The Mindful Leader: Mekanism CEO Jason Harris

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AW360 speaks with Mekanism’s Jason Harris about what being mentally healthy means to him.

Q: Firstly, can you tell us your role?

I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of independent advertising agency Mekanism. We have offices in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Seattle.

Q: How long have you worked in the industry and what was your first role?

 I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years. I started my career as an Account Manager at Chiat.

Q: What does being mentally healthy mean to you?

Mental health is all about confidence. If you feel confident, then you will shine. One way to create this is by committing to anti-anxiety practices like lots of sleep and regular exercise.

For me, boxing relieves a lot of stress and makes me feel good. Feeling physically strong and mentally fit allows you to feel more confident, and all of those factors will help you achieve your goals.

Q: Can you tell us about a time when you realised your mental health was impacting your work or home life?

Prior to starting Mekanism, I was definitely not feeling fulfilled. I was working in a culture that was ego-driven, full of politics with constant internal knife-fighting. It made me depressed in other parts of my life. I carried my work stress into my personal life. I would constantly have a pit in my stomach. And, something that I loved my entire life became the bane of my existence. I was like an Ad-zombie.

Q: How did this manifest itself?

I would wake up and immediately dread going into the office, and I would have to strategically think about what information I shared with whom and in which meeting. I had to ensure that everyone knew the value I added, instead of just worrying about the work.

In a culture that is focused on stepping on people’s heads, this toxicity can make you emotionally drained and unhappy. I was starting to think the entire industry ran this way, and it was soul crushing.

Q: How did you overcome this challenge? 

Ultimately, instead of bailing out of the industry, I decided to start my own agency, complete with a set of values that were kinder, more human, and less stressful. That literally saved my career.

I have worked to build a culture for Mekanism that is welcoming, transparent (for example, we share our financials with the entire company twice a year), and where we don’t tolerate any politics or ego plays. It isn’t always Kumbaya and we aren’t always holding hands and skipping, but it is real and truthful, like any great friendship should be.

I realized that a major issue in the industry is solely profit-driven mentalities. I wanted to create an agency where we could put our powers to good use and help change the world. Mekanism donates 10% of all agency resources to pro-bono projects for organizations including The United Nations, Red Nose Day and It’s On Us.

Q: What do you do now to practice better mental health?

I try to practice self-awareness and aim to create balance in my life. I am a big believer in taking mental health days if you need them. Staying physically fit also helps me stay in a better mental state.

Q: What are the three things companies should do to create a mentally healthy workplace?

Firstly, create formal policies that allow employees to take a day when they need to mentally recharge or reset.

Next, make sure that the leaders of your organization take real vacations and real mental health days. It signals to their team that it is an acceptable – and required – part of the company culture.

Lastly, create spaces within your office that encourage different working styles, and if you can, provide a place for people to exercise and blow off steam.

Q: What are you doing at your own company to address mental wellbeing?

Mekanism has a culture where we expect people to bring their full selves to the office (the good and the bad, because we’re all human and that is inevitable) and everyone is accepted for who they are.

We expect ideas to come from everyone at every level. In order for this to happen, people need to feel empowered and respected.

Our New York office recently moved into a new space, and so we added a gym and showers to let people unwind when they get stressed. All of our other offices have run clubs, yoga groups, and book groups. Employees are encouraged to start their own groups to promote mindfulness.

Q: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

Embrace learning. It’s impossible to know what you don’t know. Learn what you like about people’s working styles and what you don’t like. Learn what type of company culture you want to be a part of. Think about what area of the industry suits your skills. Don’t approach any situation thinking you have all the answers, because you don’t.

Lastly, reach out to your role models and ask them to coffee – pick their brain and get advice from them.

You can grab a copy of Jason’s book The Soulful Art of Persuasion here.

Jason Harris is delivering a keynote presentation entitled ‘The Soulful Art of Persuasion’ at Advertising Week APAC on Thursday, August 1, at 10.50am. See the program and grab your ticket here.

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