Features

How I got here… Ryan Jackson, Percolate Galactic co-founder

From coming of age in America during the global financial crisis to packing his bags with his wife Sam and heading to Indonesia where they started their own independent creative agency, Percolate Galactic co-founder Ryan Jackson talks us through his story

Education

I remember my high school education well. There was one time I had been sentenced to detention with four of the people, who would later become my best friends. Slowly-but-surely, our personas began to crack under the weight of time and honesty.

A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. That’s the way they saw us that morning, and that’s the way we saw each other. We were brainwashed.

That’s actually the plot of The Breakfast Club film, which is a way more entertaining story than any of my own stories from school so I’ll leave those out. I think the market on stories about teenage Americans behaving in hilariously dumb ways has been saturated.

My real life education though began in 2008, when the banking sector of the United States collectively went ‘LOL, check this out’ and tanked the West’s economy for a generation. If you were just getting out of college or beginning your career, you were keenly aware that the world you were stepping into was a flaming toilet of senseless despair and existential horror.

Even worse, it was a flaming toilet that seemed to operate without rules or logic or morality.

Jackson as a young boy

It is hard to express what that year felt like. My grandparent’s stories of growing-up still had the permanent scars of the Great Depression in America. It felt like maybe this round of collapse, mass youth unemployment and brutal competition for low-wage work was going to be the new normal.

The events of 2008 led me and my wife Sam to flee our home country and accept $400 per month teaching jobs in Indonesia. This seemed like a totally reasonable choice at the time.

My start

In America, my trade was journalism. When I got to Jakarta, I sought out as many odd-jobs as I could. I accepted anything, as long as it involved putting words on paper. Grocery store mailers, small fashion labels and seemingly every independent coffee shop in the city.

My wife and I eventually built up a steady enough client roster and small nest egg that allowed us the capital to register our business and hang out our shingle. So we formed the Percolate Galactic creative agency.

From there, success followed.

Just kidding. From there, we spent the next two years frantically trying to earn just enough money to continue to pay for both a roof over our heads and electricity.

An unanticipated side-effect of our bootstrapped beginnings was that when you have no money, you can’t afford to pay anyone. And that means you have to learn how to do every job in order to survive.

Do you think I was born a mediocre user of after effects? I was not. I had to work my way up to this level of mediocrity.

Approach

Hustle, bluff, luck.

Hustle meant that we always assumed that someone better could come along and step on us at any time, so we kept upping our standards to compete with this eventual competitor. We still believe that. We’re constantly preparing for a doomsday challenge to our place in the market that might come along at any time.

Bluff is pretty familiar to anybody reading this. I compare it to ‘kayfabe’ in wrestling, where a wrestler is never supposed to break character. You’re not just the Macho Man in press releases; your whole life is the lead-up to Wrestlemania. We’re constantly ready to get into the ring and bring the pain, brother.

Luck is the antidote to bluff, and anyone who discounts luck is either lying or insane. Our first major international client? We met their rep accidentally while we were at a mall getting coffee. We still had to win the account, but if we hadn’t had that chance meeting, we wouldn’t have even had an opportunity to pitch.

We also had the decisive advantage of not knowing what we didn’t know.

The husband and wife team

I had developed a list of agencies whose work I thought was awesome — Seattle’s own Wexley School for Girls (RIP), Kinetic in Singapore, Mother in New York — and just went: “Alright gang, I believe we can and should be doing stuff like this.” In retrospect, that was like going: “I think Lebron is pretty sweet at that whole basketball thing. I’m going to grow an immaculate beard and be the dominating talent of all sports forever.

We didn’t know how impossibly difficult it was to produce at the level of those agencies, and because we didn’t know, we had the naive courage to try. We failed on a lot of pitches (a lot, a whole freaking ton), but we learned from our failures and found ourselves moving in strange new directions that have been deeply asymmetrical to where the market is.

The root of the word ‘weird’ is from the old Germanic word wyrd, meaning destiny. It’s as close to a guiding principle as I have as either a human or a creature of capitalism.  

Highs and lows

The high is really simple. I get to create something that’s bigger than my wife and I ever could have imagined. I look around our workroom and I see generational talent. A collection of twenty-somethings about to have their moment: the next David Drogas and Rebecca Sugars and Spike Jonzes. I spend half of my day just trying to stay sharp enough to be worthy of leading a group that’s this talented.

The Percolate Galactic crew back in 2015, the team is now 24-strong

The lows? Talk to anyone who has gone out on their own. Get them in one of those unguarded moments, after a few drinks and when the walls have come down. It’s hard. You question your decisions. You worry about money. You know that you have to own all of the failures personally. If you mess up, the thing you made gets dragged through the mud and you let down all of the people who had faith in you.

Remember when I said that stuff about ‘bluff’ before? If you’re feeling the weight, it’s not just you — we’re institutionally trained to never show pain, struggle or weakness. If it feels like you’re the only one forcing a smile? You’re not. And we’d probably all be better off it we admitted it.

Do’s and don’ts

It feels strange to be telling anyone to ‘do’ this or ‘do not’ do that. I co-founded a boutique agency that has a mannequin dressed in a banana suit standing in the middle of our production floor.

The office decor in Jakarta

Our yearly billings are probably a rounding error for most of the agency people reading this. There are only two things that I know for sure:

Do be nice. Candour isn’t a licence for cruelty and if you can’t express your ideas without being a jerk, you suck and you should live in a cave and let everyone else just get on with the day.

Do not lose perspective. Whatever I do during the day, and however important it feels to me, I always remind myself that my mom is an ICU pediatric nurse and that there are children alive today because of her.

There are millions of people out there, just like my mom, doing the work of making the world a better place — and nobody is giving them an award for it. We are privileged to have the opportunity to traffic in ideas, art and film. Never lose sight of that.

Ryan Jackson is co-founder of Percolate Galactic, an Indonesia-based agency creative agency

ADVERTISEMENT

SUBSCRIBE

Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing