Unlocking Agency Leadership Through Intentionality With Jason Sperling

Skot Waldron:

Unlocked is brought to you by Invincible. A program designed to unlock the potential of people and teams inside your organization. Join companies like Pfizer, Delta, the CDC, Google, and Chik Fil A, and others in over 116 countries that are currently using this program to increase productivity and develop healthy cultures. Access hundreds of hours of content that is accessible anytime, anywhere. And finally, use realtime data to understand the health of every team inside your organization. Which teams are performing? Which ones aren't? Then understand the why behind that performance. Get free access to Invincible for 30 days by visiting WWW.Giant.TV/30Days. 

Hello, welcome to another episode of Unlocked. Today we are talking about unlocking the potential of people in the creative agency world in order to unlock the potential of our organizations and those agencies. I've got Jason Sperling on the call. Jason comes from the world of creative agencies, I come from the world of creative agencies. So, I loved this conversation. There's a lot of back and forth going on here and a lot of seeing eye to eye about the current issues that we have as far as leadership's concerned inside of agency life. 

Jason is the global executive creative director of Facebook Reality Labs. Yes, the Facebook. He'll tell you a little bit about what that department of Facebook does. So, we'll talk about that at the beginning of the interview. And we're also going to talk about his new book, which talks about how we as creatives can go from making things and producing great work to also leading and also inspiring and managing. I think that they're two different things and we need to distinguish what those are. We talk about that in this interview. I'm super, super glad I was able to get in touch with Jason about this new book and about this new opportunity to discuss this topic with him. So, let's get on with the interview. Here we come, Jason. All right Jason, welcome to the show, man. It's so good to have you.

Jason Sperling:

Thank you for having me, Skot Waldron, appreciate it.

SKOT WALDRON:

Yeah, I don't get a chance to interview people from my world, meaning the creative industry, too often. So, I'm really excited about this. I'm very excited about your book that we're going to talk about in just a minute that's coming out. But give us a little bit of background on how you landed at Facebook Reality Labs, what's your role, what's kind of your history leading up to the point of where you're at right now in your life?

JASON SPERLING:

I grew up in a lower middle income neighborhood, just a small slight of build little boy. Oh no, you want more of a ... Yeah, present day.

SKOT WALDRON:

Yeah. I mean hey man, we could just go ahead and roll this for like two hours. I'm cool with that too.

JASON SPERLING:

I've worked in really marketing and advertising for ... since I went to grad school for art. I've worked on the agency side for all of that. And just this last October during COVID, I took a job working on the other side of things for Facebook's experimental, but not really, it used to be experimental division. Now it's more of their hardware. So, Oculus VR, some new AR products, a lot of exciting things that they NDA you for and threaten your job. So, a lot of cool stuff to be a part of and to help put out there in the world. 

SKOT WALDRON:

Very cool. You're doing some breakthrough stuff, you've done some breakthrough stuff in your career. Maybe not knowing that you were doing breakthrough stuff. Working on Apple campaigns, Mac verse PC, launching iPhones, launching iPads. And you're like, "Oh okay, this is a cool little device." Not knowing that it's going to change the face of the world, and maybe potentially some of these other things you're working on now with Facebook will change the face of the world. But your eyes are a little bit more open now, right?

JASON SPERLING:

I mean, if anything it was the lure of the job. Realizing that I worked at a media arts lab on Apple's marketing, back when they were launching iPhone and iPad, you saw the devices and you said, "Oh my God, these are really, really amazing." And then as you saw them start to become adopted and developers start to think against them and find amazing use cases in how they can be used in the world, you realized oh my God, this is going to be culture defining, world changing stuff. And it has been. VR and the promises, I think it's been decades since VR has been promised as the next big frontier. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg talked about this idea of a metaverse, where we all have our real selves and our virtual selves. And that we live in AR form, or I'm sorry, in avatar form within these virtual worlds. And you can see it playing out now with NFTs and some of these things that are happening.

VR right now, it's neat. I feel a little bit like, whereas I was in on the ground floor with iPhone, here I feel like in October when I took the job, it was like the line ... People waiting for two weeks to get into Star Wars, to watch Star Wars. And they'd been sitting there for weeks and then suddenly it's an hour before show time and I walk up and I'm like, "Bob, hey! Mind if I go in with you?" I feel like the promise has been there, the idea of it and what it could be. And then just recently it really has come to fruition. Games are amazing and at the level of a PlayStation Xbox now, you've got people doing fitness with it. You've got people watching movies in it, climbing mountains, meditation, you can watch live sports, live concerts. I mean, it really is pretty breathtaking when you use VR. And I think it's going to be around for a long, long time. 

And hopefully in great ways, positive ways. Where we aren't just retreating to VR because our world is not where it should be a la Ready Player One, but it's more of a how does VR make it better? While we can hang out with our friends in the real world, we can also jump into the virtual world and mingle with people around the world and actually have a physical presence together.

SKOT WALDRON:

Yeah, it's pretty amazing. I have a friend that works at a company called the Void in Salt Lake City. And they just came out, they just launched a new product, new experience where it's the flying squirrel suit and jumping off a cliff and actually flying. And you actually jump off a ledge and it kind of catches you and you kind of just surf through this crazy experience. I was there years ago when they were experimenting and it just blew my mind. Just looking off a cliff, my brain was freaking out. It was quite amazing. 

Let's transition this a little bit. Okay? Because what I want ... You're on the frontier of things. You've been on the frontier of some pretty amazing things, and you're doing that now at Facebook. I believe, from my standpoint being in the creative industry, having worked for people in the ... creative leaders, being a creative leader, running an agency for years, that you're on the frontier of something else. And that is redefining and establishing what it means to be a leader in the creative industry. I have my own opinions about that. But your new book, Creative Directions, is all about that. 

How do you move from being this talent, this creative talent, into a creative leader? Because a lot of people in our industry do that. They come out of school, they work for an agency, and then they eventually either start their own agency, go partner with somebody else and start an agency. That's kind of been the way that it's happened, especially with the graphic design discipline. They become leaders in some way, shape or form. But they don't go to MBA courses that teaches leadership development. They don't do these leadership seminars. We don't do that in the creative industry. But your book is on the frontier, I believe, of trying to shape that. So, why did you even write this in the first place? What sparked in you that was like, "Hold on a second, I've got to write this book."?

JASON SPERLING:

It's a few things. At the time, I was working at an agency called RPA in Santa Monica, Los Angeles. I was going to a few different conferences, creative conferences, creative themed. And the theme was ... it seemed to be a constant drum beat, which was I'm expected to be a great leader, and I'm not given any preparation. One woman on a panel I remember saying, "You get better management training in a fast food restaurant than you do in an advertising agency." And in a lot of ways, that's true. And then I went from media arts lab, working on Apple, to RPA, running Honda. And a lot of that had to do with trying to find healthy organizations that were helping mold leaders and helping give them I think the right skills to do their jobs well. 

But it is an inherent problem. We're oftentimes told, "Hey, you did a fantastic job and you absolutely did amazing work as a creator. So therefore, we're going to make you a manager as a reward." You did this one thing amazing, and now we're going to have you do this completely different thing because you did the other thing so great. And we have no idea if you can actually do the other thing. A lot of us, we start out, we're doing our craft, we're often doing it alone, we're inside of our heads. We're not necessarily part of a ... We don't subscribe to the bigger sort of office culture. And a lot of what being a manager is and being a leader is, is a lot more responsible, a lot more sort of rational versus the irrational world that we live in as creators. It is turning the spotlight on the people that you work with and the people that work for you. As a creator, it's about putting the spotlight on yourself and trying to break through. 

There are a lot of things that are incongruous with the two types of roles. And then the training is, on top of that, not great. What I've seen throughout my career is a lot of ill-equipped leaders who don't necessarily have the skills, who aren't passing them on. It's sort of a vicious cycle. So, it was a collection of experience, it felt like after looking around at leadership books and realizing, shoot, nothing is really talking to someone like me, that there was a space for this. And I've always felt like if you can find that space and do something that feels different that breaks through, it's worthwhile.

SKOT WALDRON:

Right on. I'm in full agreement with what you're saying. I went to plenty of conferences where it was mostly, some of the ones that I went to, never even mentioned the word leadership. Never even mentioned the fact that hey, you are going to be in charge of this. And it's not ... You could be great designers, you could design this great poster, you designed this great packaging, you designed this great ad campaign or whatever you did. But what about the people that we are in charge of building? What is the vibe with them? Are we creating? We create great external things and people go, "Ooh," and, "Ah," and, "That's really brilliant." And they laugh. 

But are we also creating the same feeling within our organizations and our agencies with the people saying, "Ooh," and, "Ah." "That's fantastic, what you've done for me." "You've built me up as a person." "You've empowered me." "I can tell that you are for me as a person in my hopes and dreams of achieving greatness in my industry, not just looking for the next award." Not just looking for the next trophy or the next plaque or the next recognition we can put on our wall, but about who are the people that we're impacting internally, not just externally?

JASON SPERLING:

Yeah. 100%. And another aspect to that is turning, and one of the sort of points is hey, it's trading the spotlight for flashlights and actually providing those flashlights. It's also being a champion for the ones that work for you. And for you as a creative person, who has a lot of ego and a lot of your own self identity wrapped up in the art that you create, to be able to say, "All right, I surrender that." And I have to be comfortable with it and I have to champion the work of other people. Even at the cost of feeling slightly less significant in what I do. And that's a really hard thing to come to terms with. 

And you see a lot of creative people who will oftentimes unnecessarily insert themselves into the process or pitch against their teams and champion their own work. Because they're really insecure with who they are in this role and can't reconcile that I'm the manager and I need to help these guys get the fulfillment and the advancement and the things they need in their career to succeed. You hear a lot about servant leadership on the other side of the fence, with the more bureaucratic and corporate careers. But you don't really hear about it on the creative side of things. 

SKOT WALDRON:

Not at all. And I love what you said about this type of ego that goes into the creative. It's almost ingrained in us a little bit through school and through the culture of what it is. Because you're completely right. I know that a lot of identities are wrapped up in a lot of work, externally in the corporate world and business and whatever. But I think it's particularly interesting when you look at the creative industries. Because in school, we're working for outward recognition. We may be working at student competitions looking for that award, looking for that recognition and to that next CA, communication arts book or that next ... Seeing our name in black and white in some industry publication is like the glory. It's like that's what we work for. It's very about me and my achievement and my recognition. 

That fuels us. Rightly or wrongly so. It fuels us. And we're so into it. And that's what it was for years for me. I was like, "I'm getting that next award." And we used to document all of our awards and show them to everybody. Then something happened when I turned 40. I had this mid-career crisis. And I was like, "Nobody cares that much. Nobody cares as much as I do about those awards." They're short lived, unless you're Mac PC person, ad person. They'll go down in history. But what I'm saying is that those are short lived. The impact I make on people, the impact I have on my employees, the impact I have on my partners, the people that are working with me will last for decades. That's the impact that's going to go on, the legacy I'm going to leave behind is not, "Skot Waldron, oh, he got into that Annual Report Black book thing three times." It was, "Skot Waldron made an impact on me for the rest of my life." 

JASON SPERLING:

Yeah. I think there's a lot of truth in that. But I will say that the truth is, is there's still a lot of professions that success is driven by recognition. And a lot of commercial recognition.

SKOT WALDRON:

Sure. 

JASON SPERLING:

It's recognizing that Skot Waldron at 40 or Jason at another mature age is ... It's not necessarily about our personal recognition. But understanding that for someone younger, it might still be. It might still be what they care about. And honestly, if that is what's going to get them to the next level of their career and if that is what's going to get them feeling the same sort of fulfillment that you felt at that age. Or if that's going to get them the longevity that all of us fear as creative people, then fantastic, I want to get that for you. Or I want to help you get that. And whether it's right or it's wrong, it's part of just a creative mindset. Because we need that validation. We need that someone to tell us we're doing a good job. And that is still a yard stick.

And honestly, for places that are recruiting creative talent, that's still a way to say, "Hey, we make great work. Look at what people are saying about us." It's still sort of honey for the bee. No, I guess they make the honey. Forget that stupid phrase.

SKOT WALDRON:

I'm not going to edit that out either because it started to be really smart, but I love it. I love it. 

JASON SPERLING:

I just think one of the things in the book is give 100, expect 10 in return. And I think part of that is understanding that hey, creative people still don't necessarily subscribe to the same rational and broader perspective you may have at 40 years old. And that's okay. And that's okay. They're not going to be rational. They're going to do a lot of things that aren't necessarily as smart as we'd like. They're going to make some bad decisions. Maybe it's even a career decision to leave a really good place for more money or whatever. This book is intended for them, but it's also intended for leaders who have to understand that they may not always make the best decisions and have that foresight.

SKOT WALDRON:

Yeah. Going back to what you said about people in the different stages of their career and life, absolutely, those things fueled me. And they made me passionate about my career and about my industry and about what I was doing. And I think that helped make me a good designer, coming up and doing what I'm doing. And I still wanted to do great work, forever. Because my name is still wrapped up in that. But I guess the maturity came in, and I said my name is also wrapped up in the impact I have on these people. And I'm not willing to burn bridges in order to make great work. It's not either, or to me. It's both, and. It's this ability to create great work because we have great people that believe in each other and that have great alignment, which in turn, is going to create longevity within our culture. 

People are going to stick around longer. They're going to want to be involved. They're going to want to do great work for me because I'm so invested in them. They see that and they recognize that. And that's where the power of leadership really comes in. It's like am I aware of you, do I care about you, do I invest in you and do you feel I'm for you? I'm for your best possible good. Highest possible good all the time. And when people see that, they go, "Skot Waldron's awesome. And you know what? Times are tough right now. But I'm going to stick around because Skot Waldron's awesome." And that's when it's going to come down to it. How can creative people become better leaders? If you were going to stand at a conference and say, "Hey, we need better leaders, this is how we should do it."

JASON SPERLING:

I don't think it's that simple. And that's why-

SKOT WALDRON:

Dang it, I was hoping this show was going to be the ground breaker for that.

JASON SPERLING:

Well, I'll say it's a collection of things. It's a collection of things. And I think the first way you become a good leader is you say, "I've got to develop my skillsets." And recognize that you may not have those. Just I think that self awareness I think is huge. I think it's how do you change your mindset for managing people and the complexities around that? And it's not just so cut and dry, here's a page, just follow these steps and you're good. It's about I think realigning your head a little bit. Understanding that it's not about you, it's others. It's developing I think a more responsible way of looking at your job. It probably would entail some training and acknowledging that maybe you don't have those skills just as a maker. And you've come at it from a deficit, a disadvantage, compared to people in other careers who've been existing in this mindset and even in this culture a little longer. 

I find myself too, when I'm at Facebook Reality Labs, there are a lot of people who've come out of business school and a lot of brilliant people that I find myself in a room in, talking about the same things from my perspective, that it's not always natural. I do have a certain self doubt that is sort of sneaky in the back of the head. "Will they actually buy me? What I say?" I feel like a bit of an interloper in these contexts. For a lot of us, it's about how do you work with clients? How do you suddenly go from making your thing with a partner or by yourself and working in a sort of insular way, to being more outward and dealing with more people in the organization, clients, who you've got to align with their goals. And their goals are not necessarily to make great work. It's to sell something. Or to get movie ticket sales or whatever it is that's different. 

So, a lot of that is how do you change your mindset so that you have a better chance of succeeding the people around you have a better chance of succeeding I guess? And the people under you. And I should say too that I realize that it wasn't just about my perspective coming out of marketing, which is just a sliver of sort of one of the many creative fields out there. In this book, I bring in a lot of different perspectives. So, what would this be like for a TV executive producer who's dealing with writer's rooms, where you're dealing with the class clown from a bunch of schools and all these class clowns are stuck in a writer's room throwing out ideas with a ton of sort of vulnerability and ego in that. And how do you, as a former writer, now run this in a way that makes it healthy, helps build up their courage and their confidence to do the best work? 

Or if you're, another contributor is [inaudible 00:28:23], Joe Russo, David Guggenheim, all of whom are successful executive producers and filmmakers. How do you manage a production set? How do you manage someone else's production as an executive producer, where you're dealing with other creative people? And it's not about feeding your ego, but it's about making their project even better. It's how do we take all these principles and then connect them to all those different creative fields out there? Whether they're filmmaking, TV, commercial design, architecture, music production. It was really interesting seeing the way it was similar and also very different for creative people in different creative careers.

SKOT WALDRON:

What do you think is the reason for the ... I don't know what to say. What is preventing creative leaders from investing in leadership or holding onto this idea of hey, we do need leaders? Because beginning of my career, I didn't think I needed leadership, communication training. I was a great communicator, that's what I did every day for companies. I helped them communicate clearly a message to the world and people bought the stuff and people loved my work. So, I was like, "I don't need help communicating." But it's different. So, what is it that you think's preventing people in the creative industry from either investing in leadership or recognizing that they even need to do that in the first place?

JASON SPERLING:

That's a good question. I think some places are doing it. I think my company now, Facebook Reality Labs, they do it, Google, they do invest in development. I wouldn't say though that it's sort of broadly done. It's hard, it's purely speculation. I think a lot of it is just the train is always moving so fast that it's hard to just sort of stop it and say, "We need to look at ourselves and how do we build a more healthy organization and more healthy creative leaders?" I think too, it's still the art trumps the management. You're never going to want to lose top creative talent. I mean, they're your bread and butter to create a career. But you know that they want growth in order to stay. 

It's always going to be potentially a trade off. I'm going to keep you because you always deliver, and I'm going to hope that when I promote you, that you're going to be able to draw that same talent out of other people. But I'm doing it on the basis of your talent in one aspect of the job, not the other. And just hope that that pans out. Yeah. 

SKOT WALDRON:

You said one of the biggest thing, mistakes that companies are making is when it comes to company culture, is that it's one of the last things they invest in. Or they think that it's just going to create itself. That's what I call accidental leadership. Just letting things happen, see where they fall. And without being intentional about development, they're just being accidental about it. Do you address that in the book or talk about that principle? 

JASON SPERLING:

In terms of the fact that we're just sort of hoping that it goes the right way, no. The book is probably a little more purposeful. It's not necessarily trying to identify the issues in creative cultures as much as it is trying to game plan, here's how you adapt and here's how you do it. So, it's more for the individual, not the organization in that way. And I should say too, that part of the book is saying you should give yourself permission to not become a leader. It's okay to just keep doing your craft. If you don't have the inclination or the skillset, don't just chase the sort of dollars, the titles, or perhaps the assumed career trajectory in order to do it. Because it's only going to result in harmful behavior, potentially affecting careers of younger creative people below you, or the success of a company. 

And I think that's part of the problem too. And there's a few people in the book who talk about people within their own organizations, who they said self identified as I want to stay a maker, I don't want to manage people. And they have to figure out ways to support and grow this person in that role, and not as a manager. So, it's almost like veering from the timeline a little bit, and telling makers, "Hey, it's okay." People have done it. And then telling organizations, "You need to figure out ways to cultivate people in those roles." And potentially not just say, "All right, here's the path, you've done phenomenal, you've won all your awards, you've brought us fame and acclaim and everybody wants to come work here because of the work you've made. Here's 10 people that you have to manage. Instead of hanging out in a coffee house coming up with ideas, we want you in client meetings from 9:00 to 5:00."

There was a guy that I worked with at Media Arts Lab, he later came with me over to my next agency, RPA. And he was a brilliant writer, Pete [Fegal 00:35:19]. He still ... Well, at Media Arts Lab he was a writer, he came over to RPA and he led a group for Farmers' Insurance. It was so ... He went from being that crazy guy with the crazy ideas, maybe he was at work that day or maybe he was sitting at his house in Silver Lake on his door step just typing away on his keyboard. To a guy that was wearing suit jackets and going to theses meetings with these insurance folks and doing it all day long. 

And you just watched as his persona just changed over the course of time. And we used to jokingly call him ... What did we call him? Khaki Pants Pete, or something. Because he had changed so much and that was his persona. It was just, "I'm going to wear a costume every day. And in fact, I'm going to wear almost a head space costume to just try and get through this work." Anyway, he quit after about six months of that and went back to Apple, where he's ... He doesn't manage anyone, he's just a writer. 

SKOT WALDRON:

And I think that that's important as leaders, if I'm fighting for your highest possible good, not my own highest possible good, but yours, then I'm going to understand that. I'm going to say, "What is the vision for your life? What are your hopes and dreams? What are you good at?" And, "How can I help you achieve that thing?" Whatever it is. Is it taking my job? Maybe it is. Maybe you want to take my job one day. But I'm still there to invest in you, to give you the tools and the things that you need in order to achieve whatever it is you're trying to achieve.

JASON SPERLING:

100%.

SKOT WALDRON:

Once people know that, again, I'm for you, not I'm for myself or against you. That is when true loyalty, true influence comes. And that's when people become invested. And that's when people stay for the long haul. Putting Khaki Pants Pete, it's like crushed his soul. It was just like what was the leader thinking in that point going, "Oh, that'd be a great idea." We'll go ahead and do this. And maybe it was just an experiment, maybe Pete wanted to try that experiment, I don't know what it was. But recognizing that as a leader is really important in investing in your people. 

JASON SPERLING:

Yeah. And recognizing it in yourself too. We can't ... While I think we hope to work for organizations that have people invested and are looking out for us and setting us on the right path, we also need to, as individuals, have some sense of ... or just have a level of reflection to identify that in ourselves before it manifests itself in bad ways.

SKOT WALDRON:

True that.

JASON SPERLING:

Before we start competing against our own teams in coming up with ideas for a big pitch. Because we can't necessarily come to terms with not being the creator, with not being in the spotlight, with not getting the award or having someone pat us on the back and saying, "Brilliant idea." So, we need to have that self awareness and understand what's right for ourselves and what's wrong. And do we like that role? Does it feel right for us?

SKOT WALDRON:

Well-said. People that want your book, how do they get ahold of it?

JASON SPERLING:

If you have a real bookstore in your neighborhood, please buy it there. If you don't, there's this other place called Amazon.com. WWW.Amazon.com. And I believe-

SKOT WALDRON:

Okay, I'll check that out.

JASON SPERLING:

And I believe they have books there.

SKOT WALDRON:

I'll check that out one day. Yeah, I think I've heard of it, that's cool. Okay, awesome man. I appreciate the wisdom you've brought to the show today. 

JASON SPERLING:

I appreciate the platform.

SKOT WALDRON:

Hey, it's what it's for. I want to have awesome conversations with awesome people. And I think, again, this is one of the first times I've brought someone from my world in the creative industry onto this show. I really love what you said. I agree with you on all fronts. I hope that we can help shift and change some of the mindsets within our industry to understand how important this is, as we lead ourselves and lead others into the future. Very cool. Thank you for being on the show. Any last words? 

JASON SPERLING:

Well, I should say the book is called Creative Directions. I can't thank you enough, it's been great. You're right, it's been a great conversation, great to talk to I think a very like-minded individual. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

SKOT WALDRON:

Really good insights there from Jason. I hope that all of you out there, whether you run an agency or not, this applies. This principle, this concept of owning and learning a trade, we become really good at that trade. And whatever it is: accounting, it could be IT, it could be anything. But we get really good at that thing. And then because we're so good at it, upper leadership says, "Oh, you're good at that thing. Let's make you a manager over all these people and then they can learn what you've learned and be good at that thing." 

But here is the issue, I may not be great in that leadership role. That might not be my thing. My thing is creation. My thing is ideating and producing great work, not necessarily leading other people, inspiring other people, mentoring other people in that sense to also produce the great work. It's understanding our roles, understanding our strengths, understanding also the people on our team and what they value and also what they want for the rest of their lives. Do we know that we are for them? Do they know that we are for them? There are two different questions there that you need to address.

Again, this doesn't just apply to agency life. This applies to everyone. And I hope that you will take some of these words to heart, as you think more about your internal team, about what they want for themselves as well as what you want for them, and how do you continue to invest in them to make sure they become loyal I guess brand advocates of you? And not just the company, but you as a leader, as a person, as an individual. That they're talking about you in the longterm because you made that kind of impact on them. If you want to find out more about me, you can go to Skot WaldronWaldren.com, I've got a lot of interviews there and some other resources about what I do. Also, go to YouTube, like, subscribe, comment, all those things. And I would love to hear from you there. If you have any questions, find me on LinkedIn, let's connect and talk. Until next time, this has been another episode of Unlocked. 

Want to make your culture and team invincible?

You can create a culture of empowerment and liberation through better communication and alignment. We call these invincible teams. Make your team invincible through a data-driven approach that is used by Google, the CDC, the Air Force, Pfizer, and Chick-fil-A. Click here or the image below to learn more.

Create an invincible team