What’s up everyone, my name is Jason Peterson. I am 48 years old and the Chief Creative Officer of an advertising agency called Havas. I’ve been a creative person my entire life.
How was life growing up?
Life growing up was interesting. I had a typical white trash American upbringing. My mom gets mad when I say that. My parents divorced when I was 13 years old. I was born in a small suburb out of Cleveland Ohio. My parents were caring, awesome, second generation immigrants in America. We grew up with nothing. I could tell you what government cheese tastes like.
When did you first begin to witness you had creative talents?
I got into creativity through music. I was into first generation new wave music. I loved Adam and The Ants, Generation X, and all these new wave bands. I liked the really weird videos that would show up late at night. My older stepbrother at the time was transitioning from the metal scene to the early punk rock/hardcore scene. He wanted me to stop listening to new wave and start listening to sex pistols and early first generation punk rock. I was living in the suburbs of Cleveland and discovered this whole hardcore/punk rock scene that was emerging in Cleveland. It was this crazy, raw energy that I was addicted to. Immediately, I started listening to college radio and recording every episode figuring out who all these bands were. I remember hearing Bad Brains – Pay To Come on the radio and my mind was blown. I would get my older friends to drive me to record stores in downtown Cleveland. One day we were going to see Black Flag play, right when Henry Rollins joined the band. I was in the record store and they said Black Flag was going to be there before the show and I got to have a 40-minute conversation with him. After that, I started writing for a lot of early music publications. I started writing for Alternative Press, which ended up becoming huge. Shortly after that, when I was 15, we moved to Phoenix, Arizona. While living in Arizona and attending shows, I started making relationships with a ton of people. What I ended up doing was creating and designing flyers for the shows I attended. I discovered my art and creativity through that. I eventually started a band and we ended up touring the country.
How did you then start getting involved with photography?
I’ve shot photos everyday since I was 13 years old. I’ve always had a camera. My stepdad had this old Pentax that he gave me for photo class. Photography, art, design, and printmaking were the classes I exceled in. Photo was always the one I liked the most. It wasn’t until digital photography when things started to explode for me.
Did graphic design lead you to advertising?
I designed for all the flyers and record covers for my band. At the end of the summer in 1989, I had no job and no career. My older sister was a graphic designer and was in advertising and she steered me towards advertising. I applied to get into The Art Center and was rejected from their Advertising program. It was devastating. My other good friend got into their photography program and we had planned to go at the same time. I eventually got accepted into their Graphic Design program, but I didn’t want to be a graphic designer, I wanted to be in advertising. Around this time, Nike had their first revolutionary creative work. It was game changing for advertising. You would see their TV commercials and see that it was a work of art. Those commercials moved me and that’s when I realized I wanted to be apart of. I ended up selling everything I had and moved down to Atlanta to attend Portfolio center. It was a two year program, but I finished the entire program in one year.
What was your first job you had in advertising?
Coming out of school, my mother was working for an airline at the time. The one perk I had was I had free airline flights… if I flew standby. I started flying around the country trying to see every job there was. I wanted to work for Wieden + Kennedy in Portland more than anything because they were the agency creating Nikes commercials. My brother was living in Portland at the time and I flew out there and sat on the doorstep of Wieden + Kennedy asking for a job. They ended up giving me a freelance job and I was there for around four months. It was a great company… I just realized I couldn’t live in Portland. I wanted to live in a big city. I ended up landing my first job in Chicago as an Art Director at Arian, Lowe, & Travis. I did a poster campaign for the Moody Bible Institute summer picnic that won a bunch of awards in Chicago.
How did you first meet Andy Berlin?
Scott Burns, one of the biggest freelancers in the world at the time saw the poster and thought it was amazing. He was living in New York City at the time and was starting up Berlin Wright Cameron with Andy Berlin. They reached out to me to join their team as their first Art Director. I was in Chicago for just over a year and moved to NYC in 1992. I was the lead Art Director on Volkswagen Business for BWC. That’s when I started rolling. I had made 100 Volkswagen commercials in a year and a half. I was all in. I learned about film production, tv production, and how to make narrative story telling work. That really started my relationship with Andy Berlin. We ended up losing Volkswagen, but ended up getting some opportunities with Coca-Cola, and specifically with Coke in Japan. I was 26 years old and became the Creative Director of the agency. I was running the Coca-Cola business for BWC in Japan. A little while later, I became the founding partner of Berlin Cameron.
You are one who has studied the history of photography for quite sometime, with some of your biggest influences being Harry Callahan and Stanley Kubrick. How important is it in any medium to go back and do your research and history?
I think that’s the most critical piece. People ask about my work all the time and it’s rooted in what I know about photography. Being an art director, I was always a photo historian and had the craziest library at home. Every book had photo references that I could take and go to clients and say hey, I want to do this campaign and have it look like this.
When people think of social media, the perception is young and millennials. How were you able to conquer the art/strategy of social media?
I knew about advertising and marketing and figured it out. The things that were going to succeed on social were things that are solid and stand for something. Great creative work, whether it’s art, music, or photography, it makes you feel something. When you see it or feel it, it takes you somewhere. When I got on Instagram I wanted to create a feed of photography that was going to take you somewhere. The whole Follow me into the dark was my brand, it came from a death cab for cutie song, but it also came from my love for dark, deep, rich photography. Every photo I posted was always around dark and mysterious things. Knowing photography and understanding composition, I was like look, Instagram was only square at the time, and I thought to myself, how do I make this look and feel bigger than 2×2. It was always a study of scale. That’s why in a lot of my early images you would see a little person, bike or a tree. I always looked to take this giant scale and make it feel big on this tiny phone. This was during the early days of Instagram when people were posting photos of their coffee or jumping in the air, I thought, I didn’t want to do any of that. I was going to do it my way and that’s how I started to create a brand and personality. Once I got to 10k followers, I then got to 20k followers overnight. The floodgates opened up. Instagram discovered me and gave me a foot up early on. They featured my photos and did a feature on me.
You’ve been able to spend a lot of time in New York City, but have now been in Chicago for the past 7 years. Do you think Chicago has what it takes to be a major cultural city?
When I was living in New York, I lived in downtown Manhattan before it became overpriced and nobody could live there. Before that, I also lived in Soho when Soho was dangerous. I was always deeply rooted in New York City. My POV on Chicago, was that it was a second New York City. When I came to Havas, I had the opportunity to run the agency from a creative mindset. I was able to paint the walls, hire the receptionist, lead the culture, and the work. When I arrived in Chicago, I was worried that it wasn’t going to be cool. I was 100% wrong. Chicago is the coolest most creative culture in America, if not the world. There are no other cities that compare to the creativity, art, music, fashion, design, food, and culture, than Chicago.
One thing you do better than anybody else is recruit the youngest and freshest talent the city has to offer. How do you stay up to date so much on whom could possibly be next?
I hire people based on three things. I only hire nice people. I don’t hire dicks. I don’t want any assholes working here. I also look for optimism and ambition. Negativity is a no go for me. And lastly, I believe in talent. Our industry hires the exact opposite. We hire really talented, egotistical, negative, and lazy people. That’s why I don’t hire people from advertising. People from advertising are trained and have the experience that is completely wrong from where our industry is going. Majority of the people I hire is because I go through my clout on social media. I’ll go and hangout and shoot photos and go on walks with cool and talented creative people from social media and build relationships with them. I can see if he/she is nice, talented, and has optimism. I can then take him or her and show them a whole other career goal. I hand curate and hire people based on that. I think it’s now been around 40 people that have come from that realm. Not just content creators, but strategists, account managers, project managers, etc. It’s not just the recruiting process we have here in Chicago, but our offices all over.
Talk about this quote, “Every hire I make is with the intention of turning a creative into a creator.”
Our industry is set up and operating on the same model started by Bill Bernbach in the 1960’s. He took an Art Director from the art studio and a Copywriter from a copy studio and put them together and said you’re going to be a team and create advertising for a client. We have been operating on that same motto for 50 years. I want to break that motto. I want to move from being creatives (ideas, art directors, copywriters) to being creators. There’s a huge difference. I don’t want to be a traditional agency. I want to be Casey Neistat. I want us to have the ability to have an idea, make the idea, and here it is.
Lets talk about two historic nights. 1) Shooting Obama’s Farewell Speech 2) Reaching 1 million followers
Rob Wilce and a couple other people invited me out by the guy who is head digital for Obamas staff to go to Barack’s farewell speech to shoot photos. Duncan, is the guy, he is the nicest, most accommodating dude, he was excited that I was there, took me backstage and showed me around. During this time, I started to realize the weight of it by the environment of everyone coming in. We all knew that this impending awfulness was coming our way. That night was a time to celebrate Obama and his 8 years in office. There was so much compassion and optimism, even though this gloomy thing was about to happen. While I’m walking around backstage, I’m looking around and I see the chairs and on it says “Michelle Obama” and I just remember thinking, wow, in 15 minutes Michelle is going to be sitting right here. I got clearance through secret service and then got asked where I want to shoot Obama from. I then asked if I could meet him and they were like no, you cannot meet him. They ended up positioning me in the key position. I was 12 feet away, center stage, right next to his official photographer. Obama finally came out and I was shooting on my SL. I got this one image of Obama crying and all of a sudden I realized I was crying. I paused and stopped taking photos for a few minutes and thought, man, this is a landmark. I also took my first selfie with Anderson Cooper that same night.
It was cool and crazy to hit that number. It was a bigger deal to me to get verified on Instagram. Thanks to them for doing that. It’s less about followers to me. It’s more about the positive reinforcement that I get. I read every single comment I get. I love when people are saying my work is dope. It’s not about ego. I don’t have that at all. One of my favorite moments was when we were throwing this event at The Annex and this woman came from South America to Chicago because of my photography. This woman was so excited to have her husband take a photo of her and I. That shit is mindblowing to me. I walk down the street and people recognize me for my photography. I’m telling you again, I don’t have an ego about this shit. It’s crazy and I’m humbled by it. For me to not to be humbled and acknowledge that I’d be the asshole at the party who thinks he’s too cool and I’m not like that. I’m just so happy to be here.
You’ve been able to shoot a ton of people over the years, but, if you had three people you would love to shoot in the near future. Who would they be?
Kanye is the biggest because of Chicago. Virgil hooked me up and I got to shoot his last show. Thanks to Chance and Pat for giving me access to the Coloring Book show, I got an amazing shot of Chance and Kanye walking off the stage. I would like to do a proper photoshoot with Kanye. I have crazy ideas.
I’ve shot Chance a few times. I want to shoot him again. Chance is 24 years old and is so smart. It’s weird being 48 years old and being inspired by the actions of a kid half my age.
I also want to shoot a music video. It’s something I’ve been working on doing, but not to do it in a way of just jumping on it. I’ve had opportunities but turned a lot of them down. I really want to take my aesthetic and point of view and do more of a video. It’s something I hope to do in the near future.
I also love shooting sports. I love shooting the bulls. I love shooting soccer games. It’s a good bonding experience with my son. My son is 17 years old and we’ll go to shoot the COPA games and Chicago Fire games.
When it’s all said and done how would you like to be remembered?
I think there are two things. One, I want people to remember me as someone who always gave everyone a foot up and an opportunity to do rad shit. As far as advertising goes, I want to leave a legacy behind. I want to change the model of advertising and be known for that.
Written by: Nico Rud