In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
Jason M. Peterson has been shooting his signature style black and white photographs since the 1980s, but for decades, many of them never had an audience. During that time, he channeled his professional efforts into making TV commercials, working as a creative director in New York City.
Today, he’s based in Chicago and serves as the chief creative officer for the North America arm of Havas, a global public relations and ad agency. He also has 1.1 million Instagram followers (@jasonmpeterson).
Peterson leverages his Instagram account to recruit talent for Havas. When the company opened an office in Atlanta, Peterson posted to Instagram encouraging people to come to Centennial Olympic Park at a certain time and shoot photos with him. “I showed up at the park with my recruiter, and there were 250 kids there,” he says. He’s hired 24 employees through social media to date. He’s even convinced one young man to quit school and join Havas. “I think I had to talk to his mom, but he did it,” Peterson says. “He's awesome and he's killing it.”
Instagram has also afforded Peterson himself a range of gigs, paid either in cash or once-in-a-lifetime experience. The White House social media team invited him to shoot Obama's farewell speech in Chicago in January 2017. “I was like six feet in front of Obama,” Peterson says. “Other than when my son and daughter were born, I would say shooting photos of Obama's farewell speech was the most moving thing I've ever done.”
Ever since Peterson saw social media stealing attention from traditional advertising channels at the beginning of the decade, he’s been an early adopter of any platform he can access. Instagram wasn’t his first, but it’s where his passion for photography found a natural home and a massive following. His path to this inadvertent social media fame was inspired by professional development. He considers his personal work an investment in his professional work, because it grants him content-making experience as well as legitimacy with potential clients.
“I loved being in advertising in the '90s, but my competition now is kids with iPhones and 50,000 followers,” Peterson says. “I’m always asking, how do I look and act like they do, but for big brands?”
Entrepreneur spoke to Peterson about Instagram and how to grow a following.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
Coinciding with me moving to Chicago to take over this agency, and with advent of social media, I started noticing that I spent more time on my phone than I did watching TV. I realized, a TV commercial comes on and people are on their phones.
I really wanted to understand social media better than anyone in advertising. So I opened a Twitter account, I opened a Tumblr account, I opened a Flickr account and just tried to figure it out. I was like, well, what can I do? What can be my voice? What is my brand? I thought, maybe I'll use this just for my photos.
Then Instagram launched. I thought it was a joke at first -- some corny filter app that put dumb borders and filters on your photos. Then I realized the social community around creativity and photography was massive.
My work really stood out. It went from my friends and my kids following me to like 1,000 people following me to 5,000 people to 10,000. Then there was an article in Mashable. Tony Hawk the skateboarder was talking about how much he loved Instagram, and he said that I was his favorite person to follow. I was like, wait, what? Growing up in Phoenix with a bunch of skater kids, Tony Hawk was like my Michael Jordan. That day, I got 10,000 new people who followed me because Tony Hawk said he liked me.
Clients would be talking about Instagram in meetings, but they’d have like 200 followers. I’d say, “You obviously don't know what you're doing,” and they'd be like, “What makes you know what you're doing?” I’d be like, “Oh, I don't know, I got 5,000 followers within two months of opening an account.” I realized then that if I used these channels of my understanding, it could help and benefit my passion and my day job, which is running and transforming this advertising agency.
This isn’t my side hustle -- I’ve started taking photos half the time during the day. My analogy is, this is like working out if I were a professional athlete. Game day is when I show up to work and talk to clients. I'll do stuff for myself, and then I'll go upstairs in our studio and I'll make stuff for Kmart or Coca-Cola or one of our other clients. I don't know the difference of being at work or not being at work. I'm just always making stuff.
2. What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
Every social platform there is, or ones that are coming out, I'm in beta, I'm in alpha, I'm on all these platforms. They reach out to me now as an influencer, and I check them all out to see what the value or the purpose of them is.
I used the 1 Second Everyday app throughout 2017, where you shoot a selfie or a photo of yourself every day for one second. I like this app called Steller because it's a really interesting publishing platform, vs. a lot of the apps that are kind of Instagram knockoffs. There’s 500PX, which is much more of a hardcore photographic community. And Musical.ly I've gotten deep into because it is so potent. People are so passionate about it, especially younger kids. I just ran our entire intern program for this winter off of Musical.ly. You had to post on Musical.ly and create a music video about why you should work here.
I'm on Snapchat every day. Snapchat is one of my favorite platforms. I know advertising people are like, “it seems like it's dying out because Instagram does its shit.” But I have a 16-year-old daughter who thinks Instagram is for old people, and the only way she communicates and talks to her friends is through Snapchat. I remember when I first got on Snapchat, I posted on Instagram my Snapchat ID. My followers from Instagram started following me on Snapchat.
You've got to go into it open-minded and figure out why these channels work, what the value of them is and how you can bring brands into that conversation on terms of people on that platform. There's so many times that advertisers and agencies just get it wrong. They show up on these platforms, and they look like they're dudes showing up at a beach party wearing a tuxedo.
3. How much of your time do you devote to Instagram?
I would say probably 70 percent of my time is spent on Instagram. I make an effort to broaden it out, because I use other platforms to push my brand and Havas' brand in different or unique ways. I want to figure out why these channels work and then what can I do from a creative point of view.
4. How do you promote your account? What's your number-one way to gain followers?
You have to remember that social media is social. Go and interact and engage with other people's work you like. Go on hashtags. If you love shooting photos of shoes, go love photos of shoes and those people will go back and forth. Social media is, my analogy is, it's like a party. Go and talk to the people at the party. Don't just stand there and say, why isn't anyone talking to me? Why does no one care about me? Go out there and be social.
I just got back from Nashville. While I was there, I posted a photo on my story and checked into some places. I think I got 50 DMs from people in Nashville going, “oh my God, I want to hang out with you. I'm going to shoot photos with you. I'll show you all the cool places to shoot in Nashville.” And so, rather than going, OK, I'm going to go and hang out in my hotel room and not do anything, or go out and drink with advertising people, I'm like no, I'm going to go shoot photos with this 23-year-old kid, and he’s going to show me all the cool places in Nashville to shoot photos. That is how I've hired so many of my creatives.
5. What's your content strategy?
My content strategy is really simple: Post a better photo every single time. I'll show you photos that I haven't posted because I'm like, it's good, but I don't feel like it's better than the last photo I posted, so I won't post it. One the biggest comments I get from people that follow me is, they go, “oh my God, this is the best photo you've ever done. I like this one the best. They say it every time.” I mean, that's what I'm trying to do. And at the same time, I just keep myself humble about it and just like try to make cool stuff.
6. What's your best storytelling trick?
I definitely have a style, which on the surface would be black and white. But to me, it's less about black and white and it's more about narrative storytelling and it's more about making you feel something. A great piece of art, a great photograph, a great television commercial makes you feel something. It makes you feel happy, it makes you feel scared, it makes you feel excited, whatever. So, in all my photographs, that's what I'm trying to do. And black and white is one of those things that just helps you focus on that narrative vs. being lost in like, flash, in a way.
Wherever I'm at, I'm just looking around and I'm just watching life happen. There will be light shining off a building, and there will be a little reflection that people are just walking by with their Starbucks not noticing. I'll just stop and look at that light and wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I'm late all the time, to everywhere I'm going. I'll sit there and wait for some weird small little life moment to happen right in that light, and then it's like literally one shot -- boom, I got it. And that's it. But it's like these little moments that happen in urban life all the time that you miss.
That's no different than the music and sports photography that I do. I try to find these little moments that are happening that the audience may not even see or feel. There'll be a little split second of downtime or moment in between or a crescendo of a song or an event or something that happens there that feels like that was "the moment.” All I'm doing is just looking for that and how I can capture and show that feeling.
7. How do you set yourself apart on Instagram?
I'm super, super consistent. I'm trying to perfect and hone a style of photography. Instagram does these weekly hashtag contests, and each has a different theme. Two years ago they did “hashtag not quite a blank.” And it was like, take a photograph by someone on Instagram and emulate how they shoot photographs. A lot of people did celebrities and things like that. On the hashtag #notquiteajasonmpeterson, there were like 6,000 posts. I have such a specific style that people wanted to emulate it and try to make a photo that looked like mine.
8. How do you leverage your Instagram, and to what extent do you monetize it?
I've been hired as an influencer to create content for other brands and other ad agencies. I don't let it get in the way of my job or anything like that. If it's a big ask, I'll take a vacation day to go and do it. But this year I probably shot for 20 different brands and agencies creating content for them and posting it to my Instagram or giving them the content the post on theirs.
But the thing I actually like more than the monetary getting paid for it -- because I don't do it for free. I'm like, you pay me money or you pay me in interesting experiences that I can't get. I've shot for the Chicago Bulls like six times, and I don't charge them. Music is another one. I get invited out by these artists that I love their music and love being part of. And I get to shoot photographs of them.
I have the luxury that I don't need the money to do it. So I turn down 70 percent of the stuff that comes to me. I've partnered and shot content three years in a row for Volvo. They look and feel like any of my other photographs. I'm not going to do corny photos that sell out my brand. My advertising side of it knows that people follow me for what I do. And then if a brand is furthering what I do, the engagement that brand is going to have is going to be through the roof. There's nothing you hate worse than when a brand shows up on your Instagram feed trying to sell you some corny watch or some orange juice and it looks like it's an ad.
9. What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on Instagram?
I think the number-one thing is, do stuff that you really love to do. Don't follow other people. Be true to your vision or what your passion or talent is. I shoot photographs every day, and people are like, how long did it take you to do that? And I'm like, I don't know, like two minutes? Because it's what I do. I'm really passionate about it. I think a lot of people are trying to force themselves into doing something that they may not even necessarily like or do or have a talent for. So I think the biggest encouraging thing is, figure out what your own voice is, and then just be about that. People will come along to that if it's good.
10. What's a misconception many people have about Instagram?
Sometimes I see people get kind of cocky about it. They're like, I've got 30,000 followers. I'm like, you need to be humble in this thing. You can't take it too serious. You just have to have fun with what you're doing, or it could be reflected in your work. I see people making that mistake of believing the hype in some ways. You need to stay humble and stay kind of hungry as you make work. Otherwise, you're never going to have that kind of level of happiness or passion or success around it.
I think the other big thing from the advertising side are the people who are like, awww, that's just Instagram. But I'm like, I don't know, is it? What do you mean, "just Instagram?" It's just a TV commercial. You know what I mean? Like, "it's just Instagram?" People care more about what's on Instagram. I was on the plane today and I was looking over the people's shoulders. Every single person was scrolling on Instagram. I don't think it's "just Instagram." I think it's bigger than that. I wouldn't discount it. I'd figure it out.
Click through the slideshow to see five of @jasonmpeterson’s favorite posts.