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Margaret Johnson is the Chief Creative Officer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, one of the biggest advertising agencies in the country, and also serves on the boards of the One Show and Facebook’s Creative Council. But it didn’t come easy. As an aspiring creative straight out of school, Margaret Johnson did everything but go through the motions. She knew that in order to find success, she had to be willing to put in the work – even if that meant cold calling fifty different advertising agencies. Margaret walks us through her journey to success, and also dives into other topics including Goodby cultural rituals and the future of remote work.
Nate Watkin: Welcome to the Creatives Offscript podcast. My name is Nate Watkin and I am your host. Today we have an extraordinary guest joining us. Margaret Johnson is the Chief Creative Officer of advertising titan Goodby Silverstein and Partners. She’s been recognized as top in her craft by Forbes, BusinessInsider, AdWeek and The Drum.
She has been appointed president of the Cannes film jury, won trophies at every major show and has led Goodby through their most award-winning and creatively diverse period in time. Welcome to our podcast, Margaret.
Margaret Johnson: Hi. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Nate Watkin: So I always like to start at the beginning and just understand a bit about your journey. So would love to hear, tell me how it all began and what was your first job in advertising.
Margaret Johnson: Well, it all began. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I went through the journalism school and inside the journalism school there was an advertising sequence. And the summer before my senior year, I decided to go to New York, take a summer school class in graphic design at Parsons School of Design, because the majority of what I’d been learning in the journalism school was newspaper writing. So I decided I wanted to explore the other side. I took this class and I’m like, ah, okay. I get it now. I’m supposed to be over here on the visual side. And so that was kind of when the light bulb went off.
And a funny thing happened, actually. The day that I was leaving New York, I, and this is back in the day of phone booths and yellow pages. I went into a phone booth. I ripped out the advertising section of the phone book, the yellow pages, and took it back to Chapel Hill with me. And put it away for awhile. And then when I was graduating from Carolina, I pulled it back out because I realized that if I wanted to get a job in advertising, I was going to need to put a portfolio together. And that’s not something that was really a focus at Chapel Hill. And so I cold called fifty different advertising agencies in New York City and just asked to speak to anyone in the creative department ,and ask them if they were going to hire a kid out of school, what school were they hiring them from and how are they putting these portfolios together?
So the majority of the people that I spoke with named a little school in Atlanta called The Portfolio Center. And that’s where I ended up. So went there for a couple of years, put together a portfolio, and got my very first job at a little shop called Leonard Monahan Lubars & Kelly, which is in Providence, Rhode Island.
And David Lubars was one of the founders of that company. You know, he’s at BBDO now in New York. But at the time he had a shop, so I worked there for a little bit. And then the guy that I worked for was a guy named Jeremy Postaer. He was an idol of mine because he, you know, at the time, there were all these award show books and I would, you know, page through these books. And this guy, Jeremy Postaer, was one that I followed. I loved the way his art direction looked and kind of, I’ll say, loosely patterned my own book after his. And so he gave me my first job at Leonard Monahan Lubars & Kelly.
He left and went to Goodby Silvertsein & Partners where I work now. I left Leonard Monahan and went to the Richards Group for a brief step for about two years. And then the guy that I worked for there, he also left and his name was Grant Richards, and he also moved to California and started working at Goodby Silverstein.
And so then one day they called me and said, you should come here too. So I did. And that’s how I landed here in San Francisco.
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Nate Watkin: Amazing. And when you first started at Leonard Monahan, what were your ambitions at that point? I assume you’re an early 20 something. What did you think that your career in the advertising industry was going to be?
Margaret Johnson: Gosh, at the time I was just. I couldn’t even believe that I was working for this guy that I had admired for so long. So I think I was just kind of a sponge at that point, just soaking everything in that I could possibly learn from him.
Nate Watkin: And so over the twenty years plus at Goodby, you’ve risen first to the Executive Creative Director and Partner, and then eventually you were named the Chief Creative Officer. Can you tell me a little bit about that transition? What changed?
Margaret Johnson:You know, I think I’ve been in the ECD role for so long. The transition didn’t feel like such a big leap. I think I also had the benefit of working at the agency for, you know, over twenty years at that point. So it felt like a pretty natural transition. I think the thing that I’ve had to get the most used to is not being, you know, the day to day person making, you know, the whatever the ad is, the commercial or the, you know, online experience or what. So I was such a doer and a maker for so long, and I still do a lot of that stuff, but I, you know, it’s taken a little getting used to, to be the one, you know, really guiding others and doing, you know, more face to face client kind of things.
Nate Watkin: I can imagine there’s probably the urge sometimes to just jump in and get your hands dirty and start creating again.
Margaret Johnson:Oh yeah. And we, I still do, but you know, I have to pick and choose.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. And so tell me a little bit about your relationship with the founders, Rich and Jeff, and how they’ve mentored you throughout your career. I’m, I’m curious at the beginning when you first started at Goodby Silverstein, were you working closely with them or was that something that you grew into over time?
Margaret Johnson:Well, when I started, we were so small. So yes, I was working directly with them from the very beginning, and it’s been awesome. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but they have a Masterclass that’s just been released and, I was telling someone recently, it’s like, I’ve been living the Masterclass for twenty some years so, it’s been quite a ride.
But I would say, you know, we’re all like-minded. That’s why we get along. We really value creativity and craftsmanship and want to be proud of everything that that leaves our building. And so I think that’s why it works.
Nate Watkin: And how big was the agency when you first started?
Margaret Johnson:Oh my gosh. Maybe 60 people or something.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. And now you’re 400 plus, I believe now.
Margaret Johnson:Yeah, yeah. Somewhere around there.
Nate Watkin: That’s incredible. And so tell me, what exactly does a Chief Creative Officer do? What does your day-to-day look like?
Margaret Johnson:You know, day to day, I meet with creatives and look at work, usually by client. So I’ll get ,I have like standing meetings with Creative Directors where I look at everything that’s happening on Comcast or One Medical or Pepsi or Frito-Lay. So we kind of look at things in, you know, in like a broad view, but then, you know, obviously things kind of bubble up, or are hot at, at certain times.
The Superbowl is a good example. You know, from, I’d say October through February where we’re looking at the Superbowl a lot. So, you know, some things get a little more attention at certain times of year, but I do a lot of meetings with creatives and just looking at work and then I do a lot of client calls and helping creatives sell work through. And a lot of new business pitches too.
Nate Watkin: So correct me if I’m wrong, but you essentially get to look at creative pitches all day from your team, and then you help filter and present to the client, is that correct?
Margaret Johnson:That’s right. That’s right. it’s kind of an interesting position to be in because you’re not, kind of beaten down by the day to day, and you come in with a fresh perspective, you know, you don’t know all of the “why you can’t do something”. You can just see what could make it better.
Nate Watkin: That’s gotta be a really exciting role. I’m sure no day is the same. Always new creative to look at.
Margaret Johnson:Yeah, it is. It’s great.
Nate Watkin: So how would you describe Goodby Silverstein’s approach to advertising?
Margaret Johnson:You know, I think our, our approach has always been based on a human truth. I think we talk a lot about like why Seinfeld was successful for so long, and it’s because every episode was so relatable. You’re like, oh my gosh, that’s my life. That’s exactly right. so we try to do that with advertising. You know, we try to make sure that everything we do has that human truth, because that’s what makes, any piece of creative work, relevant and relatable to people and kind of pulls that emotion out of people.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. And speaking of truth, in the past you’ve talked about brand truth and specifically, you know, the trend of programmatic and data-driven advertising. Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to brand truth versus data-driven advertising?
Margaret Johnson:Well, I think data is amazing for lots of things. It can help guide you to a great idea. I think where people get in trouble is when, then they let that dictate all the work from that point forward. Because when it doesn’t give you, is the ability to, to move forward or to break new ground, it kind of helps you make that one thing better and better and better.
So I like to, to depend on it, to help us get to great ideas, but I don’t like to depend on it because, on the back end as much because, you know, we like to do new things. We like to try new things. We talk about firsts a lot. Like we want to, we want to break new ground and, sometimes data can get in the way of that.
Nate Watkin: Goodby seems, it seems like you have such an amazing culture there. Can you tell me a little bit more about the bucket list?
Margaret Johnson:Oh, the bucket list. The bucket list was born out of, a challenge that I just threw out to the creative directors and said, “Hey, you know what? I feel like we need some things to like boost morale around here.” Everybody come up with an idea and one of our creative directors, Will Elliott, he’s been at the agency for a long time, came back with this idea called the bucket list, and it has taken off like you wouldn’t believe. Like when we announced that, you know, the bucket list is going to be a part of the agency meeting, people start going crazy. Will comes out. He’s got this crazy like rock music that plays. There are, you know, we’ve animated all these explosions. There’s a big animation sequence that really kind of builds the excitement.
He comes out, he unveils this giant wheel. And, each kind of sliver on the wheel, it’s kinda like wheel of fortune, has a challenge on the wheel. And, he reaches down into a bucket. And, you can volunteer to be a part of this or just be an observer. But if you volunteered, your name is in the bucket.
He reaches in and he pulls a name out, they come forward and then they spin the wheel and whatever challenge the wheel, you know, lands on that person has to do it. So a good example is, you know, maybe the wheel lands on, you know, 24 hours in Helsinki and you’re leaving, right then. You go home, you pack your bag, you get on a plane, this is before coronavirus obviously, and you go to Helsinki with a camera crew.
You do 24 hours, experience the culture and come back. And then at the next agency meeting, we show the video of what you did. So it’s really fun. And nine out of ten times, it’s someone who, you know, you couldn’t even imagine ever like doing that challenge. And that’s what really makes it fun.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, it sounds thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
Margaret Johnson:Oh my gosh, I mean when the name comes out, everyone’s like holding their breath, like, oh my gosh, please, please don’t let it be me.
Nate Watkin: And have you ever been a contender on the bucket list yourself?
Margaret Johnson: My name’s in the bucket, but it hasn’t been pulled!
Nate Watkin: Yeah, I read that some of the challenges or whatever you would call them are like giving a standup comedy routine at a major standup club.
Margaret Johnson: Totally. And it’s always like, yeah, some really quiet person from accounting that like, you know, you’re like, oh my gosh, how are they going to do this? And then they do, and they’re amazing and it’s just really fun to watch.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. That’s an incredible piece of culture right there. I love that.
Margaret Johnson:Really fun.
Nate Watkin: So tell me about a campaign that was really exciting to work on recently.
Margaret Johnson:Well we’ve got part of the agency called labs. It’s our in-house innovation team. And they helped us create an AR app this year called Herstory, Lessons in Herstory, and it was kind of inspired by, one of our strategists actually came up, came to me with this fact and said, “Hey, you’ve got a daughter who is, you know, in elementary school, did you know that only 11% of the stories that she’s reading about in her history book are about women?”
Only 11%. So I took that and went up to our innovation lab and I was like, what could we do to fix this? Like is there some sort of easy tech solution like changing an actual history book, like changing curriculum? I mean, if you look in the front of those books, most of them are on like their 25th edition of the same book.
So that was going to be a steep hill to climb. So how can we hack the system and, you know, change what our kids are learning about. And we came up with this really simple AR app. It’s an overlay. So if you hover over any image of a man in these history books, then it will serve up an equally compelling story of something that a woman did at that same time.
So it’s very simple to use. It’s like we made it in house and it’s beautifully done and super simple.
Nate Watkin: That’s amazing. That’s such a great campaign.
Margaret Johnson:Oh, thank you.
Nate Watkin: So you’re a mother, and you mentioned in the past that following the birth of your first baby, you came back to advertising and the entire landscape of advertising changed. Can you walk me through that and talk about also how you adapted to that change?
Margaret Johnson: Well, it’s funny because I like left and then it was literally like I came back and the whole landscape had changed. Like everything had suddenly become more digital. And it was like, oh my gosh, this is a whole new world. And I just kind of just jumped in. I mean, you’ve never seen anyone become so interested in digital so quickly because I could see that, and I, and I had the benefit of the, you know, being on maternity leave and being gone for six months. I was like, wow, this is changing and it’s changing really fast. And if you don’t get on board, then you’re going to be left behind. So that was that.
I’d also say that an interesting thing that happened to me, like being out on maternity leave, I was leapfrogged at the time by, you know, some of my male peers because I was out for, you know, six months. Um, and that kind of stuff tends to happen. But came back, really changed the way that I was working, and all the big promotions and big successes that I’ve had in my career have happened since having kids.
So I kind of attribute that to having, you know, a different perspective. Having been out and come back and, and seeing what was happening and, and really moving on it.
Nate Watkin: And what do you think that change is? Like what would you attribute that gave you that next level in your career from having your children?
Margaret Johnson:Oh, I think like it was kind of selfish actually. It was more like I could, I didn’t want to spend any extra hours at work that I didn’t have to because time spent at work meant that I was taking time away from spending with my own kids. So it made me much more efficient with my time and I think it just stopped any like second guessing that I, you know, ever had about, you know, my creative instincts and, uh, yeah, just made me better.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. And it paid off. I think you came back from that first maternity leave and right out of the gate you won a few prestigious awards for digital campaigns. So it seems like you transitioned to interactive and digital fairly well?
Margaret Johnson:Yeah. I think like the first campaign I did, after, you know, having a baby was, one that I did for Haagen-Dazs called HD loves HB. So Haagen-Dazs loves honeybees. And, yeah, that was one of the first real 360 campaigns that, that I remember. And we had a ton of fun and success with that one.
And, yeah, it was the first thing that I had really done that worked 360. So it was a really cool thing. We ended up, our client at Haagen-Dazs, ended up representing the bees in front of Hillary Clinton, when she was in office. And so that was pretty cool.
Nate Watkin: And you’ve said that perfection is boring. What’s your relationship with failure?
Margaret Johnson: Gosh, I feel like, well, every creative is just, that’s your life, is just one failure after another. But we always say, fail forward. Right? So try to learn from, from what it is that caused that failure and use it to help you, you know, move forward. I don’t know. Perfect is boring. You know, whoever won an award for coloring inside the lines in school.
Like, you want things that are, creativity is messy, you know, that’s just the way it is. And that’s what makes it interesting and spectacular and great.
Nate Watkin: That’s great insight. How do you find and nurture creative talent?
Margaret Johnson: You know, I think you have to, I always say lift as you rise, right? So you’ve got to bring other people along with you. Because ultimately, like that kind of mentoring, you can see talent in people. You have to just bring them with you and, and make sure that, you help them along the way.
Another thing that I always do is really encourage people to do things outside of advertising because, you know, you want to be inspired by, you know, art and shows and music and books. And, uh, and that kind of stuff is going to lead you to fresh or more interesting ideas that come from a different perspective.
I think that kind of stuff always leads to ideas that are better.
Nate Watkin: So what happens when you really love an idea, but the client doesn’t.
Margaret Johnson: Well, usually I ask a lot of questions, not about like why they don’t like the idea, but about like what is it about the idea that isn’t solving the problem? And usually if you can figure out, you know, what part of the problem you’re not solving, then you can fix the idea.
Nate Watkin: Have you ever sold through an idea that the client just didn’t want, but ended up being a huge success.
Margaret Johnson: Oh, gosh, I’m sure I have. Well, I mean, actually, honeybees was the Haagen-Dazs campaign I mentioned earlier is one that, they didn’t ask for that idea. And I remember at the time, they had like no budget. And, we came to them with this idea. We said, you know, did you realize that, you know, a third of all of your ice cream flavors would go away if the honeybees were to go away?
And that’s kind of an idea that they, you know, bought into and we went on from there, but it wasn’t something that they had assigned to us. We kind of proactively went to them with that.
Nate Watkin: And you’ve talked about a lot of your successful campaigns, but can you think of what the most provocative, innovative outside-the-box campaign you’ve ever worked on was.
Margaret Johnson: Oh my gosh. There’s been a lot. I don’t know if you ever saw the breathalyzer bag that we did for Tostito’s. That was pretty innovative. We built that in house and, I’m really proud of that one. You know, it was around the Superbowl, we knew that it’s like the biggest drinking day of the year, or one of them anyway, and came up with this idea to put an actual breathalyzer bag into the Tostito’s bag, or put a breathalyzer in the Tostito’s bag and, yeah.
Pretty innovative and really proud of the fact that we built it all in house.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. That’s, uh, some awesome product innovation there.
Margaret Johnson:Another one that we’ve been playing around with, and our innovation lab helped us create, a deep fake tech inspired idea that we pitched to the Dalai museum in Florida where we actually brought Dalai back to life. And, that has been another idea that I think is crazy innovative. I think the interesting thing about this is we’ve never really done a deep fake before, but we figured it out with our innovation team.
And we’re able to bring him back to life. You could interact with him. You could do a selfie with Dalai. He spoke to you, soon as you came into the museum. Every morning he’s reading that day’s paper. So the experience itself felt really fresh each time you went for a visit.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. That’s so cool. Can you think of a moment in your career where you learned something the hard way?
Margaret Johnson:Gosh, I feel like I always learn everything the hard way. Hmm. I think like the biggest lesson is that no one’s going to advocate for you. You have to advocate for yourself if you want to be successful. I had a meeting a long time ago with a recruiter. Her name is Trish Shortell. And she was trying to get me to take this job in New York, and, I was kind of, she could tell I wasn’t biting, I wasn’t going to take the job.
And she’s like, well, clearly you’re not going to take this job, but I’m just going to tell you, I’m going to give you some advice. She’s like, you know what your problem is? You don’t have a brand. There are plenty of, you know, creatives who are way less talented than you, who are way, they are much more well known than you are. And I really took that to heart and, uh, and there was so much truth in that. And I left that meeting, and I’m still like in touch with her today, because it was such a valuable lesson for me to learn. And she was right. Like I had to build that brand myself. I had to, you know, any time that, you know, I wanted a raise you have to ask for it, and you’re, you’re not going to get things you don’t ask for. You like to think that you’re going to get rewarded for dedication and hard work. And that’s just not always the case. So you have to really advocate for yourself.
Nate Watkin: And so what is the brand of Margaret? What do you stand for?
Margaret Johnson:I think I stand for firsts, craft, humor and having fun along the way.
Nate Watkin: Those are great. And so what would you tell a young Margaret to help make her ascension on the career ladder easier and less stressful.
Margaret Johnson:I think the hard truth of that is that nothing worthwhile is easy, so it is going to be stressful and it is going to be really hard. And it’s just making sure that you have fun along the way, some fun along the way, and, hard work pays off.
Nate Watkin: And similarly, what advice do you have for up-and-coming creatives who want to get a foothold? I guess a better way to phrase it is, how would a creative get your attention?
Margaret Johnson:You know, you’d be surprised how many creatives, creative directors, will write you back. I have creatives reach out to me on LinkedIn all the time. I always write them back. So if I’m doing it, I know that other, you know, other creatives are doing it too. So it might seem like, oh my gosh, that person is, you know, successful and then we’d never have time for me. But, we actually do write back and, you know, give advice and I would encourage young peopl e to do that.
Nate Watkin: That’s so interesting. You know we actually just interviewed Ali Brown, the President over at Prettybird.
Margaret Johnson:Oh yeah, I know Allie. She’s great.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Yeah. She’s amazing. And I posed a similar question to her and she said almost the exact same thing. She says that she writes back pretty much every director that reaches out to her.
And it’s just, it’s funny to think how few people actually take that step, and just try to reach out to the people that they admire.
Margaret Johnson:Yeah. Yeah, you wouldn’t think it would happen, but it does.
Nate Watkin: And so let’s get to the current situation. Everything’s locked down now from Coronavirus. We’re all working at home. Agencies, brands have to innovate right now. So tell me about the work your in-house production group Elevel has been putting out during coronavirus.
Margaret Johnson:We’ve put out more than twenty ads in the last couple of weeks, which is incredible. And we’re really lucky because we had a really robust maker group already in place. So it wasn’t something that we kind of threw together. When we saw this happening, we’ve like always had a big production department, which is Elevel, full of edit bays, sound booths, we can color finish. We have a photography studio. We have an animation group. We have a design group. We have a studio, we have a social group. So we just have the ability to, you know, shoot, edit, create things in-house. And we’ve done it for a really long time. I mean, a few years ago we made, I don’t know if you remember this, but we did a commercial for Adobe called Dream On.
We created the whole commercial in two weeks before the Academy Awards for Adobe’s anniversary and, made the whole thing in Photoshop. So we’re just very used to being scrappy and making things quickly and efficiently. So we’ve been lucky on that front because we have not slowed down during this time at home.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. It goes back to the whole maker’s culture right.
Margaret Johnson: Yeah, it really does. It really does.
Nate Watkin: And what kind of, I don’t know if you’re tied into this, but do you know what kind of tools they’re using now that they can’t access the in-house resources and equipment? How are they staying connected to create this content?
Margaret Johnson: Well, we did have the foresight to send everyone home with all the equipment that they needed, so everyone has everything that they have inside the building, now in their own homes. So they are connecting seamlessly and yeah, we’re just, it’s business as usual for us. We’re cranking.
Nate Watkin: That’s great. And how important do you think in-house production capabilities are to agencies?
Margaret Johnson: They’re everything. Especially right now, I mean Elevel and our animation design, innovation groups, have been a godsend during this time.
Nate Watkin: So, in this overly media saturated world, what do you think audiences really want from advertising?
Margaret Johnson:You know, I think people just want to be entertained. They want to feel something. And that changes depending on kind of, you know, the landscape right now. Things are a little more serious, but I feel like we’re kind of en tering phase two where brands can kind of go back to being themselves, and I think we’ll start to see some humor come back into play. But I think in the end, people just want to, they just want to feel something.
Nate Watkin: And how do you see the agency model evolving over the next 10 years?
Margaret Johnson: Well, I think there’ll be less travel for sure. I mean, we’ve all been home now for five weeks doing Zoom calls, so I think you’re gonna really think about, wow, do the six of us need to fly from coast to coast for a one hour meeting when we’ve been doing it on Zoom for the past five weeks? Probably not. So less travel. I think we’re, you know, for us, we’ve been making so much in-house that I feel like we’ll be doing more and more of that as well.
Nate Watkin: So you see this Coronavirus just kind of speeding up the evolution of how people work together?
Margaret Johnson:Yeah. Yeah. You know, and I even wonder about being in the office all the time. I think people will work from home more.
Nate Watkin: And the landscape is just changing so much with technology and the evolution of different platforms as well as different models of agencies. How are you positioning Goodby Silverstein to succeed in the next 10 years?
Margaret Johnson:One thing I love about the place is that we kind of reinvent ourselves every, you know, every ten years or so. And I think like technology is going to play a much bigger role in the future. I’m like really focused on making sure that our innovation lab is growing. I think also the lanes are kind of blurring between entertainment and advertising, and that’s really exciting to me too.
So, you know, I think we’ll be doing less ads where you’re, you know, selling people so hard and more kind of branded content, which I’m also really interested in.
Nate Watkin:: And that kind of rolls right into my next question. What’s most exciting to you about the future of advertising?
Margaret Johnson: Yeah. I think it’s just that, the blending of lanes between entertainment and advertising. And just having fun with content and not being so restricted by time limits and doing things that don’t feel so much like advertising.
Nate Watkin: An d this is the last question I ask everybody, but if you had to start your career all over again at twenty years old, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Margaret Johnson: Nothing.
That is a great answer.
Margaret Johnson: It worked out okay! I think I would just stick to that plan. It worked out just fine.
Nate Watkin: That is the best answer I’ve heard yet, and I love that.