Jason White, chief marketing officer of the cannabis company Curaleaf, shared his favorite quote by playwright George Bernard Shaw at the Ross School of Business on Thursday to a crowd of about 100 people. White said it related to an overall theme of disruption in the marketing world.

“A reasonable man adapts himself to the world; an unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to his,” White quoted. “Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

The Yaffe Speaker Series was co-founded by marketing lecturer Marcus Collins in 2018 to invite various individuals to speak with students about pioneering change in the marketing industry. Collins spoke with The Daily before the Yaffe Speaker Series about why he felt White was a good choice for the series.

“So the Yaffe Speaker Series … is essentially an initiative at the Ross School of Business where the focus is to create programming to help prepare our students for the changes in the evolving media landscape,” Collins told The Daily. “Jason had a very glowing career. He has not only been navigating the digital landscape, he has been rewriting the rules and reimagining it.” 

White’s career started at Wieden+Kennedy, an advertising agency that works with large companies like Nike, when he was 28 years old. From the moment he walked in the doors, White felt he had found his passion. 

“The first time I walked into Wieden+Kennedy, that was when I understood passion,” White said. “That was when I understood a place that everything they do is about creativity. Everything they do is about enabling incredible creatives to do incredible creative things in the world.” 

White told students he worked as the managing director for Nike’s Shanghai office during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. White and his team worked on “launching the sports culture in Shanghai.” They centered their campaigns around Kobe Bryant and 100-meter hurdler Liu Xiang.

“Our job was to get the Chinese athlete to think about really competing,” White said. “We came in with Nike and our job … was to let people see sports in a different way. Our entire strategy was what we called ‘dare to compete.’ If we could start with showing kids the self-expression and the fun that is sport …  we can get them to actually think about competing.”

When Xiang withdrew from the race during the first heat, White and his colleagues reworked their message and released an ad with the message to “love sport even when it breaks your heart.”

“That came from focus,” White said. “That came from not walking away from the strategy. We told people to compete. That’s what we said and this is where we landed and it went everywhere.” 

White also worked with Tiger Woods’ campaign after his scandal in 2009. Again, he implemented his ideas of reworking the message to tell the personal story behind the athlete. He worked with the creative director of Wieden+Kennedy to create a close-up of Woods with audio from his late father, Earl Woods, in the background. 

“We were just thinking, ‘what would Earl say? What would his dad say?’” White said. “We took the last shot (of previous footage), the truth, the authenticity in his eyes, and we found audio from Earl.” 

White was also the former executive vice president and global head of marketing for Beats by Dre and was there when the company partnered with Apple. As the pioneer for the #StraightOutta campaign in 2015, White was in charge of sharing Dre’s story of being proud of where one is from. 

“The power in Straight Outta Compton is they owned Compton,” White said. “We got to this thought of that’s just a human truth, if you can own your past, if you can own where you’re from, that becomes power. That becomes control, that becomes reassurance in who you are. We knew we wanted people to claim where they were from.” 

He invited various artists and athletes, such as Kehlani and Lebron James, to take photos with famous hip-hop photographer Jonathan Mannion. Using this footage, White and his team released the photos with the “Straight Outta” tag and included the city the celebrity was from. 

The biggest jump in White’s career happened in 2019 when he left Beats by Dre to work with the growing cannabis company Select Oil and CBD. White said the transition was not well-received by everyone. 

“That wasn’t a very popular decision at the time,” White said. “CBD had just become legal and there were a lot of people that thought that was a bad decision.” 

White defended his decision by saying he wanted to create his own legacy like legendary music executive Jimmy Iovine.

“I want to build what Jimmy built,” White said. “I want my shot. I thought about Jimmy Iovine who’s always said, ‘Make fear the tailwind instead of a headwind.’ That has been my motivation since I got to this business, that has been what’s driven me since I left everything that was important to me.”

White ended his talk with a final message of listening to yourself.

“My message to you today is there are zero rules,” White said. “I think that you have to stop and you have to listen to your voice.” 

Collins then facilitated a Q&A with White. Collins asked what was the human story of Jason White. White said his story centers around him trying to pay it forward. 

“I think what we’re doing in the social justice space with cannabis and trying to expunge records and reunite families and give people second chances,” White said. “The war on drugs ruined families and neighborhoods for generations. For me, to be able to now be a part of fixing that is … unreal.” 

Business seniors Sofía Ondina and Kush Choksey attended White’s talk to learn from his experiences. Ordina found the talk enjoyable and insightful. 

“I thought it was very enjoyable. Just learning about his career, getting his advice and his insights of so many years in the industry,” Ondina said. 

Choksey said he liked how White was speaking from personal knowledge in various fields. 

“I thought it was really authentic and he told his stories really well and seemed very passionate about what he was doing, like the social impact his work has,” Choksey said.

Reporter Alyssa McMurtry can be reached amcmurt@umich.edu

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