'We think of ourselves as entrepreneurs': Independent Insights featuring Mekanism's Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Welcome to Independent Insights, a regular series that features interviews with independent agency leaders across the country. This week we’re featuring a Q&A with Jason Harris, chief executive and president of Mekanism.

For Mekanism’s Jason Harris, Cinco de Mayo 2010 is a day he’ll never forget. Yet his fondness for the holiday has little to do with the celebrations (and copious amounts of tequila) that normally come with it -- rather, the date sticks out in his mind as the day that Mekanism decided to transform itself from a digital production company to an advertising agency overnight.

“One day we were a production company and the next day we said we were a full-service agency,” Harris says. “That was very dramatic, but we really wanted to get into strategy and creative work, not just executing work. We just switched one day and built an agency out of a production company.”

In the years since that landmark day, Mekanism has transformed into an indie powerhouse with an eclectic client base that spans offices in San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Chicago. Recent work out of the agency includes HBO’s ‘It’s What Connects Us’ campaign that features John Oliver, Lena Dunham, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and other HBO favorites reciting the brand’s iconic ‘ahhh’ sound. Earlier this year, the agency helped MillerCoors reintroduce its citrusy malt beverage Zima with a retro campaign packed with ‘90s references.

The agency has also played in instrumental role in 'It’s On Us,' an ongoing sexual assault awareness PSA campaign that was launched for the White House in 2014 and now lives on through former Vice President Joe Biden’s nonprofit foundation. The campaign is part of Mekanism’s internal Make Good initiative, which allocates 10% of resources to social issues.

The Drum caught up with Harris to find out more about why independence is a key pillar of Mekanism, how he keeps employees motivated and what he looks for when bringing in new talent. See what he had to say below.

There’s been so much talk lately about the agency model and what that is and how it’s changing. How would you describe Mekanism’s agency model?

Our model is a little bit different because we have about 150 people and four offices, which is a lot of offices for a company that size. We believe in collaboration with clients, so whenever we get headwind of clients, we open an office to service those clients. We have people spread out in multiple offices because we believe the model today is about collaborating really closely with your client, and you've got to be in person jamming back and forth in order to do that.

We have a social media agency called Epic Signal that is inside of all of our offices and we also have a production company called Sister in order to create low-cost content. We have three divisions and four offices for 150 bodies, which seems a little bit overly complex, but I think because the market is so vast and you need to deliver so many different things today, it's actually a model that makes a lot of sense.

Why has Mekanism chosen to stay independent?

At the heart of the company, we really think of ourselves as entrepreneurs. When you sell, I don’t really think you can retain that entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone that we hire wants to work at Mekanism because they're going to have autonomy and ownership and really feel like they're building something, and for those reasons we think independence is one of our key pillars. That entrepreneurial spirit lets us change our model, open offices, be flexible, make quick decisions and drive our culture based on friendship.

What do you look for when hiring talent?

I think personality is probably the first thing. Are they going to bring something to the atmosphere? Are they going to be themselves? Are they not going to be afraid to fly their freak flag and really stand out and be opinionated? We don't want people that are just going to blend in and put their head down and do the work. We want people that are going to make an impression.

So that's probably the most important thing we look at, and then of course they have to have experience. We tend not to hire a ton of junior talent because we do a pretty bad job of training people. It's part of that independent, entrepreneurial spirit - we throw people in the deep end and we're like, ‘good luck!’ We look for people that are self-starters. If you need a little bit more guidance or you want to work with a really large team, that's not the right place for you.

How do you keep your staff inspired and motivated? Is there anything in particular you do?

Every year we take the company to Mexico. We go to Mexico off season so it's affordable, and every person from every office flies in for a three-day summit. In that summit, we all agree on the goals as a company we're going to set up for the year and then we force people to basically meet with people from other offices. We do that as a bonding, cultural experience and to get everyone set up for the goals we're going to accomplish as a company. It's worth the investment because the productivity after the summit goes through the roof because everyone feels like they're on the same page. Everyone just feels like they're contributing and part of the company.

Another big thing that I think helps us maintain our staff is we started an initiative called Make Good, which [means] 10% of all of our resources in time and energy go into progressive social issues. So we work with the UN on the sustainable development goals, we work with Joe Biden on sexual assault prevention on college campuses with the 'It's On Us' campaign, [and] we did red-nose day in the US, which was a big campaign to end child poverty. So [for] a lot of these programs we use our advertiser powers for good, and that's something that attracts talent and maintains that culture. No holding company is going to be like, 'take 10% of all your money and give it back to making the world a better place.' It might do a one-off campaign to win awards, but they're not gonna have a whole program devoted to that.

With so much change happening within the industry, what do you think is the most important thing that brands should be looking at or paying attention to?

Making sure that a brand understands their purpose. What is there reason for being? Why do they exist in this world? Yes, it's to sell soft drinks or windbreakers or pens or whatever it is, but there has to be something in their DNA that's larger than that. They have to worry about analytics and data-driven storytelling and six-second ads, but at the core of it they really need to know what they stand for and their purpose for being attached to the product or service that they're selling. If they can nail that core reason for being, all of the other stuff about the landscape changing and using influencers and the death of TV will be much easier to navigate. When you don't have that anchor, that brand purpose of why you exist, all that stuff becomes very hard to figure out.

Independent Insights is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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