Jonathan Robinson

photo by Terrell Neasley

December is a good time to reflect and take stock of the year, and that’s the basis of my conversation with this week’s guest Jonathan Robinson. Jonathan is a creative powerhouse — a writer, a filmmaker, and a director, just to start — who’s currently on a personal journey of self-discovery.

We started off doing a bit of a recap of the past year, and Jonathan shed some light on what creative and experiential producers do and how he came into those titles through his work in the advertising industry. He also talked about working with AI and VR, and spoke about how his time spent at Facebook and Twitter helped shape him into his current calling as a storyteller.

For Jonathan, chasing his passions and connecting with other people are what drives him. When you look back at this year, what’s been your driving force?

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Jonathan Robinson:

My name is Jonathan Robinson, and I am a creative producer, director, and writer, supporting all kinds of interactive experiences, products, and bringing stories to life.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look back at this year, at 2023, how would you describe it? Like, how’s it been for you?

Jonathan Robinson:

It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster, I think. I kind of liken it to making a loop around a racetrack. Things feel very familiar. But also, the urgency of how I’m trying to sort of move up in the race is starting to set in. I started the year still very much in a sort of personal sabbatical, working on a few writing projects and a VR concept which was really fulfilling, but also because these projects were very personal and tied to my personal experiences, my family history. I was doing a lot of digging up sort of latent emotional baggage and opening up wounds that I didn’t know were there. Add to that sort of the reality of living in capitalism and needing to pay your bills, trying to balance how to leverage the skills and the experience that I’ve had over the last close to 15 years working as a producer to generate some income without necessarily going back to the kind of soul crushing work that it felt like I left quite intentionally. I’ve done a little bit of contract work to pay the bills, but in doing so have been reminded why I left in the first place.

I think if anything, I feel like I went on a sort of condensed loop of what the past four or five years of my journey has been just in this one year. I think that’s given me a renewed clarity and motivation to continue in this sort of uncomfortable, unfamiliar path towards what I think I know I want.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s a very diplomatic answer.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s me. I’m a producer by trade and also a little bit by personality. So always trying to find the middle ground that moves us closer to an objective.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. How are you making time for joy these days?

Jonathan Robinson:

One of those things is really starting to take some of these more administrative skills that I’ve used in my professional life and trying to apply them to the emotional maturity, work and growth that I’ve experienced over the last couple of years. I had a moment of I mean, as most of us did during the pandemic of real clarity and understanding that I was not investing nearly enough time and energy into my relationships as I was into my career. And so, from there I started to just try to apply some of that structure that existed in my career that created that focus and apply that to relationships. It sounds, like, very academic or clinical, but I have a standing call with my best friend every Friday or excuse me, every other Friday when we talk for about two or three hours on the phone. I have standing dates with a couple of other friends either on a weekly or monthly basis just to make sure that we have a touch point. And it’s not like we’re only ever talking during these times. But I’ve found that when you have that consistency, it makes it so much easier to seek out these connections in between. And I think for myself, I’m kind of a self-isolating personality when I don’t have the sort of structure and pressure to show up if someone is not directly in my vicinity.

Living here in Oakland, I actually don’t have most of my closest friends in the area. They’re either in New York or in Southern California or in Europe. And so, it does take a little bit more effort on my part to make sure that those relationships are solid and are being fed. But I’ve really enjoyed seeing that growth and the ways in which it’s made me less in my head about reaching out and connecting with people. Even if it’s just something as silly as sending a meme or a photo of something ridiculous that I just saw while I was crossing the street. Yeah, I mean, add to like trying to make sure that I get out of the house and have in-person community. I’ve been attending this writing group here in Oakland, at Wolfpack Studios, a little studio in downtown Oakland. And it’s just maybe about anywhere between six to twelve of us once a month.

And we get together for about two hours, two to three hours, to go through a couple of prompts. We start with haikus and some short story prompts. Folks are reading their poetry and rapping or they’re not writers at all and they just wanted to show up and have a good time. But I’ve found some really cool people who just being able to express yourself in a room of other people who are willing to express themselves and open up in that way, I think, has been really refreshing and really rewarding for my own personal work. So that’s kind of the variety.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s really good to still try to keep those lines of communication open. I know when the pandemic first started, that was kind of a thing a lot of people tried to do, at least through Zoom or through other types of telecommunications type software. Just like check in, see how things are going, et cetera. But now I don’t want to say we’re a few years out from the Pandemic, but certainly the world has gotten back to its normal state. Well, I don’t want to say normal. You know what I mean. We’ve started.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:

We’ve pushed past that restrictive period, and I think some people have moved past it, some people haven’t. I still feel like it’s a very sort of OD and touchy time in terms of communication. So, I like that you’re making those efforts to actually keep in touch and keep those lines of communication open because it can be so easy, especially if they don’t live in the same city as you. It’s so easy for those to just die on the vine.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

2024 is right around the corner. Have you thought about what you want to accomplish next year?

Jonathan Robinson:

I have, and as I said before, it is uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but I’m excited. I am going to be taking a renewed focus on these creative projects that I started about a year and a half ago. I’m working on a sci-fi script and a couple of short stories that I want to shoot and preparing for a push to either potentially go to a film school later in the year and figure out how to kick start a filmmaking career. So that’s like one track. But on the other end of the spectrum is exploring what I describe as more experiential work, things that involve newer technologies like artificial intelligence and VR. There are a couple of artists that are really interesting in this space, one of which is a good friend who I used to work with in New York. Their name is Sougwen Chung, and they do essentially a lot of collaborative performances where they are generating art along with their artificial intelligence and robotics companions that they have built and programmed over the last, I think, twelve years now. And so, I’m very excited to find ways to replicate that same kind of work, as well as find ways to collaborate with folks in that space, including Sougwen themselves.

But in terms of what all of that looks know, I can’t really tell, really. I grew up in the church, so it’s really easy for this phrase to come to mind, but I am literally walking by faith and not by sight. I am just putting 1ft in front of the other and juggling the variables and catching the consequences, which I mean, I guess is what it means to be a producer. So, I’ve had a lot of practice in that space dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. But it’s a lot easier to do that when you have conviction, which I think has been the theme that is coalescing towards the end of this year in terms of how I want to approach 2024. It’s with conviction. I don’t need to know everything. I don’t need to have everything absolutely planned out; I don’t need to know how everything is going to work out.

But I do have to walk with a sort of full body yes and a confidence that is grounded in purpose. And that really is what conviction is. So that’s what my 2024 looks like. Walking into the unknown, sure footed.

Maurice Cherry:

I like that. I like that a lot. That’s funny that you also kind of tied that back into the work in a way about like, this is what it means to be a producer, which I want to unpack a little bit later now when I do my research and everything to try to find out more about the guest. And you alluded to this a bit earlier, kind of being on this personal journey. What brought that on?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think when I look back at it, and in hindsight, it started at the end of 2017-ish, basically when I started at Facebook. Up until this point, I had been working in New York in the advertising field. I’d bounced around between a couple of different agencies, but at that point I was around three years into my second stint at a production company called The Mill, and essentially being like one of two senior producers in their experiential and interactive division, which they had just started to build back up. I got this opportunity to work at Facebook, and the job was in London. So, I’d be leaving the country to live outside of the country for the first time since I was like three years old when I was in Costa Rica. And so, I was really excited about that opportunity. This is also 2017, so if we think back to where the world was sort of socio-politically, an opportunity to work at a place like Facebook is a sort of double-edged sword. High impact, massive reach, and you’re working on a product that touches almost half of the people on the planet in one way or another.

But at the time, we were also starting to discover, more concretely anyway, that some of the ways in which that impact was landing in people’s lives was actually quite harmful, and that maybe something actually could have been done about that, but simply wasn’t. So, I threw myself into that opportunity with optimism and a lot of youthful vigor. But I think the combination of one understanding the relative impact of one or even a couple hundred individuals in a corporation that has 70,000 employees and a global reach, it makes for a quite Sisyphean task, I think, is the word. Pushing that boulder up the hill every day, and also living in London, moving there without any friends and family. And all of these things sort of coincided and combined with the point in my life that I was at, and I fell into a pretty deep depression. And then I learned the first rule of working in tech, and that is that every six to eight months there’ll be a reorg. And I was reorged out of my role and needed to find a new one. And I had one of two options: stay in London and find a team within the Facebook ecosystem that could use my skills so that I could stay in London or move to the bay area for this particular team that had headcount.

And they were like, we’ll take you on, we want to have you, but it means you got to move back to the states. And with option two, came back to the states, and just in time for about a year’s worth of soaking up the benefits of this northern California climate and nature and all of the amazing culture of Oakland right before the pandemic, and sort of back in isolation. That isolation again just sort of brought to the forefront the struggle I was having between the kind of impact I wanted to have in a company like Facebook and the kind of impact that I was actually having and whether or not that was commiserate or whether or not I could square that with the negative impact that the company was having, at least from my perspective. And so you’re sitting in a studio by yourself all day for months on end, as a lot of us know, and it leads to a lot of introspection. I was spending a lot of time in therapy, actually. I had just started therapy right before the pandemic started, which was amazing timing, but was also spending a lot of time actually talking to my mother about her own sort of personal journey and the spiritual journey that she was on at the time. We started talking about different belief systems. And she really surprised me by bringing up IFA and this sort of African indigenous spiritual frameworks of West Africa, specifically the Yoruba.

And I started to dig into some of these things and do a little bit of research on my own. And she invited me to a weekly class, weekly zoom with someone who was going to sort of run through a curriculum to explain the basics of the framework. And without getting into the details of the spiritual beliefs themselves, I think what was most impactful about that was this underlying system that was about understanding your place within this particular life, this place and time that we exist. And how it connects to our ancestors, the people who came before us, the people around us, and the unseen forces that are at play, whether that be natural forces, societal forces, technological forces. And it really started to give me almost like a narrative framework to be able to investigate my life and see what was working and what wasn’t, what did I want to change. And that’s kind of how I got to this place of I don’t think working in tech is the thing for me. I’m not knocking it for anybody who does want to. I do think the work is incredibly important for all of the reasons that I left.

But it became very clear that my path, my purpose is in storytelling and finding ways to weave narratives that can help us investigate the relationship between what we see in front of us and what we feel like we experience as reality and those unseen forces, the parts of reality that are just outside of our perception and how to sort of marry the two, make them compatible and then create a better reality. Because I do think that that is what we are here for, to leave the world a better place than we found it. And we can’t really do that if we’re not honest about who we are and the world that we live in and what kind of world that we want. So, yeah, long winded answer to say, that’s how I got here.

Maurice Cherry:

I was going to say some of those things that you mentioned. I mean, 100% mirror, I think, what a lot of people might be feeling about working in tech, I think just in general, a couple of months ago, we had Maya Gold Robinson on the show. And I’ve known Maya for a long time. I knew her since she was a product designer in Chicago, and since then she has…actually she’s also worked at Facebook. She also worked at Twitter. She created…

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah, I love Maya. She’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:

You did? Okay, cool. Yeah. But she was talking about how right now she’s also sort of taking this break and being like, I’m kind of done with tech right now. I’m going to take a year; I’m going to spend it with my family and just sort of figure out what these next steps are. I think what we’re seeing with tech, and I want to talk a little bit more about this kind of creative journey because I feel like part of this personal journey you went, underwent deals also with you as a creative because you said you emerged talking about storytelling. But I feel like we’re starting to see that tech is not all it’s cracked up to mean. Well, yeah, surprise, right? But I think the way and I mentioned this in the interview with Maya, I was like it kind of felt like in some way we were kind of sold like a false bill of goods about tech, about how it is going to offer you this economic prosperity and these opportunities to be on these projects that can change the world. Especially for large tech companies. But then you get in there and you’re subject to so many other isms and like you said, professional reorgs and things like that.

And it can be easy to feel like a cog in the machine and that your work doesn’t really have the impact that maybe you were told it does.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely. And it’s not necessarily that any of those things were completely untrue. You absolutely can work on these projects that have massive impact and change the world and be financially lucrative, even for yourself as an individual, as much as it is often understood that most of that financial impact is going to go to somebody else sitting in a bigger office. But that doesn’t actually always balance out with all of those other things you mentioned. The reorgs, the isms, the sort of cog in the machine feeling that you get when you work on something diligently and over long extended hours with a massive team and you spent two to six months on something and then all of a sudden somebody decides that no one will ever see it, period. Yeah, that gets old actually rather quickly.

Maurice Cherry:

Very quickly. Absolutely very quickly. I’m thinking of my own journey. The last place that I worked at was this tech startup based out of San Francisco, and I came on under the title Creative Strategist. Creative Strategist was like a title. It’s funny you mentioned the Pandemic, because during the Pandemic, I was also thinking of, like well, what do I really call myself? Because prior to getting I don’t want to say prior to getting into tech, but prior to working for the startup that I worked at at the time, I had my own business, still have the business, but back then I had a staff of nine people. They were designers, developers. I was kind of doing creative work with Mailchimp and WordPress and all this kind of stuff.

But then you get into a startup in these companies and the startup I was at at the time, I changed titles maybe about six different times as the company grew. And so, each time that title changed, I don’t know if it really reflected what it is that I really do. It sort of just puts you in a bit of a box in a way. Like I went from being a content marketer to a design communications lead, to marketing lead, to head of media. And I think the last title I had was like senior Creative strategist because it felt right. It was like, yes, I know the creative part, but I also know the business part and I can sort of bring these two things together in a way.

Jonathan Robinson:

Right?

Maurice Cherry:

But what I basically was doing, and this kind of alludes, I think, a bit to your story is like, I basically was taking creative projects that the company wanted to do and making them happen, which is a producer type of thing, which back then, I didn’t really think that that’s what I did. Or at least that I didn’t associate that with what I did. But the last place I worked; we made a print magazine. We made a print and an online magazine. And I mean, I threw everything into it because I’ve always wanted to do a magazine. I grew up on magazines and we got two issues out the door, really. We only got one issue out the door.

The second one came after they laid off the entire team. But it was a quarterly magazine. I put so much into it, the structure. I’d sent out this weekly hot sheet to let people know when assignments were due. And these are the artists that are working on certain visuals and all this sort of stuff and had a plan for at least a six-issue run. And these are the themes that we’re going to talk about. And these are the writers that I want to bring in. And we did the first one with great success, and we were leading up to the second one.

The second issue was at the printer. Like it was set to go out a week from then. And then they laid us all off because they invited us to like a slack group called Goodbye and we’re like, Wait a minute, what? Wow. Invited us to a slack group called #goodbye. And I think I started my workday at eight and by noon I was unemployed. It was just like that, and I was so pissed off because it didn’t give me enough time to really pull together all my stuff. But it’s like, yeah, you spend so much time putting something together, and then it never sees the light of day. We were going to do this issue on Web3, and I found a Black Web3 ethicist.

Jonathan Robinson:

Wow.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay? Brought them on as, like, a guest editor-in-chief, and we curated the entire magazine for the point of view we wanted to have. It will never see the light of day.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s crazy. This is unsustainable. Absolutely unsustainable. Yeah. I think we can only get, like, one or two of those experiences before we’re like, what are we doing this for?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’ve had three of them since the pandemic started. I had one in 2020. in 2021, and one last year. And yeah, it wears on you in such an insidious way where you know that you can do great work because you know that what you’re capable of, but then it’s like, does it have value in this, I don’t know, tech system that I’m a part of? It’s so weird.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I really appreciate that particular phrasing. Does it have value in this ecosystem that I exist in? I think that was the turning point in at least my therapy practice that helped me decide, okay, I need to leave. Or at the very least, I need to change how I approach this space and show up in this space, because I don’t have the same value system as these people do. I’m being evaluated on a completely different criteria than I evaluate myself. I’m disappointed and feeling upset because I keep trying to make their value system mesh with mine. They don’t need to. They don’t need to.

I step into this space. I understand that these are the criteria, these are the objectives, these are the responsibilities that I have. So, I’ll do those things. But I think I may be misremembering this secondhand quote, but I believe it was Toni Morrison talking about her first job and how her father told her, listen, you work over there. Those people are not your family. You go there, you get your money, and then you come home. And that is how she approached every job that wasn’t her personal projects. And that’s kind of the mindset I had to switch into that helped me get to the place of actually, I don’t think I want to keep showing up here at all.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s tough, because with these tech companies, we might as well just keep talking about it, but we’re talking about these tech companies, and the first thing that they really try to sell you on is like, we’re like a family. This is like a family thing. And even that can be super loaded, especially if you don’t come from a great family environment that could turn you off if they’re like, Wait a minute. I actually don’t fuck my family like that. So, I don’t know. This is like a thing that I want, but it sort of builds this in this sort of period of introspection, you start to wonder if the work you do is even valued by this industry. So maybe what I do is better suited for media than for tech or maybe it’s better suited for nonprofits than for tech. Like something where that’s right, the abilities that I have can be used towards a greater good that’s not about KPIs and personal performance plans and stuff like that.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s exactly right. I think that language that they sort of I mean, it’s not just language, it’s a whole sideshow experience that they sort of bombard you with as you step into these environments where they tell you, yes, we’re all family. This company is yours; no problem is someone else’s problem. You can have all the impact that you can possibly dream of if you just put together an idea and work hard to make it happen. All of those things. And they talk about the values that they have of showing up as your authentic self, whatever that means, and radical honesty and being collaborative and caring about the humans that we serve, our customers, our users, or whatever a new term they decide to use to clean up the fact that actually they’re talking about the people they make money off of. All of that sort of sets this context where you can very quickly forget that you’re in a corporation. Like you’re working at a place that is an equivalent size and scale of an ExxonMobil.

And maybe if you were working at AT&T, you wouldn’t necessarily think too much about the coffee and the cereal and the food courts and all of the amenities and how it does actually feel very comfortable and like a family. And so, it’s easier to remember that you work for a corporation. I think because of the way that some of these tech companies decorate their culture, the aesthetics of their culture obscure that reality. That it is very much a corporate culture where capital and profit reign supreme. And as much as they might say that they want to prioritize the betterment of humanity, they will always make sure that they run that language by legal so that they can always prioritize their dollars in that final hour. Yeah. And just sort of unpacking all of that takes some time and it takes some introspection. You really do have to ask yourself, is this company mine? Do my values actually align with the stated values of the company? And then are those values being practiced in the day to day see those values in the impact that we mean? I think that’s difficult enough to ask of yourself, but it is a necessary first step so that you can ask it of the companies that you work for.

Maurice Cherry:

Right at this point I’m like Marshawn Lynch. I’m just showing. Up so I don’t get fined.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s it. That’s it. That is it. I’m just here so I don’t get fined. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:

I worked for AT&T. I worked for AT&T for almost two and a half years. This was back in two thousand…from 2006 to 2008, I worked there. And at the time their internal sort of slogan was “Shaping Human Capital,” which is like, okay, like, you walk into the building, and you have this big, huge banner – shaping human capital. And I mean, the two and a half years I worked there were grueling not so much in an emotional way, but it’s like it wore on me in such a way that it was affecting me physically and I had to leave.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

And that’s when I left and started my own business. And I feel like that’s really when I started to find myself and my career and my purpose is when I left. And the only reason I sort of got back in, nine years later, honestly, was because the market had changed and the kind of work that I was doing with my studio just wasn’t as profitable as it was before. And I wanted more stability because working for yourself is great, but working for yourself can be a real roller coaster, especially because we started in the middle of a recession and it’s not very easy to try to make the money that you need to pay your bills and just sort of exist in this capitalist society.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

And I think things are different now, but not necessarily better because what’s happened is a lot of these tech startups are picking the worst parts of corporate America and wrapping them in this sort of aesthetic, as you mentioned, to make it seem like, oh, it’s going to be fun and foosball tables and beer on Fridays and stuff like that. Kristy Tillman, who I’ve had on the show before, she’s a friend of mine and I know she once talked about filters. No, what’d she say? Perks as filters. So, like, a lot of companies will list all these different perks, and the perks are fairly similar among companies of a certain size that have reached a certain level of funding. It’s like unlimited PTO. And this sounds great if you’re coming from a place where you had to fight and claw for every day off that you had to get – unlimited PTO sounds great.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

But then that can also be a filter for the fact that the internal culture will overwork you so much that you will feel guilty for utilizing those days and often get penalized for using those days even if they’re not in an egregious manner. I mean, this especially happened during the pandemic with remote stuff. Like it’s remote, you can work from anywhere. And some people took advantage of that. Actually, at the last place that I worked, I’m not going to name where, but people can search and find there were some people that basically traveled every month, and it was remote and so they could work from anywhere. And they’re like, oh, well, if I can work from anywhere, I’m just going to backpack through Europe. That sounds nice, but then what happens is that builds enmity with the people that don’t backpack through Europe or can’t just pick up and leave and go workplaces. And so even though the company had that as a perk of working there, they ended up penalizing this person for it.

And they were just sort of like, “I don’t understand. I’m still getting my work done. I’m going between times, nothing is happening, and I’m getting penalized for what I do outside of work in this way.”

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Divesting from all of this is, I feel, like the smartest move to try to make, especially with what we’ve seen in the past couple of years with tech layoffs, unionization efforts and really the rise of AI and these new technology things. I mean, we’re talking now just fresh off of the writers…not the writer’s strike, the actor’s strike, just ended. But what we’ve seen this year, if we look back through the whole year, we’ve seen three major unions have strikes and win: the writers, the auto workers, and now the actors. And so, what does that mean now for the future of work in this country? Especially now that we see that these efforts can work? We can lobby together and have better, more holistic workplaces and things like that. I don’t know. I worked at a place where we unionized in 2020 and they laid us off three months later. So, I don’t know if this means now there’s more power that exists.

I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but no, a lot of things are changing in a lot of different ways right now. And I think if you’re a creative person, it can be tough to kind of find your anchor amidst all this.

Jonathan Robinson:

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And you touched on a lot of different ways in which the currents of society, or at least the trends that society is experiencing, all of the different ways that they sort of knock us around as creatives trying to find our footing. But I do think at the same time, those currents, those trends, those forces, they can help us understand some of the different forces at play on the inside of us so that we can find what movements to attach ourselves to or to move in parallel with that can help us figure out what’s going to be right for ourselves as much as all of this promise of tech was a great way for a lot of us to move up the sort of economic ladder in ways that other folks in our families or previous generations were unable to or barred from. At the same time, we also see that just because you get higher up the ladder doesn’t mean the guy at the top of the pyramid isn’t going to kick this ladder off in order to save a couple of dollars. You can make all of the cool stuff in the world, but if this company needs to ensure that its profit margins look a certain way so that their shareholders are going to be happy, then you’ll find out exactly how they feel about family, so to speak, and you’ll be gone.

And these technologies that we created together out of an enthusiasm in a more optimistic sense for the possibilities and all of the different solutions that we could find within these technologies. They are at the same time because they are owned by people at the top who don’t necessarily have our best interest in mind and are specifically incentivized to care more about how much money shareholders are making than how well our lives are impacted. We see those technologies being turned against us and at the same time to the point of these different unions recently being victorious over some of those forces. We can see that when we look to each other’s humanity and find the common cause and stand in solidarity with the prioritization of the human aspect of our work that we are not capital, we are humans and stand firm in those convictions. We can quite literally face giants and move mountains. But it is still difficult for every actor’s union or writers’ union or the auto workers union. We have, to your point, examples of unionizing and immediately finding yourself out of work or all of the different ways that unions have been combated in the tech industry or in the visual effects industry and the advertising industry, all of which I’ve had some experience working in. And I see how much the struggles of these writers, these actors, mirror exactly what so many of us have experienced both in tech, in advertising, in visual effects and production.

We just haven’t been able to make some of those en masse movements last long enough to make that impact. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying.

Maurice Cherry:

No, we definitely should keep trying and I think because we’re seeing how it’s worked on, again, this very large level like in the entertainment industry or in the auto industry, I think it’s given people more visibility into it and honestly, it’s giving people more knowledge. It’s amazing when we were back, when we were trying to unionize at Glitch, it was amazing how many people had no experience about unions and what they were except like negative talking points. And it’s like you do realize that some of the perks that you have are the direct results of unionization in the past. Like the eight-hour workday.

Jonathan Robinson:

These things.

Maurice Cherry:

Came because people unionized in the past. So, you wouldn’t have to work 12,13, 14 hours a day or whatever. But yeah, we’re starting to see, I think the tide shifted a little bit. I’m curious though, for you where did this, and if I can call it this, this love for creating and producing and storytelling. Where did this come from? Did this come from you growing up, or…tell me about that.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I’ve always been fascinated with stories from a sort of consumption perspective. My mom was trained as a teacher and sort of raised me with a strong emphasis on traditional education. So, I was always reading something. I mean, I had to do book reports over summer break. When I would finish my homework too fast, she would create more curriculum for me to do. I was getting in trouble for talking too much in class, and the teacher said, well, he finishes his work, and then he starts talking to the other students, and that’s disruptive. So, she made an agreement with the teacher to create an entire curriculum that she would grade that would be included as part of my grade.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. Mama didn’t play!

Jonathan Robinson:

No, not at all. So, I was constantly reading and consuming stories, and I’ve always been a deeply curious individual. I don’t want to just know what happened or even how it happened. I also want to understand why it happened. And I think all of that extra emphasis on critical thinking, on reading analysis, and on doing your own research and citing your sources sort of built this almost like programming in my brain to understand stories, both from a surface level as an entertainment experience, but also on a deeper level as a tool for communicating information and actually being able to sort of transcribe experiences from one person to another without having to directly live through them. The thing that was included in the story. So, I’ve always sort of had that perspective on storytelling to a certain point. I graduated high school and was like, I want to be a comic book artist.

The dream was to work at Marvel, maybe work on an X-Men or Spider-Man comic. And after some experience in an art school, the now defunct Art Institute of Las Vegas very quickly understood that I wasn’t going to get the kind of education that I needed from that particular place and moved to New. York, just because I felt like that was my Mecca, the place that had been calling to me, where I was going to figure it all out, and quite literally stumbled into a career in advertising as a producer. I was on my girlfriend’s couch trying to figure out how I was going to pay rent the next month, found a Craigslist ad for a project manager intern, and my only question in the interview was, what’s a project manager? And how can you be a manager and an intern at the same time? That experience really opened up an entire world of possibilities. I didn’t realize that there were so many creative individuals with stable, well-paying jobs. Even if you are working 12 hours a day, and maybe more than that, sometimes you could make websites and flash banners and mobile apps, and one job leads to another. And I think the place that really blew the doors open on the possibilities was The Mill. Working there was quite a privilege in both stints that I was there.

The first time they were starting what they called their Mill digital team. And the whole idea was around. The mill is traditionally a VFX studio. They do all of the…their whole little tagline is like, “if you watch the Super Bowl, at least two out of every three commercials that you saw, The Mill touched in one way or another.” But they were trying to move into this more digital, out of home experiential field that was starting to pop up at the time. And I got to work with a really incredible dream team of creative and technically excellent individuals who sort of took me under their wing as this young 22-year-old little idiot who didn’t know anything but would follow instructions and ask as many questions as came to mind. And they exposed me to the possibilities of what you can do with a serviceable, knowledge of available technology and a strong creative vision. Add to that the third leg of the stool, some business sense and tact to be able to convince folks to pay for those things, and you got yourself a pretty promising path for making some cool things and getting paid to do that.

But working there meant being able to, on the one hand, work with animators who typically did 3D animation for visual effects in like a Gillette commercial and trying to explain to them how you’re going to turn a couple of data sets into a particle visualization that replicates the visuals of the sort of mackerels and tuna form of something like a school. Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

Fish or something like that. Yeah, that’s it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Trying to convince these folks to do things with their expertise and their most familiar tools that they had never been asked to do. And then also trying to tell stories with these data points, because, again, we’re in the advertising and marketing field, so everybody’s got a narrative. And so that experience really helped to shape the possibilities of how I could connect my love of stories and the depths of what stories mean. Not just the what or the how, but the why with these new emerging technologies and the deep institutional knowledge of more traditional media that could influence the way that you combine these new technologies to create experiences that really allow us to experience stories in ways that we hadn’t been able to before. Yeah, it really does feel like a serendipitous journey where I sort of stumbled into all of the places and things that I needed in order to be the person that I am today to do the things that I want to do. But I like to believe that that’s how life is supposed to work. You put one foot in front of the other, and then you end up where…

Maurice Cherry:

…you’re supposed to be stepping out on faith, right?

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

You mentioned your mom, you mentioned this girlfriend you had at the time who were some of the other people that really helped support you during this journey.

Jonathan Robinson:

I think I’m going to name off some of the folks that really stood me up at The Mill that first time. My first mentor, Kay Gowda, was the senior producer for that Mill digital team. And when I say he stepped in as a big brother and really looked out for me both from and in the office process perspective, but also from outside life, like, what are you trying to do in this space? And here are some of the possibilities. He really set me up with a lot of the tools that I still use to this day to help navigate ambiguity and figure out what it is that I want. He just sort of built in these habits of constantly seeking new information on a daily basis. I used to start my day by combing through like a folder of ten to twelve websites and blogs that would post about new marketing and technology experiences and news, and then I sort of put that together into an email to send out once a week for the team. I was already a curious individual, but being able to focus that curiosity in a way that tied to whatever productive endeavor that I was trying to achieve at the time, I think was a really formative bit of knowledge. You also helped me just sort of find the calm in the storm of being a producer in a high paced environment with lots of conflicting objectives and demands, just really being able to settle in and say, like, I’m not going to solve everything, but if I can solve one thing, what is that? And let me do that first.

It really sort of grounded me and allowed me to gracefully navigate some of the more tumultuous projects and moments in my career. So, Kay Gowda is a huge influence. The executive producer of that team, Bridget Shields, really looked out for me both in sort of setting me up for success in some of the smaller pitch projects that came in the door during that year that I worked there the first time. I mean, I did my first pitch to Nike and landed the job under her guidance. And she trusted me to do this, having not seen any real evidence that I could. She just trusted me and gave me the support to make decisions and was always available to talk through any questions that I had. But more than that, she looked out for me. When we all got fired, I was on that team for about eight months before, similar to your Slack, your #goodbye Slack channel, we were all individually called downstairs into the conference room one after another, and every time somebody came back up.

They came back up silent, closed their laptop, grabbed their things and walked out of the room. Yeah. Eventually I understood what was happening, started saving some files, but yeah, we were all sort of let go unceremoniously without notice. On a Friday and the following Monday morning, Bridget had an email in my inbox of three different places that she had already called to let them know that I was available for work.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Jonathan Robinson:

She told me exactly what salary to say that I was being paid, which was not the salary that I was being paid, but it was definitely going to be a healthy increase. She told me exactly what projects to reference and how to represent my impact and what title I need to speak to. Interactive producer or creative producer. And that’s sort of where that naming convention was first introduced. For me, those connections, those calls that she made really paved the way for every job I’ve had since then. I really appreciate the way that she looks out for her team because I got to admit that wasn’t even something that was super special for me. She does that for everyone she works with. So, I really appreciate those individuals.

I think more recently, I got to give credit to that second Mill crew, the second stint, particularly on our Executive Briefing Center experiential multiyear project. These folks really helped me sort of figure out that I was more than just a good producer, that I could be a good creative leader as well. Kinda. Akash is top of the list. She’s my partner now. I met her there at The Mill. Our creative collaboration really expanded the ways that I felt comfortable showing up in executive meetings and representing creative work, not, you know, the X’s and O’s of a schedule or a budget. Collaborators like Will Arnold, whose endless curiosity really inspired me to continue to explore the visual concepts that I wanted to introduce into some of the work that I was exploring at the time.

And he actually came through and provided a lot of the projection visuals in the music video that I ended up directing a couple of years ago. Eric Chang, who’s a creative strategist and writer, and his wild imagination and reserved intellect…just a really grounding force that helps me cut the noise out and really focus on what matters while also finding joy in really small things. Yeah, I mean, I could probably go on and on and on. There’s so many people who have made it possible for me to be where I am today, and if I keep going, I’m going to go forever.

Maurice Cherry:

What advice would you give to somebody that they’re listening to this episode, they’re hearing your story and everything and they want to sort of, I don’t know, maybe just try to figure out where they are right now. Like, maybe this has been a tough year for them and they’re feeling a bit unmoored and trying to kind of find their way in this current space. What advice would you give them?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think first I’d say slow down and listen. Look around, see, take note of where you are and how you feel. I think ultimately one of the things that has been most emphasized over the last couple of years for me has been that you’re always exactly where you’re supposed to be. Where you go next is entirely up to you. We can only actually live in the present, but when we are able to be our most present, we actually get to expand the idea of what present is in order to reshape the past and what it means for us and to be able to sort of look further into the future as to where we want to go and what our next step should be for us anyway. Because ultimately, the only person who can tell you what to do next and where to go is you. Because you’re the only one who knows what you want and why you want it. There’s plenty of noise in the world that can sort of interrupt, obscure or even manipulate that knowledge.

I mean, we’ve talked about it over the course of this conversation. The technology, the corporations, the capitalism, the politics, all of it. All of that noise makes it really hard to hear your own voice. But when you seek that voice through stillness, through rest, through reflection, it becomes a lot easier to know that your next step is the right one because it’s your step and that is really all that matters.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like, what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, first I want to be on set of major Sci-Fi production, hopefully making my story come to life. Even if that is an optimistic projection. I want to be involved in the conversation around how these new forms of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, don’t have to be at odds with the most precious aspects of our human experience, our genuine humanity. In fact, if we take the time to understand ourselves and the technologies in full context of how either came to be, then we can find parallels that can between those sort of evolutionary journeys and use the relationship between the human interface and the technological interface to better ourselves from a truly human perspective. I don’t mean, like, escaping into fantasy worlds and ignoring deteriorating physical reality that we all live in in this planet or even sort of like replacing aspects of our humanity with technology to make things easier or more convenient. I do mean truly improving the human experience, deepening our connection with each other and with the natural world through experiences that teach us about those relationships as we interact with these technologies that are so complex and so immersive. Those are the kinds of projects that I want to bring to life. From an experiential standpoint, five years from now, I want to be having the conversation of how these experiences that I’ve created for both installation and virtual reality have really tried to hammer home that point and bring that conversation to a larger audience.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work? Where can they follow you, follow your journey? Where can they find that online?

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, you guys can follow me on Instagram for my musings and ramblings. That’s at U-A-T-J-O-N-C or keep up with me via my website. Jonrobinson.me. That’s J-O-N-R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N me. Honestly, those are the two best places to keep up with what I’m doing. And a lot of what I’m doing on Instagram is shouting about our current realities. So, brace yourself and bring your thinking cap. I love a discussion.

Always happy to hear from anybody on any of these topics. Don’t be a stranger, so to speak.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, Jon Robinson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I sort of had an idea how I thought this conversation might go and then once you started talking, I feel like it just sort of went in a completely kind of free form direction, which I think is good. I mean, I think we touched on a lot of different topics that are, I think, on the minds of a lot of creatives right now. Particularly, I think, a lot of creatives that work in the tech industry and such. I really feel like you’re at a place where you’re trying to figure it out, you’re trying to figure out what your next move is. And I think you gave such great advice about just slowing down and listening and letting that be what guides you next. And I’m really excited to see what’s going to guide you next once you come sort of at the end of this personal journey. So thank you so much for coming on the show.

I appreciate it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Thanks for having me, Maurice. I enjoyed this conversation. Yeah, I look forward to the new individuals you have on. This has been an amazing platform, and I really appreciated the opportunity.

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