‘We have the power to make a positive impact’: Beyond the Brief featuring Jason Harris, Mekanism

Jason Harris, President and CEO, Mekanism

Take a quick look at some of the work NYC-based Mekanism has created in Jason Harris’s tenure as President and CEO, and you wouldn’t deny his wish to have Morgan Freeman narrate his life story either.

A complete advertising rock star, Harris has helped Mekanism deliver virtuoso work for the likes of Pepsi, Ben & Jerry’s, The North Face, Charles Schwab, Alaska Airlines, and HBO (whose new spot is exceptionally cool). And his supporting band, an elite crew that’s been named as an one of the Effies most effective independent shops, as well as one of the industry’s best places to work, continues to help Mekanism make great music. For his part, Harris has been featured on the New York Times, Fast Company, and even the Harvard Business School.

We could talk about the work, but he’d rather talk to you about the good that Mekanism is putting into the world. Like It’s On Us, the White House rallying cry to stop sexual assault in college has been adopted by millions of college students and over 430 universities nationwide. Or One For All, a new campaign tackling sustainable development for the UN. He’ll tell you he wants to save the world — his agency’s social work and his membership on the UN’s Social Impact Leadership Council shows you how well he walks his talk.

Harris’ impact on his agency, his clients and the industry has earned him spots among Madison Ave’s elite thought leaders, serving as a member of Advertising Week’s Board of Directors, as well as a judge for The Effies, D&AD Impact, Webby’s, The Mashies, The Streamies — and probably more — all a direct result of industry-recognized hits, and living beyond the brief.

Have you ever thought you should quit your job, but didn’t? Why?

I had a really low point midway in my career where I questioned if advertising was the right industry for me. I was young-ish and hungry, working at an agency where very little was getting produced. We had meeting after meeting with our client but only produced a few things a year. I started to feel unmotivated with not much to show for it.

But instead of a total career pivot, I followed my passion for creating things and started a fledgling production company that focused on actually making stuff. And Mekanism was created to focus on not just the ideas, but also the output. We’re made up of doers, not just dreamers. I have never been more invigorated by our industry and the unlimited opportunities we all have.

Who is your hero and why?

From an early age, I’ve always admired the Starman himself, David Bowie. Partly because I wanted to be a rock star, but mainly because I love how he reinvented his image over time. His blend of visual storytelling celebrated who he was through a creative lens and made me view the world differently — which is essentially what we do in advertising. We help brands embrace their truth and celebrate it creatively while also never standing still and constantly evolving.

Bowie made any outcast or weirdo feel accepted; he made it cool as hell to be different. If Bowie can have such huge success by embracing his gender-bending-interplanetary rock and roll persona, then we all can - and that’s a belief that we embrace at Mekanism.

What keeps you sane in this industry? What keeps you driven to do great work?

Using our powers for good. It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle that is the advertising industry. Winning new business, meeting your numbers, selling in first-evers, attracting talent, and of course making great work. But for me, what keeps me sane and more importantly motivated is knowing that we have the power to make a positive impact in the world.

Mekanism has been fortunate enough to work on a number of social good campaigns. From It’s On Us, which is now in its third year, to a global campaign for The United Nations & The Sustainable Development Goals, these are campaigns that make real impact for future generations. We all work on selling sneakers or deodorant or financial services, for example, but it’s a good feeling knowing we can also use those same resources to stop sexual assault on college campuses or fight for gender equality.

What’s a hobby that you love or would like to start?

I’ve always been a self-proclaimed gym rat. It’s my main outlet to relieve the day-to-day stress that comes from the industry. I recently took up boxing and that has been a great outlet for my mental health. I tried meditation but found it challenging. But when I walk into the boxing gym, I know it’s the place where I turn off my phone (and racing ADD business brain) from the outside world and totally concentrate on learning the technique. Boxing requires a high level of hand-eye coordination, which is challenging, but the concentration and focus that is required to get into a rhythm puts me in a complete meditative state. In an industry that never stops and in a city that never sleeps, boxing has become a necessity for me to do my best work inside the office. If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it.

If your life and career were a biopic, who’d narrate it? Who’d be on the soundtrack?

I can only dream that my life and career biopic would be narrated by Morgan Freeman and would be set to an all LCD Soundsystem soundtrack. First of all, is there any other option other than Morgan Freeman? Whatever he narrates - could be the mating rituals of penguins - his deep, crisp voice makes it sound important.

LCD Soundsystem would be the choice because disco punk is music that really speaks to me. It gets your head nodding and has a bit of an attitude. You can’t help but listen to LCD and nod you head back and forth. Each song starts with a simple truth and there is a story around the truth. North American Scum, New York I Love You But You’re Bringing me Down, All My Friends...I mean, I’m a freak so these are songs that really speak to me.

To celebrate its 100th Anniversary, the 4A’s has partnered with us at The Drum to pull back the curtain and look at an industry full of problem solvers, creative types and analytical minds. But what keeps them going once the briefs are written, the campaigns executed, and the pitches won (or lost)? We’re interviewing 100 people at 4A’s member agencies — across all disciplines, levels, regions, and agency types — to get a glimpse into what drives them at work and what fuels them in life.

See the industry pros we're featuring here.

To pitch someone from a 4A's member agency for Beyond the Brief, please complete this linked form.

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