Droga5’s first Chief Design Officer on his newly created role, Design with a capital ‘D’ and his expanding body of secret artistic work
Last month Droga5 raised industry eyebrows by creating a new leadership role - Chief Design Officer. The agency suggested they needed someone to lead the agency’s overall Design department and help expand their offering with new services. Jason Severs was the man for the job, it seems. With more than 20 years of experience in design and leadership at Verizon and Frog Design, Founder and Creative Chairman David Droga knew he was the right choice.
With Droga’s stamp of approval and an intriguing new job title, we knew we had to get to know Jason, so LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with him to find out what drives him and his work...
LBB> Congratulations on the new gig. What was it about the opportunity at Droga5 that tempted you away from Verizon?
JS> Thanks. I started talking to David Droga and the leadership team back in April so it’s nice to finally be here. Before joining Verizon I spent 12 years at the design consultancy Frog. In that time I worked with a lot organizations undergoing massive transitions but never really had a clear understanding of the client’s day-to-day experience. I felt it was important to have first hand experience working client side. In that time, I built a fantastic team and made some strong partnerships at Verizon. My plan was to spend five or six years there and launch some new products and programs. And then I met David Droga.
Jonny Bauer, who I knew before joining Droga5, had been telling me for years that design would eventually play a bigger role in advertising. I think I told him he was crazy. He asked to me to meet David just to feel things out. After our first meeting, I knew right away that David wanted to formalize a growing part of Droga5’s offering, particularly in the area of brand experiences. We have been doing this kind of work for clients for a few years now, both tactically and strategically. David recognized that now was the time to take that work to the next level by bringing all of these brand and experience related practices together into one department.
LBB> You’ve been in the job for about a month now. How’s it been treating you so far and how are you finding the culture within the agency?
JS> It’s been great! I was always impressed with the caliber of work coming out of Droga5 and now that I’ve got a peek behind the curtain I respect the work even more. The people here are super down to earth, curious, and passionate. One of the things I have always considered important when building teams is not to hire assholes. We have managed to follow this unstated policy at Droga5. I consider that a valuable signifier of a culture’s worth and potential.
We’ve also have found a great working rhythm between strategy and creative that everyone is excited to take to the next level. The entire organization has been supporting my transition to help me hit the ground running. I have David to thank for that. He’s been a big champion of mine and laying the foundations for me to build a department that will help us continue to deliver amazing creative and strategy, while also moving us into new territories with experience design.
LBB> It’s a brand new role at Droga5. Was that something that appealed to you? It’s a real opportunity for you to head in and carve something out that’s truly your own?
JS> Definitely. I’ve always been a bit of a challenge hunter and love stretching the limits of my professional practice and craft as a designer. I’m a firm believer the Design (with a capital ‘D’) is not only a discipline in service of industry, but a better way of approaching all of the challenges we face in our world. I’m basically that kooky disciple moving from place to place spreading the world about the power and potential of Design.
And I love bringing together great multi-disciplinary talent to approach problems in new and unexpected ways. Thanks to one of our ECDs Neil Heymann, who was initially watching over the department during the search process, I’ve inherited an amazing group of designers and technologists. One of the first things I did after joining was bring together all of our design related disciplines (Brand, UX, Interaction Design, Creative Tech, and Content Strategy) into one team. Now that I’ve got the ball rolling here the next step is to explore how my department integrates with our creatively strategic metabolism. The metabolic rate for design, while iterative in practice, is slower and more detail oriented. Traditional ad and marketing creative moves at the crazy fast pace of campaign cycles. And our flavor of brand experience strategy has found a way to move with these cycles. This work sets a beautiful stage for brands to play, I want to build a multi-disciplinary practice that can orchestrate iterative brand experiences that play out over time on that stage.
LBB> With that in mind, what are your main aims and ambitions for your new role?
JS> Like many in the Design community I looked at Advertising as an excessive use of client budgets that could be better spent on R&D and product design. After building a design team under the Verizon CMO, and working closely with other agencies on the client side, I quickly saw the flaws in this thinking. I witnessed firsthand the power of advertising and marketing in building and evolving brands while also rallying and inspiring organizational momentum to get behind a shared purpose. This is the “stage” metaphor I mentioned earlier. David has asked me to consider how Droga5 could leverage Design to go deeper with our clients, building on strong creative and brand strategy to help their brands break through in an overly saturated marketplace with new forms of engagement. The challenge we face is that advertising and marketing no longer happens in purely passive contexts. How people experience the brand narrative is just as important as the narrative itself. I want to build a department that explores brand building through the human experience while partnering with our growing data intelligence, performance marketing and comms strategy offerings.
LBB> You were at Verizon previously, so you’ve gone from brand-side to agency-side. How does that previous experience aid what you’re going to be doing at Droga5? And how will you have to adapt your way of thinking for Droga5 clients?
JS> The work me and my team did at Verizon involved the design of new products and services and creating whitespace strategies and visions that would provide new innovations and value. This kind of work often pushed companies to behave and operate differently. I joined Verizon to build on this experience and try to influence the way a business of that scale can operate. I felt it was important, personally and professionally, to explore how Design could influence better customer experiences from the inside out.
While at Verizon I saw firsthand how this impacted the lines of business, transformed business cases, channel strategy and operations and distribution models. I want to bring the experience to the forefront in how we work with our clients; helping companies generate awareness, define clear messages and measurable brand strategies, while leveraging iterative design practices to deliver great end-to-end experiences, from acquisition all the way to deeper customer relationships.
And this is a super interesting time for this considering so many of our clients have purely digital offerings, and the lines between funnel-based marketing and ongoing product management are getting fuzzier and fuzzier. We can build beautiful and engaging 360 campaigns that drive product and service growth but Droga5 has to be just as great at aligning campaign cycles to product development cycles. For the customer’s perspective, marketing and products experiences are all the same. We have to ensure our clients can deliver a coherent experience in any context of the relationship lifecycle.
LBB> Let’s talk a bit about you. How did you initially get into what you’re doing? Was it always the plan or more of a happy accident?
JS> It actually was a bit of an accident. I moved to New York with the goal of being an artist in mind. This was the early ‘90s so I had some romantic combination of Jean Michel Basquiat and Laurie Anderson in mind. I was showing and had gallery representation but was pretty uninspired by the “art-world.” As I begin to play in the technology space and doing freelance web design and Flash development I learned that there was this thing called a “user.” I was immediately fascinated with the real-time connection between maker and audience that happens in the world of product and service design. The “art world” felt disconnected from everyday live. I wanted to design and build things that had a direct impact on our everyday experiences.
LBB> What do you get up to outside of work to keep your creative batteries charged?
JS> I watch a ton of movies and TV. I buy too many books and graphic novels. Beyond all of that, collecting music has always been my central passion - records, CD, tapes, endless hours digging around on Spotify. Sitting down with my sketchbook, a stack of books, and playing random stuff from my collection is my ideal Saturday morning. I also have a studio in the Berkshires and have been secretly producing a body of work that no one will see until my death forces my children to deal with it.
LBB> You also teach masterclasses at the School of Visual Arts. Why is that educational aspect an important thing for you?
JS> I believe design education is most effective with involvement and leadership from practicing professionals. I bring my personal and professional experience to the table to give them a better picture of the world they’ll be working after school. My students get to see all sides of the process, from the client's’ perspective, the studio/agency culture side, and most importantly the human side. And this is a two-way relationship. They get the benefit of seeing real world examples to contextualize their student work, and I in turn can have my theories and ideas challenged by a next generation of designers.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
JS> This is always a hard question so I’ll just give a representative sample…
Tibor Kallman - Because he was a “designer” by accident.
Bruce Mau - Because as one of my early mentors, he helped me see beyond the world of design to the design of the world.
John Cage - Because randomness has an architecture.
Kristin Wigg - Because I could watch anything she does, over and over, and her characters create worlds unto themselves.
Jacques Tati - Because “Mon Oncle” and “Playtime”
Will Eisner and Scott McCloud - Because they defined the core philosophies and of the graphic novel and comic art forms while also producing some it’s best work.
Ray and Charles Eames - Because they revealed the power of studio culture and play using any medium or tool to produce brilliant and enduring work. They brought together artist and designer into one beautiful conceptual space. I also loved that their studio culture was more like a family.
Stanley Milgram and Jean Piaget - Two scientists who challenged their respective disciplines through truly unique approaches to discovery and experimentation.
LBB> You’ve been working in design for 20 years. How has the evolution of technology over that time affected the work that you do?
JS> There are two answers to this question. One has to do with process and the other has to do with the landscape in which we design communications and experiences for brands.
In terms of process, I’ve always been a bit of a polymath in terms of approach and practice. I tend to follow the principles of the bricolage, which broadly state that the maker enters in a conversation with their materials, embracing ambiguity to push forward and really just improvise your way through any problem. With the spread of new technologies available to designers to make ideas tangible, from pencil to code, we can really do anything. But this range of possibilities requires an even broader range of skills and new ways of working. You have to immerse into the materials in a completely different manner.
In terms of the landscape, brand ecosystems are more complex everyday as we outfit them with mobile apps, robotics, sensing technologies, connected devices, and reporting tools for all the real-time data produced across these systems. As designers, we could focus on more isolated interactions with closed systems and individual product experiences. Think about the phone, all you had to do was understand the technology requirements and translate those into and interface and interaction that was intuitive most the users. Now, the concept of phone means something completely different. What do you differently when phone calls are one on the go, done by video, of interrupted by texts, and on and on and on. These are new behaviors and context that push designers to work and think more iteratively, build and test against hypotheses, while we also have to consider all the variables in the relevant system. Technology makes us think in systems.
LBB> What are biggest effects and changes that you’re experiencing right now?
JS> The most pervasive effects are around mobile technologies and behaviors and emerging Bot/AI based interactions. Mobile has forced us to deal with context and systems in a different way. Before, designing experiences for controlled spaces such as retail and web, the boundaries and constraints were more apparent. When computers move with you designers must consider the nuances of flow and peripheral experiences. This requires a deeper knowledge of systems theory and human psychology.
And as our interface with computers becomes more embedded into the environments around us, the keys, buttons and screens become more conversational. The average person in any developed society probably has daily interactions with non-human agents. How do we as designers not only represent brands through these kinds of interactions, but also weight the social and ethical implications as a part of our practice. Brand experiences and narratives are delivered through 360-degree omni channel nightmares. Strategy defines the purpose, creative sets the tone and articulates its meaning, then Design brings all of those directions to life.