When social media began its rise to communications dominance in 2009/2010, Havas North America CCO Jason Peterson decided he was going to become an expert in the subject. Not only did Peterson see these platforms as opportunities to bring creative storytelling to life in new ways, but he also seized the moment to become an industry authority.
Fast forward to 2017, and Peterson now boasts one million followers of his stunning black and white photography-focused Instagram, @jasonmpeterson. Industry authority (and influencer) status achieved.
Clios.com spoke with Peterson about how he was able to turn a side gig into account-winning material and how social media is changing more than the work, but the culture of ad agencies.
How did photography enter your life?
I’ve been taking photographs my whole life — I started when I was 15 years old. Photography was always that thing that I really loved. I remember my first big job in New York; I was the head of our Volkswagen account at Berlin Cameron, so I was out shooting awesome print campaigns. I always loved working with photography and I’ve always found myself with rolls and rolls of undeveloped film, half-processed, not organized.
Describe your photography style. How has it evolved?
I have a deep photo history and knowledge. I’ve always had a massive collection of favorite photographers, so my photography is heavily influenced by classic 1950s and 1960s street photography — a lot of black and white, but also stuff that really captures human emotion or scale. Guys like Harry Callahan, or Stanley Kubrick (before he became a director) are big influences in how they capture architecture, scale and motion.
To me, a great photo is no different than a great ad. It’s the same thing in that it needs to make you feel something. My photographs are always trying to capture a real moment. I’m on this constant quest to make each image better than the last, but I think my photos always come from the same point of view.
Dec 17, 2016 at 7:28am PST
How does your work as Havas North America CCO inform your photography, and vice versa?
I love photography, but what I love more is advertising and marketing. I love figuring out how to take what’s relevant about brands and get consumers to interact and engage with us. And so I use that same expertise and say, “How do I apply that to myself?”
At Havas, we’ve developed a point of view that social media is the most important form of advertising moving forward, but it’s always kind of been that way — it’s about one-to-one communication. The advertising model that’s been really successful in the past — the TV commercial model — doesn’t work anymore. We need to ask, how do brands engage with consumers in real ways? My work on Instagram has led me to know the ins and outs of social media better than anyone in advertising: I’ve been in alpha and beta for every creative advancement Instagram has had, I’m on the creative council for Snapchat and Instagram hosted me at CES to speak to every CMO about how the platform works.
When did you get into Instagram, and how did you realize you could do something big on the platform?
I first opened an Instagram account a year after it launched. At first I thought it was a corny filter app, but then I took a photo walking home one day and posted it, and it looked amazing. I remember that night, five people I didn’t know liked it, and that’s what got me hooked — having people interact and engage with your photography is like a drug. Going from this 15-year-old kid who had tons and tons of photos and undeveloped film in his closet to having all these other people interact with my work was amazing.
Why shoot solely in black and white?
It creates a point of view and a brand. When you see one of my photos, you know it’s one of my photos. I also find that I just like it aesthetically. I like stuff that’s really pointed, specific, usually really simple. There’s also a deeper meaning behind the black and white, too: timelessness. If you think about the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, you know what the color palette is for each decade. So throughout time I can shoot an amazing black-and-white image of a Chicago train station and you won’t know if it was shot today or 40 years ago.
What doors have been opened to you because of your influencer status?
The amount of opportunity that has come from that Instagram account is insane. I’m humbled by it all the time. I was invited by the White House to shoot Obama’s farewell speech. I started crying as I was standing six feet away from Obama and shooting photos, and I thought for a second, “How did I get here?” I shoot a lot for the Chicago Bulls. I also love hip-hop and had the chance to be in the studio with Chance the Rapper shooting his Coloring Book album.
How is the use of social media is changing agency life today?
It’s a completely new reality that we’re living in. Our industry is the first to talk about innovation and change, but it’s the slowest to react and do anything about it. At Havas, we’ve been able to change our model and put social at the front of what we do and that’s reflected in our work. It’s even reflected in how I hire people. Half my creative department I’ve hired off of social media; those all-stars from Instagram, YouTube or Twitter who are amazing at creating content and concepts for themselves. For example, I posted on my personal social media channels saying, “Hey, we’re coming to Coke in Atlanta on Thursday. Come hang out with us.” We showed up and 350 people were there to talk about photography and creativity, and we recruited right there.
You can’t just act like you care about social media; you have to care about social media. When I saw Snapchat as a rising platform, I decided that as an agency we were all going to figure out how it works and know it better than anyone, so we eliminated all agency communications except through Snapchat. We announced all-agency meetings, free bagels in the kitchen, free T-shirts, everything through our Snapchat story.
How does having a personal creative passion influence your day-to-day work?
When we’ve got a big pitch or something going on, I’ll just walk out of the office for an hour and shoot photos. For me, it’s a white noise kind of thing and then I’m able to come back have clear ideas. It’s really therapeutic in a weird way. It gives me a purpose. When I’m super stressed out, I go walk around and take photos for a while. At first, people were upset that I was leaving but then they realized that if they gave me 40 minutes, I would come back with a clear head and 30 different ideas. It’s become part of my process.
Do you have a favorite photo?
One of my favorites was shot on my iPhone maybe three years ago. It was winter in New York, and I was walking through Washington Square Park when it started to snow. There was that beautiful New York night light with that crazy glow to it. Then a guy walked under the arch, and then a girl walked up, they kissed and walked off. So I got a photo of this perfect moment that almost looked staged of a couple kissing under the arch while it’s snowing with this beautiful light. It’s my favorite because it’s a real moment.