His evocative black and white photos documenting his hometown of Chicago led to Instagram fame. This week, they went beyond his 1.1 million followers to take over New York’s Times Square.
Jason Peterson, the CCO and chairman of Havas Creative North America, might love advertising more than photography. But he claims his status as an influencer has attracted prospective clients. On Monday, he saw his imagery come to life on Nasdaq’s digital tower in Manhattan as he began his stint as the stock market’s artist in residence.
In a Q&A with Adweek, Peterson discussed how he approaches the art of social media, photography and branding, and why every aspiring creative needs more than just a “side hustle.”
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Adweek: First, can you tell me how this opportunity with the Nasdaq came about?
Jason Peterson: All my social media work is done to change the way creatives are making work in advertising. Everyone in the [Havas] creative department has, what is considered by industry standards, side hustles. But calling them that discounts what they really are and what they can bring to the advertising world. There are no side hustles; you have to have all these things to work at an agency. Photography and social media are big pieces for me. I get approached by brands and agencies through my social media. Nasdaq reached out to me about a month ago to say they’re doing these artist takeovers, about six or seven of them, and they want to feature my photos.
How do you balance keeping up with social media and your work at Havas?
The analogy I always use is: If I’m a professional athlete, then advertising is my Sunday game and social media is me working out at the gym, practicing my free throws. I think the whole notion of balance is a bullshit, old-school terminology. There is no balance. I do all of them, and I’m also a big gamer, I’m a dad … I live a creative life. Putting boundaries up on work and creativity, or what would be deemed as your side project, is the problem. If you’re always making and creating stuff, whether it’s for your client or for yourself, it helps you stay sharper.
Can you tell me about your influences and why you always shoot in black and white?
I’ve been shooting photographs since I was 13 years old. I’ve always been really inspired by the late 1940s, early 1950s street photography. A great piece of creative, whether it’s a photograph or a television ad for a client, has to make you feel something. Black-and-white photography is a more pureer to focus on emotion. Color has always been a distraction for me.
How do you tell a story through imagery?
If I don’t feel it when I shoot the photo, you’re not going to feel it in the end. I love listening to music. So I’ll be listening to my headphones and walking down the street, and I’ll see an amazing piece of light or architectural scene. And I’ll just sit there and wait and wait and wait with my camera so [that] when it finally happens, and I snap the photo, I feel it happen, so I think you’ll feel it in the photo. There are other things, too, like sense of scale and sense of loneliness against the urban landscape and how you can use graphic forms to separate people or little moments that happen.
Can you talk about your social media rise and provide any tips to aspiring creatives trying to gain that attention?
Figure out what your point of view and brand is before you start to do anything. You can start out emulating what other people are doing, but find your own voice. There are other people that try to shoot in the style I have on Instagram, but they’re not as successful, because it’s not their own. Figure out what your point of view is and no matter what it is, hone it and craft it everyday.
You have to realize what social media is. This is where almost all brands fall off. Social media is not a digital medium at all. Just because it exists on our phone, we think it’s some nerdy tech thing. Social media is like a party, and I have to interact and engage with people if I want them to interact and engage with me. You don’t want to be that dick at the party standing there not talking to anyone.
So how much do you have to engage with your followers?
All the time. I try to answer all the comments people have. I either answer them directly in the comment section or I direct-message them back, because a lot of people are curious about what kind of camera I shoot with or how I do certain things. I answer all those questions because those people who are following me know me. Same with brands: When you’re turning on a social channel, you have to talk back. And I have crazy ADD, so I fill my time answering comments, and it allows me to clear my head, which then allows me to get an idea for Coca-Cola, for example.
Do you use any apps to touch up your photos before you put them on Instagram?
Like a lot of people, I started out shooting mostly on my phone. And I always used Snapseed and Filterstorm on my phone to edit photos, but now I have a partnership with Lica to shoot exclusively with them. And then I edit those photos through Lightroom on my laptop.
How does your social media account and photography feed your client work?
It comes out as a level of expertise. It’s mind-blowing to me that we’re still talking about social media like it’s this new thing. Maybe we should get serious about it. Every client has some 26-year-old in the corner who’s a social media expert, and what I always say is, that person should be running that company, because if you’re not a social brand, you don’t exist anymore.
Which influencers have inspired you?
Look, Bill Bernbach changed our industry. He’s the one who said I put art directors together with copywriters, and this is how it works. He’s been dead a long motherfucking time, right? But our industry still operates that way.
But I don’t like Bill Bernbach; he’s not my influence. Casey Neistat is my influence. I care about people who are pushing the creative edge, who are relevant to not just young people, but all people today. And then also all the kids I hire. I recruit 80 percent of our talent. I’m on every social platform; I’ll post that I’m hiring, and that’s how I get all my talent, because I’m getting those kids who are experts on those channels.
When you were younger, did you want to be a photographer or an adman?
I was always a photographer, but early on, I thought photographers were kind of corny. I thought they were like magicians. You know, dudes with long hair and flowing white shirts; it wasn’t cool to me. But being an art director is fucking cool. So I always wanted to be an art director, but I also loved photography. Six or seven years ago, I didn’t know social media at all, but everyone was starting to talk about it. So I did a really awkward thing and had a young kid open a Twitter and Tumblr account for me, and I spent an hour learning from him. And then it just took off.