and then we'd make them on our own time because we needed to get case studies. We needed our brand associated with big brands so we can get real money, and so that idea of like just get started. Just do stuff. Don't worry about, "I got to be paid X amount." Keep it scrappy, make ideas, build case studies, and get going. I think that's an important lesson that I learned early on.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). In a post-COVID world where everything is back to "normal," what does somebody who isn't classically trained to do a role that you currently have in your company? What does that person need to do to get your attention?
Jason: So if they're looking to break in for a specific job or any job?
Chris: Yeah. Just they want to get their foot in the door in your company, your agency, what would they need to do to get your attention?
Jason: Well, I think two things, sort of be... because it's very hard to find... Make sure there's an opening. Look for what the opening is. Even if it's not your dream job, say that that's what you want to do because it's very hard if someone is like, "I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I'm not sure what I should..." You're like, "Well, my job isn't to figure out your career. My job is to run the company and bring people in when I need to. If you're right for this role, and you want it, and you're passionate, then great, I'll get you started." So I think clarity of what you want to do. Is there the job that's open or available for that?
Then, the other thing that I would say is do your research on the company you're reaching out to. There are so many times people reach out, and they're not even sure what clients we have, what work we've done. You can tell they're blanketing 40 companies and whoever bites that. I would never bite on that. So really, understand the person. You're like, you did research on me before this, "I looked you up." Understand the person that you're talking to, and speak to things that they're interested in or things that you can connect with them on, and share a little bit about yourself. I think that's really important way to get someone's attention and to break in.
Then, passion like, "This is a place I really want to work in. Here's why." That's another really important factor because I always ask questions like, in interviews, "Why is this the right place for you? What work have we done that stands out for you, and why? Why is that creative good? What do you think your advertising superpower is? What's you're good at that no one else is?" So I think just really putting in that time before you reach out is important.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Can you recall one time when somebody was sitting in front of you when you asked them one of these questions that they just totally blew you away with their response to one of your questions?
Jason: Well, I'd have to think about that.
Jason: But it does happen.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: It does happen. Yeah. I think it's usually maybe they've gone back in the vault of old work, and they'll bring up old work and say why that was breakthrough for the time period. That's happened a couple of times. I'm like, "Damn, they really went deep. That's impressive." But I don't know the specifics. I can't recall the specifics.
Chris: Okay. That's good.
Chris: I think it's true to what you just said. I'm paraphrasing here, but a lot of young people don't realize this. The person who's sitting there interviewing you is not a career counselor. Don't just offer up all these options. Be very specific. Be selective. Do your homework, and that's going to help you to stand out because it's insulting when people just look at you as another job opportunity and they have no passion about what they're doing nor why they're a good fit for you.
Jason: That's right, and then the other tip I think, and since we're on this topic, is look at... Don't look at it as, "I'm interviewing for jobs." Look at it as, "I'm building a network. I'm interviewing. I'm meeting these people. These are my connections. Whether I get the job or not, I can connect with this person and stay in touch with them. Maybe I'll get something down the road." But it's not, "I met Chris, and I didn't land that job. So I'm going to never talk to Chris again." It's like, "I connected with Chris. There was chemistry. I'm going to stay in touch with them. I know what he likes. I'll send him some articles. I'll give him relevant content for what he's interested in." Part of that hunt isn't, "I need to land a job." Well, yes, it is. It's hard to get jobs, but part of that hunt is, "Every person that I get in front of is part of my network. I'm building my network." That's a flip of view that I think would be really helpful for people.
Chris: Excellent. Now, you've been running your agency now for something like 15 years.
Chris: In the book, The Soulful Art of Persuasion, you talked about a story about... In the early days, you went and did this pitch for Disney. When I was reading that, I felt all the pain, the need to work, the energy.
Jason: Because you've been there, right?
Chris: I've been there many times. That's our business.
Chris: We're pitching all the time, right?
Jason: Yeah. Right.
Chris: How much love, and energy, and the money, the resource you put into this in the hopes of landing an account? Something happened there that changed the trajectory or the outcome. Can you take us at that point, share, and then maybe share some learning lessons from that moment?
Jason: Absolutely. So we were pitching very early on. We were pitching to do some work for the Disney Imagineers. If people aren't familiar, they're the creative engine behind Disney parks and resorts, and they create the ideas behind the rides for parks and resorts. They're really looked at... They're really revered at Disney because they're that creative engine, and we... But a lot of people don't know who they are, what they do, so we were creating... targeting kids this idea of creating the Imagineers and bring them to life.
So we had a connection through some contacts. My friend, Wayne Buder, and Vince Engel, we got in there and pitched together. We created a massive storybook about the Imagineers. We created comic books. We created characters. We even had a company in China manufacture these little characters called The Imagineers, and we created all these merchandise, and a partnership with Scholastic, and way we're going to create these characters. The characters were Spark, and Fable, and Rock, and Block. Rock and Block built the parks. Spark came up with the ideas for the rides. Fable wrote the stories. So there was all these really great characters to explain to kids what the Imagineers do. You get the concept.
We were meeting with the head of Parks and Resorts, and it was me and my still partner now, Tommy, who's really a creative madman, and he... When we did this whole presentation, it went really well. Then, at the end, the guy from Parks and Resorts said, "I love your presentation." Well, first of all, he said, "By the way, we own everything now, and I love your presentation. There's just one thing. I don't think the way you designed the characters are right." I was like, "Oh, that's easy. Disney, they do characters better than anyone. Of course, these were..." and I wanted to cut in and say, "Hey, these are just samples. Whatever you want to do with the characters is fine."
My partner who was younger and stubborn at the time said, "Well, this is how we envisioned it, so take it or leave it." I was trying to kick him under the table because I was sitting across from him, but my foot couldn't reach him. The head of Parks and Resorts got up. All of his assistants followed him out, and we never heard from them again, and that was it. That was months of work, and blood, sweat, and tears, and we were right there. We were right there to get it, and which at the time would have been a lot of money for our company and could really put us on the map. So Tommy and I had a couple drinks at the hotel that night, and I think we finished off a bottle of vodka together.
What we learned from that was preparation is really important. We hadn't prepared for questions they were going to ask. We weren't collaborating enough of the actual meeting. We were working up to the meeting, but we weren't going through and rehearsing what might happen in that meeting. That preparation, that rehearsal time, when you're going into game time, missing that costs us millions of dollars. That's a salient takeaway for me is you really have got to prepare more than you think you need to at big moments.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, in the book, you have these four anchors about that. You've broken them into sub-chapters like the 11 habits that will make anyone a master of influence. You talked a lot about empathy and collaboration. It seems like that lesson becomes the early seed of your philosophy where we weren't collaborative in our attitudes towards this, right?
Jason: Yeah. Yeah, that's really what I... Yeah, that was the big turning point. That was a big moment for me that we hadn't collaborated about what might happen, and we hadn't gotten on the same page. We were both doing our thing, coming together for the presentation, and that idea of collaboration and collaborating with the client.
Jason: You saying, "Hey, yeah. Of course, you're Disney. Yeah, we'll follow your lead. We'll work with you on it." That was the other big point of learning that clients and people that you work for want it to be a shared idea. They don't want to just buy your idea. They want to feel like you're joining forces and creating it together.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). They want to have some creative input or ownership with you, and it's probably a little easy for them to buy off on it.
Jason: They want to feel like they're making it with you, and that has been a philosophy. Collaboration is one of our key tenants and mechanism where we want to roll up our sleeves with our clients and really partner with them. That, that meeting created that philosophy. Yeah.
Greg: Time for a quick break, but we'll be right back with more from Jason Harris.
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Greg: Welcome back to our conversation with Jason Harris.
I got to ask you this question. I don't get the opportunity to speak to many people at your level doing what it is that you do. When you go to present a big idea that your team has worked on, whether it's a pitch or it's already an account that you have, and they're not seeing the things that you see, how strong are you in saying... Do you see it as your job to convince them with the idea, or is it you have to be more flexible than that?
Jason: Well, I think we try to convince and push the idea through insights and maybe data, maybe research, so that that leads up to presenting the idea, "This is the audience. We research with the audio. This is what they care about," or pull stats, but you try to go in with the math leading into the idea. So by the time they see the idea in their head, it's mapped out logically, it makes sense to them, and they're expecting. It's almost like you build up the tension, and the release is the idea. The release is, "This is the problem. The audience cares about this. This is the issue that we need to solve. This is what's happening, and here's our way of solving it." So when you present it that way, it is usually... You get a much better result than not building that story before you present the idea and creating that tension and release. That's one way to do it, but we're never going to shove an idea down someone's throat. It's all subjective, what we do.
Jason: If they like it, that's great. If they don't like it, we'll come up with other ideas, but we always present four ways in so that something... and we won't present anything we don't like, but they'll always see something in there that they'll gravitate towards in.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now, I think we've seen dramatized versions of this exact process in a series like Mad Men where Don Draper walks in. He's like, "Hershey already has the best logo and the best billboard ever," and then he said, "I could spot this, and we will never change that." So he creates the tension. Okay, we get that. Is there a moment or a story that you can share in a very practical sense, "Here's how we created tension on this very specific project, and then this was the release to the tension?"
Jason: Yeah. Let me think about that.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: I mean, we're working on a... I can't give you the exact idea or the concept, but we're working right now on a vaccine campaign to try to get the public because there's about 40% of the population that doesn't want to take the vaccine and they're skeptics.
Jason: So we're working on a campaign right now. We just actually presented yesterday, and the way we would build up that tension for that idea,, for example, is we would talk about, "Here's the problem. The problem is this target demo is not willing to think about the vaccine because..." I'm actually trying to find what I'm talking about here so I can give you...
Chris: Take your time. Take your time.
Jason: Yeah, so I can give you the actual insight of what the enemy or the tension is. So we'll say for the vaccine example, "There's a lot of hesitancies across different audiences and communities. The overall hesitancy is there's a mistrust of the efficacy of the vaccine and that it's dangerous, that it's not safe," and we'll put in a bunch of stats about why it was developed quickly. People don't think it was thoroughly tested. They think that maybe the warp speed line doesn't really help.
Chris: Right. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: There's this... a lot of skepticism. There's COVID disbelievers. There are system doubters because the systems always been against them. Maybe they're disenfranchised communities or they're anti-vaxxers, vaccine skeptics, so those are... That's the tension that we'll set up, and so then we will pay it off with, "Here's a campaign that shows the way it was made and the safety, the efficacy of... It's 95% effective and why, and we'll lay out a campaign that answers that tension of there's so much mistrust of efficacy and safety that 40% of population won't take it." So we'll set that tension up, and then release it with the answer to that tensions. Does that help paint it?
Chris: Yeah. Absolutely.
Chris: Because it's safe to assume that many people listening to this aren't nearly at the level of business that you're at, and so I want make sure they can understand this, so they can apply it with the mom-and-pop businesses they're probably servicing and who they're working with so that... This is a key idea. Most times, people just run into the meetings like, "Here's my brilliant thing that I did without you, without listening to you, without looking, without researching." But what you're saying there is if you set it up...
Jason: Yeah, I used to do that.
Chris: Yeah, we all did it when we were younger, right? Then, we realized it didn't work.
Jason: Yeah. Yeah, right. Yeah, it doesn't ever work. Yeah.
Chris: Yeah, is to...
Jason: Yeah, the other...
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: Go ahead. No, I stepped on you.
Chris: Oh, okay. Just to say that you have the answer. You just want to make sure the client understand so you understand the problem and that what you call creating the tension is understanding the... "Here's the problem before we give you the answer."
Jason: Yeah, that's exactly right, and so I think the other thing on that is that you also want to... Before you present, right, you want to have that briefing with the client or hear what the client's needs are, and you want to write those down and quote... I like to quote clients when I present too. I'm always like, "Yeah. George, that thing you said led me to this thought," or, "Mary, you had a really interesting insight when we met about dry cleaning shops in this area are X, Y, and Z," or, "That Italian restaurant, everyone serves the same thing." Whatever it might be because we're talking mom-and-pop, right?
So to me, really listening to the client, and then playing it back to them when you present is another key idea, and then creating... You can come up with the idea first, and then work backwards, and play back the story that you're going to set up the idea with. "There's 50 Italian restaurants in the city. Some of them are known for this, or this, or this. There's a wide space here that you guys do that no one else does. We're going to play that in our advertising, or idea, or whatever." So playing back, showing that you listened, and then making sure you do that, that release and tension with building up the need to see the idea because you're solving an issue for them and doing... But you can come up with your own ideas without that part first, and then work backwards, or you can do it the other way.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: Either way, you've got to... When you're presenting, whether it's mom-and-pop or I'm presenting to Jose Cuervo, you need to... You're taking them on a journey. You've got to entertain them, and you've got to tell them a story, and it's not just like, "What do you think?"
Jason: That's really important.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: When you think about it, at any scale, if you're a freelancer, if you're presenting logos, or ideas, or concepts, whatever, you're probably the best part of that person's day, and so you've got to make it enjoyable and entertaining, and wow them with some story because they're looking forward it, and you can't really fall flat. You have to really build it up.
Chris: That's a good observation I've not heard before, and I think it's worth noting that all the drudgery that they're dealing with, they're probably really looking forward to this amazing visual presentation that you're putting together.
Chris: So make it enjoyable for them, even though it might have been painful for you to birth the idea, but it's not that way for the other person.
Jason: Yeah. That's exactly right.
Chris: As an admin, I think of advertising people as the people who come up with the big ideas that ultimately have done well, shape and shift culture. I just reflected to shape culture, and you've been talking about ideas and stories, so I have a question for you. How do you know, when looking at a body of work that your team has come up with, that we nailed that idea? How do you prevent from getting lost in your own... It's called the IKEA effect. The more you work on something, the more you earn love with the thing that you make. How do you objectively look at it and recognize, "That's the winner idea. I'm proud to take that to the client?"
Jason: I mean, it's hard for me to parse that out because like you, I've put in the 10,000 hours now. So for me, I just know a winner that's going to travel when I see it, and I know the ones that don't have the legs when I see it. But one way to measure it is it... When you land on that idea, is it easy to come up with 10 more ideas off of it? Is it easy to like, "We can do this. We can do that with it. We can do this with it. We can do that with it?" If it doesn't have the leg test and it just is like, "Well, here's the idea. I'm not sure what else we can do with it," that's usually not going to be a winning idea. The idea has to really birth a lot of new ideas and new thoughts because it's the right idea. That's when you know you have a winner, and that's one good test of a winning idea, I would say.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you're thinking like campaigns, extensions, and everything else. If the idea is generative, it's making more ideas for you, then you're on to something. If it's dead end, then perhaps that's a sign that that's not where to go.
Jason: That's not where to go, and the other test is writing a PR headline. If the press saw this idea, what would they write about the idea? "First ever new X." "A twist on," blank. What would they write to put it in press for people to read. If you can't think of a PR headline for your idea, that is probably not a big idea. It's probably not big enough, but I... My philosophy is pretty simple when it comes to ideas, which is I always follow three key things. One, it has to be simple. Our job, in whatever area of marketing you're in, our job is to make the complex simple and not have to create tons of different executions to explain what we're trying to say. So simplify is really important, number one.
The second is consistency. You need to make sure the idea can stand the test of time and not, "Here's an idea. Here's another idea. Here's another idea," because you can't build great brands by always changing the story. The story has to be consistent. Then, the third is, will it travel? Can I build community around it? Can people get involved with the idea? I always talk about involvement marketing. Is there a way for people to spread it, or add to it, or post it, or do their own thing? That helps the idea travel because you let your audience or your community take that idea and add to it. You're not here to like push the ideas out. That's old-school. You need to invite people in and figure out how they're going to interact with the idea. So always look for that checklist. Is it simple? Can it be consistent over time, and then how do we involve the audience with it?
Jason: Was that helpful?
Chris: Yeah, that was really good. Thanks.
Jason: Okay. Cool.
Chris: You said you didn't have it, but then you just summed it up right there. It was great.
Chris: Okay. I looked at some of the work that your agency has done. It's pretty forward-thinking. It involves the audience. It lives up to these three criteria.
Jason: Sometimes it is. Yeah, sometimes.
Chris: So I have a question for you. It's like, what is Mekanism good that maybe a stodgy or more old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy agency doesn't get and how they're not keeping up with the times? How do you see yourself positioned in the market relative to some of these agencies that have been around forever?
Jason: The best thing about the company is we can always shed our skin. We can always rebirth the company, and so we've pivoted the company four or five times. It's all cliché, but it's all true. If you're not involved, then you're dying is accurate, and so when we started the company, we were a digital production company. Then, we were a viral marketing company. Then, we were an influencer marketing company. Then, we were a full-service agency, and then we changed our positioning as a full-service agency over time. Now, we really are standing for the intersection of creativity and performance. So big brand building ideas that can be measured and tracked for success, and that really changed during COVID because clients are looking over every dollar they spend now because times are different, and weird, and tight, and the money is not free flowing like it was, and so we had to pivot again.
So I think being... no matter what size you are or if you're a solo entrepreneur or working for a company, it's about being nimble, and evolving, and never being static, which is very uncomfortable, and it's very hard to do because if you're successful, you're like, "Let's just keep doing this," but it's like... MTV was run by sales teams. They made piles of money for years and years. They were still around, and then with the advent of social, they never changed. They stayed in a static state and like, who talks about MTV anymore?
Jason: If they had constantly been evolving and not just chasing, "This is what works for the money today," if you look at the long haul, they'd be making way more money over the longterm over decades, and decades, and decades versus having a shorter lifespan because they never changed. They never evolved.
Chris: Right. You just reminded me of like what used to be pretty influential in shaping youth culture. Now, it's like I haven't thought of MTV in years.
Jason: I know. I know.
Chris: So weird.
Jason: It's so weird, right?
Jason: I mean, when I was growing up, it was like... I loved MTV.
Chris: It was everything. That was your source, right, for all kinds and genres of music.
Jason: Yeah, that was the shit. And styles of clothes.
Chris: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
Jason: Yeah, it was everything.
Chris: They're really groundbreaking because they also, I think with... Is it Real World was the first reality TV program ever or something like that?
Jason: That's right. It was. Yeah.
Chris: Yeah, so groundbreaking stuff.
Jason: They did do that, and then they came out with all these other shows like that show.
Jason: But they never really... Sure, they have adapted and innovated-ish, but they never evolved enough to maintain their relevancy over time.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). A conversation that sparks a lot of debate is advertising is relevancy in the modern era where social media and things that we can verify are pretty easy to do. Is advertising thriving pre-COVID? Are we in a state of decline relative to its heyday?
Jason: Yes and no is how I'd answer that. I think the way we typically think of advertising and advertising agencies is not the same. There's a lot of brands that are in-housing and building their own departments, but I think we're in a new heyday where there is so many platforms, so many ways to market, so many devices that we are in a renaissance in a way where you still need to get your message out. There are just many different avenues to take. There's influencer marketing. There's owning your own platform. There's still traditional advertising. There's still innovation through online and whatever the next platform might be or the next community that's popping up. So I think there's... I don't think it will ever go away, but it's thriving for people that... Same comment. It's thriving for those that understand what the needs are out there, and they have to just keep staying frosty. So I think it's thriving for some, but it's dying for others.
Chris: Yeah. Okay. So in your crystal ball, if we're looking forward to say like even just 2025, the agencies that do this will be quite successful, what is this?
Jason: Okay. 2025 is four years from now?
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: I think if you can measure success, if you can measure the work that you're doing, you're going to be just fine. If you are putting work out there, and then waiting for your client to tell you if it worked or not, I don't think you're going to survive.
Chris: Fair enough. Okay. We don't have that much time left, but I want to just briefly talk about the book a little bit here because there are some ideas in there.
Chris: The book is called The Soulful Art of Persuasion, and even the title tells you a lot about your lens and perspective. There's an art to this, and then there's something with alignment with your beliefs and values. That's the soulful part, and it's broken down into four main parts, which is original, generous, empathetic, and soulful. So the one part I want to get in here is the original part. There's something that you say in the book. Let's see here. Here it is, page 35. "The goal is to get to a place where the things you do and say reflect the real you." I look at you. I get a sense that you're as true and as authentic on this conversation as you are in your everyday life as much as a person can be.
Jason: Well, thank you. That's a big compliment.
Chris: How does one person get there?
Jason: Well, it certainly took time for me, but there's... One big technique that we touched on at the beginning of the podcast was storytelling, and I think learning to be a great storyteller is a fundamental building block in being yourself and being original, and trying to... Those stories can be a book you like. It can be a movie you like. It can be personal stories of your journey or your life growing up, things that impacted you, both good and bad. Having those already and calling on those when you're trying to express a point of view to someone, that's really an important tool. So I think practicing telling your story or things that interest you is really important. Then, the other important one is really sticking to your uniqueness, what makes you you and under... First, you have to know yourself, to know thyself, right?
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: You need to know what you're into, what you believe, what your idiosyncrasies are, and then express those, and don't put those in the background and hide them away. That's another really important one. Whatever you're into, whether you think people are going to think it's weird... I mean, not whatever like, obviously, illegal stuff, but whatever those are, play them up. Talk about why you love chess. Talk about why you collect snow globes. Talk about why... Why do you play the bass? Why do you play the cello? What does it mean to you? Build those up. Why you love Star Trek? Why do you watch every episode of Star Trek?
Instead of thinking people are going to be turned off by that or laugh at you, really figure out why that's something... What does that mean to you, and why? Who are you? Try to be vulnerable enough to express that because what you'll find is people will relate to that and connect with you because you were able to talk about something that you love, and why you did it, and what it means to you. Then, they'll respond with something that they might not be comfortable sharing normally, and that creates connection. So that's two big themes that I believe in.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, before I ask you this, the next question, I just want to describe for people who obviously can't see this is that Jason has a very distinctive look. He's bearded, and he wears these really thick black glasses. He's got some beads around his hand. He's got a Rolex on the other hand. He's got a scarf with daggers or swords all over it, and he talked about Kiss from the jump. So you get a real sense of who he is. He's not hiding that. He's putting it on display.
Chris: The question I have for you...
Jason: By the way, I love your glasses.
Chris: Yeah. Oh, thank you. Nearsighted folks, we pay attention to each other's glasses like...
Chris: Some people do it out of necessity. Some people put a little style and flavor on it, and obviously, you do. It's the first thing you notice as soon as you see you.
Jason: Yeah. Who makes those?
Chris: These ones are Yves Saint Laurent.
Jason: Oh, damn, dawg.
Jason: You can tell they're pricey because they're really well-designed.
Chris: Thank you.
Jason: Yeah. All right. You must be selling a lot of podcast ads.
Chris: Okay, so...
Jason: Anyway. Sorry. That was good.
Chris: Yeah. The question I have for you is this is, assuming that you weren't just born fully confident, self-aware, in love with your true self, what point in your life do you feel brave enough to like, "You know what? Screw it. This is who I am, and I can only be this person?" What was the trigger? Was there an inciting incident that helped you become that person?
Jason: Well, it certainly was a journey, and it's in... I wrote this book in my 40s for a reason because I had enough time and philosophy behind me to really be able to put these beliefs down into the book. So this wasn't a book I wrote in my teens or 20s, right?
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason: So age obviously helps. It gets easier and easier as you get older because you give an F a lot less as you get older.
Jason: That's one, one thing. But that being said, for me, my first year of college, because I transferred schools in my sophomore year of college, was a transformative year for me that set me on my journey of getting to know myself. I mean, do you have time for the personal story?
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Jason: I'll make it quick, but I went from a high school environment where I knew everyone, I fit in, I felt accepted. Then, my first year of college, I didn't know anyone. I was shy. I didn't relate to the people that were around me. I hid. I hid stuff, like I wasn't comfortable about myself. I acted differently. I tried to blend in. People have really good bullshit detectors, and they can tell when you're not being yourself. That's like a way to really fail, and it was a year of pretty... I was pretty depressed for that whole year of school, and I couldn't find my way.
So it made me realize what I'm doing is not working, and what I need to start doing is caring less, being more myself, and maybe by not fitting in, that will create more success for me. That's exactly what happened. So it was going through a dark period to get out the other side to realize... "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken," is a life mantra that anyone needs to live by, and it's really empowering. It might not be like, "Oh, I'm going to be wildly popular and everyone is going to like me. Birds are going to be singing and the skies will open up."
Jason: But you'll be comfortable in your own skin, and whatever happens, happens, and you won't be faking it. That was my... a big turning point for me. I had to go through a year of pretty bad depression of not fitting in, not feeling like I had friends, really feeling left out, not being comfortable with who I was to get to the other side of it. I had to go through it to come out the other side and start living that way.
Chris: Yeah. There's so much that you're saying that I relate to. It resonates with me. The mythology of this is like Bruce Wayne falling into Lazarus Pit. His spine is broken. He goes a dark place. He tries to climb out. He failed so many times, but he finds the courage, and he's one of the few people who's able to escape.
Chris: Sometimes that darkness, actually, if you have the right mindset to it, can propel you into the light.
Jason: They can.
Chris: Then, you start to know like, "I don't like being that person or being in that dark space. I'm going to reinvent myself."
Chris: Something you said, caring less. 100%. That's it because too many of us are so busy spending all our time, energy, and attention on catering to what other people want from them that we have so little to know ourselves, to be ourselves.
Jason: Yeah, yeah. I think when you care about what people think... and that's assuming you're kind, and a nice person, and not an asshole, and all that. But when you care so much about what others think about you or pleasing others, you start to lose yourself every time you do that. So it's very hard when you're in a dark place, and you're spinning, and you have a pit in your stomach, and you feel lost. It's very hard to muster... be like, "Oh, I'll just be myself. I will be so breezy like, 'Oh, yeah.'" But it's a process, and if you spend the time and energy, and really have that mindset, it will take time, but it is totally possible to... the knot in your stomach will start to loosen. You'll start to sleep better at night. You'll meet a couple people that connect with you that have the same interests as you, and you build it from there, but it's really not easy.
Chris: Great. I want to be mindful of your time. I want to ask you in a little bit like how people get in touch with you.
Chris: But in case you just joined this conversation, guys, I want to let you know Jason has written a book. It's called The Soulful Art of Persuasion. Now, you would think as an admin, this is all straight up marketing. It's not. It's really... In the words of other people who've reviewed the book, David Stever said, "This is a business book about karma." Ryan Holiday, who I look up, says, "Nobody knows more about the art of selling ideas than you." Lewis Howe says, "This book will help you uncover your authentic self." So there's a lot of business real-world experience mixed in with some real, I guess, soulful woo-woo stuff in it, but it's a really nice balance that you're able to put in the book. So hats off to you for this book.
Chris: You guys, if you've enjoyed the conversation, be sure you go check out that book, but how do people find out more about you and get in touch with what you're doing?
Jason: Thesoulfulart.com is my website. Company's website is Mekanism, M-E-K-A-N-I-S-M.com, and then you can follow me, @jason_harris, on all the channels where you would find people. Twitter.
Chris: Yeah. Where are you...
Jason: Twitter, Instagram, et cetera.
Chris: Where are you most active in terms of social media yourself?
Jason: Instagram is more personal, and then work stuff is LinkedIn and Twitter, so.
Chris: LinkedIn and Twitter? Okay.
Jason: Yeah. I'm really active on LinkedIn. I don't know if your audience is, but it's...
Chris: Yes, they are.
Jason: Yeah. Good. Yeah. So that's really where I'm posting usually daily a lot of thoughts and ideas.
Chris: Okay. Great. Well, thank you very much for doing this with me. I enjoyed the conversation, and I've watched your other videos. I was trying to find other things to talk about, so thank you for doing this.
Jason: Well, you did. I never talked about my depression part. That was very unique. So I definitely think you took a really good angle. You went more personal than philosophy on the book, which I appreciate.
Chris: Yeah, because there's an... Everybody that is interested in this, and you're listening to this like, "Hey, I want more of that," just search on YouTube or search on Google. You're going to find tons of stuff where Jason really talks about the ideas that are in the book. Like I said, the book is broken into I think 11 main chapters. Four of which are built around the idea of being original, being generous, being empathetic, and being soulful. The intersection of all these things is I think where the magic is.
Jason: Yeah. Perfect. Well, I appreciate it. Thanks, Chris. It was awesome. I am Jason Harris, and you are listening to The Futur.
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