Interview: The man behind the 'Faces of Real Estate' viral sensation

TOM Q. JOHNSON | Updated 12/19/2013

Phil Jones' artistic stunt blew up on the Internet.

Courtesy of Phil Jones

Real estate agents around Minneapolis just got an unauthorized face-lift by local artist Phil Jones. Jones — the same guy that left lost signs around the city, gave beanies to screws and tagged some of the city’s most notable urban plants — spent a month re-creating half a dozen Realtor photos from Metro Transit bus-stop benches — including Tony Olivera, Rita Marr, Graham Smith and Lynn Morgan. Then he printed them out on a large-scale printer and pasted the new photos onto the original bench ads. The results are a delightfully eerie play on the bus-stop portrait.

Since first posting the photos on his personal portfolio on Monday, Jones’ work has gone viral with the help of Reddit and BuzzFeed. We spoke to Phil Jones, who works as a creative at the Uptown-based ad agency mono, about what inspires his side projects.

Q: Well Phil, it seems like your project has really blown up. Did the runaway success of “The Faces of Real Estate” surprise you at all?

A: I’ve been in this industry and doing projects on the side long enough to know that you just don’t know how big something’s going to get. You go in wishing for this kind of exposure, but I would be crazy disappointed if I went in every time thinking that it’ll be this successful. ["Faces of Real Estate"] is just resonating with everyone, and that’s all i’ve ever wanted to do with art or with anything on the side. It’s definitely very exciting.

I think part of what makes it successful is that the concept doesn’t take long to get: This guy dressed up as real estate agents and put his photos overtop of them. It’s a quick story and people get it right away, which leads to people sharing it. In every city there are real estate agents, so again it’s something that people can relate to.

Some of your other projects, such as the "Lost Signs or the Urban Plant Tags," have enjoyed a good deal of success in the past. How does "Faces of Real Estate" compare?

A: This is one of the crazier ones by far. I tend to self-promote my own work to bloggers and people who curate creative content, but this project exploded really just from one posting on Reddit. It’s wild because it kind of started with this large audience and then came back. Here I’m fielding calls from places like London today and then it comes back to the local outlets, which is funny that it has taken a while to get back to Minnesota.

What was the inspiration behind this project?

Scott Parkin, he’s was the reason I started this project. I love Scott Parkin. Anybody that drives down in front of the Walker, you see that his benches have — no pun intended — pretty good real estate. Well, pun intended. Driving by, you kind of sit at the red light and sort of stare into his chest, and fall into his shirt. That photo itself is just brilliant ... an epic picture all around. It would have probably warranted that much buzz with just that one photo.

He is kind of a parody of himself. He’s putting out there an image that’s trying to attract a certain type of clientele. In all honesty, he’s probably not that dude that’s on the bench. And so me going in there and and interpreting that is almost a parody on a parody.

Q: Have you developed a deeper appreciation for real estate agents as a result of this project?

I think the real estate community is so interesting on its own because there is such a personal connection. I mean, they’re shopping and buying and selling your homes. People have a real affinity for their real estate agents. People in the Twin Cities are sharing it because they know it’s their real estate agent, so it’s cool in that respect.

Q: How do you think your experience as a creative in the advertising industry influences your side projects?

I did the urban plants project when I was at Carmichael Lynch, and that experience really grew my interest in interacting with my surroundings. Different industries tend to follow certain types of media and I think ad agencies are no different. Advertising tend to follow the Adage’s and Communication Art’s and those types of trade publications. My interest has been getting out of this space, especially in my free time. I just want to connect with different worlds that I’m not always part of. It’s easy to have the advertising world pay attention to ad projects. But it’s a lot harder to get the attention of the art world, so that’s frustrating for me.

[The connection between art and advertising] is always an interesting question. I have basically tried to play that balancing act my whole career. People ask me if art has anything to do with these projects. I have to say that at its’ minimal level, yes. Would I love to make this kind of art full time? Definitely. For me, working in advertising, it’s like playing an instrument and like not wanting to be in a band. Advertising gives us that media platform that I’m looking for. I think going out into the community, it’s more important to try to strip the brands away and just put something out there that’s entertaining and sharable and something my mom would like. It’s kind of a measure of success to say, “Would my mom email this to me and say that she liked it?”

Q: What was the process of creating your faux images?

A: Once I landed on the idea, I just drove around and took notes and cell phone pictures of all the benches I was considering. I narrowed it down and thought five to six would be a perfect amount. While doing this, I imagined what a BuzzFeed article would look like, and how I’d make it intriguing.

I had to go online and order all of the wigs because I’m bald. To source the clothes, I went around the office asking coworkers, and my wife, who is a producer, was a big help getting the womens’ clothes. Once I had all of that together, I blew up an image of the picture I was trying to recreate and tried to get the exact hand location, eye position, camera angle and facial expression. It all had to be perfect. Once that was done, I took it to the computer, put the finishing touches on it, and printed it out large enough to go on top of the benches.

Q: What was your total budget for the project?

A: I can’t image I spent more than $100 on everything, not including the time. Again, these are just passion projects, and so it’s always fun to see how cheap I can do them and how big of an effect I can create. All too often in our industry there’s a belief that if you put a celebrity director on a project or throw a bunch of money at something, it’ll be a success. I love to prove that wrong over and over again and show that with $25 I can create some buzz. I also like the idea of people looking at one of my projects and thinking they could go out and do it too and maybe have some fun.