A Sponsored Initiative

Leading with Creativity for Social Impact

Contributor: Ali Ahmed

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Jason Harris, President and CEO of an award-winning creative agency called Mekanism, which works with brands to create shareable and provocative campaigns. His methods have been covered by Harvard Business School, and under his leadership his agency has been profiled by The New York Times and ABC’s NIGHTLINE. Friedman and Harris discussed the nature of leading a firm of creative people in ways that produce positive economic and social impact.

Stew Friedman: Mekanism?

Jason Harris: jason harris 2Mekanism is spelled with a “k” because when we went to register it, the “ch” was taken. So, it doesn’t have a very weighted story. Except now it’s a “k” and we love it.

SF: What do you love about the “k”?

JH: People think there’s a mythology behind Mekanism with the “k”, but I just spilled the beans. That’s all we have.

SF: That’s it? No “ch” was available?

JH: When you work with a lot of partners, it’s hard to come up with a name everyone likes. We couldn’t change the name, so we changed the spelling.

SF: So, that’s the creativity, right? Adjusting to what’s available and using it the best you can.

JH: Yeah, using jujitsu and being flexible. And now we are thrilled it doesn’t have a “ch”.

SF: Why is that?

JH: When you’re doing radio interviews you now have to spell it out. That’s the number one reason. That’s the primary reason.

SF: It has a kind of unique value.

So tell us about Mekanism. You are known for working at the cutting-edge of innovation and new markets and using new media. How did you get started?

JH: I always knew I wanted to be in advertising since I was 12 or 13, which is very strange. I watched a lot of TV. I really liked TV. And I realized there were these fun, entertaining shorts in between all the shows, and I thought well someone has to be doing those.  It seems like that could be a job.  Very strange for a young kid, but I always thought I wanted to do that. I majored in business and started doing the traditional advertising agencies.  I started my own company basically flipping the script and creating broadcast productions for brands like Adidas, Xbox, and Levis where we would produce 44 minutes of content, give that to a network, the network would get the production for free, it would be branded content from these brands, and they would sell advertising space. So, they essentially got free production they didn’t have to pay for and the advertisers got a lot of air – much more than a 30-second commercial. So, I started that company and did that for a while.  My friend had a small digital agency called Mekanism, and we merged those companies together and that’s what Mekanism is today – an advertising agency. It’s independent, and we are always looking to do innovative work, never been done before work.

SF: Can you give us a couple of examples of projects that you’re particularly proud of, or that you’re working on now that got your juices going?

JH: We launched a campaign for North Face called “This Land”, which is a TV campaign about North Face owning the idea of exploration. We used the classic Woody Guthrie song, “This Land Is Your Land” and did all the proceeds from that song went to the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps.  We drove a lot of downloads, we helped a lot of people, and helped build a brand at the same time. That’s one that just recently launched.

We did a Super Bowl ad with Pepsi when Beyoncé did the Super Bowl. It was completely comprised of user photos, so the audience created the ad for us, a truly crowd-sourced product that we’re proud of. And I would say that the number one project that we’re working on currently, that we’re really proud of, is with The White House. It’s a campaign called It’s On Us.  It was launched by Barack Obama last September. On the anniversary of it we’re doing another round of work.  You see it on college campuses. That stats are that one out of five women are sexually assaulted in college, primarily in their freshman and sophomore years.  The White House reached out to us because we do a lot of work with Millennial audiences, and we came up with a campaign called It’s On Us.  We do not typically do cause-related marketing. We launched this like we would do a deodorant or a soap or a shampoo; we launched it like a brand. And we came up with a name called, It’s On Us, and a logo.  We launched it with a TV spot that had John Hamm [of Mad Men], Kerry Washington, and a lot of other celebrities. We created a social badge, so if you went to the website and took the pledge – itsonus.org, very easy to remember – the badge would be on your profile. We’ve had toolkits developed so schools can create their own ads. I think we’ve had 400 colleges and universities participate and create their own ads. We had the number one video on YouTube. And we created a brand with t-shirts. We even got Joe Biden to wear one of our t-shirts, which was not an uneasy feat. But it’s been a fantastic campaign and it’s really been making a difference so that’s one that we’re really proud of.

SF: What kind of results have you seen?

JH: This is really about driving awareness and their measuring the impact of recorded incidences. What we’re really trying to do is get more incidences reported, which seems contrarian  — that you want the numbers to go up. But you really want this to be out in the public. We also want colleges and universities to sign up for having more resources on college campuses to protect the victims, or survivors rather. I saw something as I was walking through the halls here coming to the studio that is very ad propelled. It said “Business for Good is Good for Business”, which I absolutely loved. And I think this type of campaign summarizes that. It has really helped the company galvanize behind this issue and you can create brands for everything from soda to good causes. So, it’s been really powerful.

SF: How has it affected the culture of your workplace to be working on projects where you’re clearly having a direct impact on a major social issue of the day and your client is The White House?

JH:  It has had a huge impact. It really has felt that for the company not only can we do advertising and build brands for big companies, but we can do it for causes. And everyone feels really responsible, personally responsible, for this issue. So, it’s created a really great culture. We want to do a lot more of it.

SF: Can you just drill down a bit?  How have you seen the impact on the way that people show up at work?  How they think of their role in the organization? And what it means for them as a citizen, and how that kind of enrichment of their own identity is something that creates value for your business, through the work that you’re doing in this cause-related marketing?

JH:  There’s been about 3 billion impressions throughout this campaign. We had a lot of great partners along the way.   Generation Progress, which is the not-for-profit public company that helped get in-kind media donations for the campaign and the White House. We worked on this campaign together. And the biggest impact it has made in the company is to see a small agency partner with the White House with no funding and have this type of impact – I’m doing this pro bono, that’s right Stew. So, it’s a huge investment. That investment and this particular issue have shown the employees how much we care about something more than just dollars, more than just business. It’s also shown that an agency our size can have this kind of impact across colleges and universities across the country. It’s inspirational and it makes people feel like if you put your mind to it, and , work together, anything is possible.

SF: So how many people work in your agency?

JH: We have about 85 people. We have two offices: San Francisco and New York  about equally split.

SF: So what are others looking at when they look at your firm? What are they trying to steal from you or learn from your practices that help to advance what great advertising looks like in 2015?

JH: I don’t know what they see or what they look at. But I can tell you fundamental principles we believe in that steer the culture and affect the type of innovative work that we do. One of those is that we’re driven by a culture of innovation and friendship and collaboration. The heart of it is the company is motivated and created for the love of creativity. That’s why we started this company. That’s why we’re still doing it ten years later and trying to grow it because everyone that works there is bonded by this love of creativity and this friendship. When everyone starts at the company, they get a book – a Mekanism book – that outlines our founding principles and our DNA. The first one is that we are optimistic. So, as a culture we’re optimistic. We hire optimistic, positive people because advertising can be a nasty, dirty business. It can be a knife fight sometimes. It’s very competitive. We need people that are always looking at the positive and always optimistic, not through rose-colored glasses, mind you. They have to be grounded, but we need optimistic people, we need fearless people.

SF: Optimistic and fearless. How do you screen for that?

JH: I think it’s less that we screen for them, that it’s more gut-instinct. We have a pretty rigorous interview process. And if someone is the right cultural fit, we hand them this sort of DNA that we believe in. We want them to embody that spirit, and you will quickly know if people abide by that spirit.

SF: How do you know?

JH: You can tell pretty quickly. You never know until you start working with someone, but when you start working with someone you can see how they interact with the culture. Another one is we tend to be a little off-center; we tend to be a little weird, a little quirky. So, we tend to hire people that way.

SF: So you get that by the way people dress or what their resume looks like?

JH: I think it’s usually their career path. People that have had a roundabout way of getting to where they are. Someone who’s sort of had the mapped out plan usually wouldn’t be exactly the right fit. We like people that come from all walks. One other principle we believe in is loyalty, and loyalty doesn’t mean that people don’t leave because people always leave. People come and go. That’s the nature. Loyalty means that we have each other’s backs, and in a work environment we keep the politics on the outside. So, our clients and the brands we work with bring enough politics with them and enough issues with them that we don’t need that in the building. So, the building has to be political-free. It has to be a loyal environment where we all work together to accomplish something. And of course there’s going to be one-offs that don’t fit that, but in general that’s what we need as a company.

SF: How do you maintain, especially as you’re growing more successful, how do you maintain that culture of friendship and creativity as you get bigger? You must be thinking about that.

JH: Absolutely. We’re starting to think about additional offices and more hires and more accounts. We really don’t have the answer, but we’re trying to come up with a rigorous process to keep the culture. It’s easy when you’re small the keep the culture nice and tight. As you get bigger, it gets more challenging. There’s one more fundamental belief that we have that I want to cover. Optimistic, off-center, fearless, loyal, and then the last one is the power of story telling. This is a philosophy that everyone has to believe in.  And this is what makes us slightly different. We’re an advertising agency that believes that people hate advertising. So, that would be like a professor assuming that people don’t want to come to school. But the idea behind that is that no one is sitting around waiting for you to interrupt them. No one is sitting around waiting for your ad. No one is sitting around on their computer or in front of their TV or on their phone waiting for you to cram your message down their throat. So, if you believe that everybody hates advertising, another truth is that everybody loves a great story. So, if you can think about connecting with an audience through a great story and the power of that, the power of nailing a truth of whatever you’re advertising, whatever you’re communicating, wrapped in a story, that has power. That has entertainment. And that gets people interested and it makes them listen to your message. And so, that’s a little way for an advertising agency to come at things a little differently.

SF: Is that distinctive? Aren’t all ad agencies going after the power of compelling narrative that has bonded people since the dawn of time?

JH: Yes, but I think they may approach it, and sure a lot of agencies do tell great stories, but I think they may look at as: we’re going to have a message, we’re going to tell it to the audience, and we’re going to tell it to them the same way. We’re going to pound it into submission until they know that our message has gotten in there. We just fundamentally come at it a little bit differently.  In our creative teams, we believe that people aren’t just waiting around to hear what we have to say because they’re not.

SF: They’re not.  And that is an assumption that is important to make if you’re going to be able to connect to their hearts and minds. So, the North Face piece I have seen. It is a compelling story with beautiful music and a great song. A song that in my playlist for my East Street radio segment, I started with Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “This Land Is Your Land”, which he did back in the late 70’s. It’s a song that I believe should be our national anthem. That is an important song and important theme to bring to that story about what North Face is all about. It’s more than just exploration. It’s also about a shared ownership of our nation and our future.

JH: That’s the next level down, that’s correct.

SF: So, tell us what it’s like to be managing creative people. So you got these positive, optimistic, fearless, off-centered people who don’t want to deal with the political stuff, but want to get the work done, which of course everyone wants that. What do you do personally as the CEO to make sure that continues to be the way that things are?

JH: That’s a great question. It’s a constant struggle, frankly. But I think you do that through lots of sharing, lots of communication, lots of storytelling. One thing that we do every year is the whole company goes on a retreat. This year we went to Mexico, and the company all goes. We take three days, which can be challenging for spouses and boyfriends and girlfriends because it’s just the whole company. We do an off-site. We’ve done it for the past four years. And the idea is we have artists, we have speakers, we outline what we’re all going to accomplish that year together. And then at the end of the year, we measure what we all did together. So, the idea behind that is that sometimes working together and collaborating is getting off the merry-go-round and spending time together, and getting to know people on a level deeper than being in a meeting with them. We found that to be incredibly effective way to build both the vision for what we’re going to do together, and also to build bonds for people that have to work together or are cross functional in different departments so they normally wouldn’t spend time together. It’s been key. And then throughout the year we have all company meetings every Monday where we have different people in the company talking about what’s happening within the company. So everyone has a voice. The idea is that everyone should feel part of it and be able to stand up and speak in front of everyone else.

SF: So, how do you keep people motivated working on the more commercial clients when you have the White House as a client? I know you’re working with the U.N. Doesn’t everybody want to work with those social causes?

JH: We do work with Ben & Jerry’s. We do Jim Bean. We’re doing work right now with the NFL. We do Nordstrom Rack. So, there’s a lot of clients in there. One filter we have is we tend to work only with clients that we think people will want to work on, and they tell us. We tend not to go after or pitch clients that won’t get people excited. So, that’s one way we do it. And we try to tailor – football oriented people on NFL, fashion-oriented people on Nordstrom. So that’s one way to do it.  We don’t always get it right

SF: And that’s an important way to find out what people really care about. We’re almost out of time here, Jason. I have to ask you, you call yourself a functioning workaholic. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I also know you’re a dad. So, what’s it like being a dad and a CEO of a dynamic company like this? What kind of dad are you, or can you be as a CEO?

JH: I think that’s fundamental to your life’s work — the balance between those and the integration. I call myself a workaholic, but I would also call myself a ‘familyaholic’ as well. That’s pretty much what I spend my time doing. I’m passionate about both. I don’t always make the right choice, but you have to make selections of where you’re spending your time. And there’s sacrifice on one end, but you really try to weed out a lot of the extraneous stuff from your life to really set your goals and make sure you’re not working a lot, adding in other things that take you away from your family, but you try to focus on those two things. That’s one thing that I’ve found, whether it’s the right way to do it, it works for me, which is really just focusing on workaholic/familyaholic.

SF: Committing to those two and to work that has a positive social impact. So, in the last fifteen seconds here, what’s the one piece of advice you want to give to our listeners throughout the U.S. and Canada about how to be in a senior executive role and be an effective parent too.

JH: Well, that’s a big question. I would say it’s cliché and you’ve hear it a lot, but it’s the truth: if you are going to spend your energy and your time, then it has to somehow relate to a passion of yours if you are going to be successful and if you’re going to be content and happy. It doesn’t have to be the exact thing you want to do, but it has to be related to something that you’re passionate about. That’s sort of the key to success.

SF: I couldn’t agree more based on everything that I’ve seen and heard, and I appreciate you sharing that simple but powerful wisdom. Jason thank you for joining me today.

To learn more visit http://www.mekanism.com/ and follow Jason on Twitter @jason_harris.

Ali Ahmed Ali Ahmedis an undergraduate senior majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Cinema Studies.

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