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5 Minutes with… Margaret Johnson

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The chief creative officer of Goodby Silverstein & Partners tells LBB’s Addison Capper about being with the agency for 21 years, using deepfake for good, and wild times of the dotcom boom

5 Minutes with… Margaret Johnson

Margaret Johnson is a 21-year veteran of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which is a long time in any business let alone the chop-and-change lifestyle of advertising. But it's little wonder, really. Those 21 years have involved working closely with agency founders Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, two leaders with whom she claims to share a deep like-mindedness and who have always maintained a focus on meaningful creative in the age of data and programmatic. 

These days she's working even closer with the pair as the agency's first ever chief creative officer, a role she took three years ago. She stresses that being CCO isn't all management meetings though - she's still very close to and involved in the agency's work output. That work output recently has involved popular Super Bowl spots, such as Pepsi’s 'More Than OK' and the Doritos Blaze vs. MTN DEW ICE rap battle starring Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman. Then there's Lessons in HerStory, an augmented-reality app that rewrites history to include historical female figures, the Tostitos 'Party Safe' bag, which was created to prevent drunk driving after the Super Bowl and 'Dali Lives', which brought the artist back to life using deepfake, a piece of technology most commonly used in a negative way. 

LBB's Addison Capper chatted with her to find out more. 


LBB> You've been at Goodby for 21 years, which is a long time - especially within the ad industry! How did you end up working there?

Margaret> The way I got here is kind of funny. When I was in school, I would pore through advertising annuals and there was an art director named Jeremy Postaer that I really admired. You could say that I loosely based my book on his book! When I was finishing school, he had worked here at Goodby Silverstein & Partners but had just taken a job at Leonard Monahan Lubars & Kelly in Providence, Rhode Island. I sent this guy my book and, unsurprisingly, he liked it because it was very similar to his! He gave me my first job but not long after that he decided that Providence wasn't for him and he came back here to Goodby in San Francisco. 

My next job was in Dallas at The Richards Group where I worked for a guy named Grant Richards. Not too long after I got there, he left and also came to Goodby. Not long after that they both called me and said that I should move to San Francisco and work with them. 


LBB> What's made you stick around? 

Margaret> There's a real like-mindedness between Jeff, Rich and myself. We talk a lot about firsts around here. We all want to be the first to use a specific technology, we want to be the first to put a breathalyser into a Tostitos bag, we want to be the first to use deep fake for good. That's the stuff that really excites us and we're really focused on the creative work. When you're around people that have the same goals as you then you'll want to stick around. 


LBB> You mentioned the word 'first' a lot - from that perspective, are there any pieces of work from over the years that are particularly important for you? 

Margaret> After I had my first child and came back to work, it was like everything had become digitally integrated overnight - it was like a whole different world. I realised I was going to have to really change the way I thought about approaching campaigns and I did a one for Haagen-Dazs called ‘Haagen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees’, aimed at helping with colony collapse disorder. It was a really successful 360 campaign, it won viral video of the year, there was a beautifully animated TV commercial, we had out of home, print with seed paper that you could rip out and plant in the ground to grow wild flowers. It was one of the first big, integrated campaigns that had been done - it ended up winning the first Green Pencil at the One Show. It was just a huge success, especially for me having come back from maternity leave and seeing that the landscape had changed radically. 


LBB> You’ve been in your new role of CCO for three years now and you’re the first ever CCO at Goodby. How has your job evolved since you took the role?

Margaret> It’s a lot more management! But I’ve grown up here. I’ve lived with Rich and Jeff longer than my own parents so I’ve been really comfortable in this role and I like running the agency with them. They were incredible mentors when I was growing up here. But we have a maker culture here so I really focus on staying close to the work. It’s not all management meetings, it’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting in there. That’s why I got into the business so I’m pleased that I get to stay close to it. 


LBB> From the outside it seems that Goodby has a really distinct culture and tone of voice - something that you just mentioned. The agency is around 400 people at the moment - as the CCO, how do you find the task of maintaining and nurturing that culture across a fairly big agency? 

Margaret> We do a lot of things to build the culture around here. One of things that we have going now - that is fucking fantastic - is called The Bucket List. It’s like Wheel of Fortune meets The Amazing Race. If you are up for the challenge you can put your name in a bucket and at the beginning of every agency meeting we roll out a giant wheel. If your name is pulled from the bucket then you come up and spin the wheel in front of the whole agency and you have to commit to do whatever challenge the wheel lands on. It could be anything from 48 hours in Helsinki, leaving tonight. You get on a plane, you fly to Finland, go to a ton of clubs, stay up for two days and fly home - and you film the whole thing. Or you have to get in a ring and fight a pro boxer, go to a pot farm out in the middle of nowhere in California and try all the different strains of marijuana. We film each one and it’s such a culture bomb around here. The wheel comes out and everyone starts losing their minds, they can’t wait to see who’s selected and what in the world they’re going to have to do. At the next agency meeting we show that person doing their thing, whether that’s reenacting Britney in Hit Me Baby One More Time or doing stand-up at a big comedy club. It’s wild and just one of those things that keeps our culture alive. 


LBB> Prior to working in and studying advertising, you were a journalism graduate. What prompted you to want to work in advertising? 

Margaret> I went to the journalism school at the University of North Carolina but it was mainly news writing. Between my junior and senior years I had a friend that wanted to go to New York for the summer. I had to figure out a way to convince my parents to let me go so I told them that I’d found a course at Parsons School of Design that I was going to take for the summer. I ended up taking this design class and I loved it. Because the UNC programme was more focused on news writing I hadn’t been exposed to this side of advertising and I fell in love with it. The day before I left New York I went to a phonebooth and I ripped out the advertising section of the Yellow Pages and took it back to Chapel Hill with me. I cold-called a ton of agencies in New York and asked them, if they were going to hire a kid right out of school, where would they hire them from? They all mentioned a tiny school in Atlanta called the Portfolio Center. I graduated from Carolina, moved to Atlanta to go to the school and put a portfolio together. 


LBB> Flipping that on its head to now, what are the kind of things that you look for when hiring new talent? 

Margaret> Oddly I like to look at everything in their book that isn’t advertising. Usually the advertising stuff is, like me, influenced by somebody else that had done something they’d liked. But when you look at their personal stuff, it’s their artistic vision and something that they’re genuinely passionate about. That is the most interesting stuff. 


LBB> Do you try to foster side projects like that among your creatives? 

Margaret> 100%. I always tell people to look to everything but advertising for inspiration. Go to movies, go to the theatre, go to galleries. I go to Sundance every year, I love seeing the good movies and the bad ones - you learn something from all of them. Your brain’s like a catalogue. You get in a new assignment, you flick through all your experiences and you remember something interesting. 


LBB> On top of Sundance, what are your biggest cultural influences? 

Margaret> I go to the movies almost every Saturday night. I have an Instagram account called Out the Window. I take a ton of pictures when I’m on the road but I’m usually looking out of an Uber, an airplane window or a hotel window, so I take pictures of the things I see. 


LBB> You’ve been in San Francisco for over 20 years - the city must have gone through so much change in that time, with the .com boom and the start-up industry of today. What are your thoughts on the city today and its relationship with the advertising industry? 

Margaret> It’s funny, having lived through the whole dotcom boom, I remember when we won eBay. Jeff and Rich sat in the lobby and gave every employee a crisp, new $100 bill. That is a crazy dotcom story that happened right here! It was a wild time. But today I would say that one of the great things about our proximity to Silicon Valley is that we get exposed to new technology first, before it washes over the rest of the country. I love that because we can take that technology and be the first in the market to do something really cool with it. 

And I think because we are around so much tech in Silicon Valley, it has an effect on the agency. I was talking about a maker culture earlier, and we have an in-house innovation lab called GSP Lab. It’s filled with engineers who are tinkering constantly and studying the latest tech. We just did a really cool project for the Dali Museum in Florida where we used deepfake. Usually deepfake is used for really bad things but I love this project because it’s twisting that and using it for good - bringing back someone that everyone admires. Another thing that came out of our Labs is called Lessons in Herstory, which is an AR app that any elementary school student can download for free. One of our strategists figured out that only 11% of the stories in the most popular US history books are about women. So we created this app where if you hover over Abraham Lincoln, George Washington or any male picture in the book, it’ll serve up an equally compelling story about a woman that did something great during that time.


LBB> What do you find most frustrating in advertising today?

Margaret> Most frustrating? Data. Programmatic advertising is frustrating to me. There are some merits to it. You’re optimising things that have already been done but you’re not breaking ground, you’re not moving forward, you’re not creating new, big brand platforms. 


LBB> Is data and programmatic something that’s important to the agency?

Margaret> Not really. Not to this agency. I feel like a lot of the data driven advertising leads you to ideas that have already been done before or doesn’t have the warmth or emotion when you don’t have those strengths. Everything that we do here is based on a truth. A brand truth and a cultural truth. When that’s your starting place, it’s going to lead you to ideas that resonate with people and that are really human and emotional. 


LBB> And how about the most exciting thing? 

Margaret> The unknown. There are all these new platforms, new technology, and you don’t know what’s coming next. I like that because I like to swing big and be the first out of the gate to try something new. That kind of stuff is more exciting to me than things that have been done before.

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Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Mon, 07 Oct 2019 13:04:34 GMT