Wednesday, May 23, 2018
  • Friday, Oct. 28, 2016
Chat Room: Margaret Johnson Breaks New Ground At Goodby Silverstein & Partners
“I feel a great sense of responsibility to ensure that the agency’s legacy lives up to what Rich and Jeff set out to create 33 years ago.”
Reflections on becoming GS&P’s 1st female CCO

Just a couple of months ago, Margaret Johnson was promoted from partner/executive creative director to chief creative officer of Goodby Silverstein & Partners. She became the agency’s first woman CCO. The shop’s founders and co-chairmen Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein remain involved in the creative but it’s Johnson who oversees the department. 

A 20-year agency veteran, Johnson was promoted to executive creative director in 2014 and to partner in 2012. This year she led GS&P to the third-most award-winning year in the agency’s history, which resulted in 13 Cannes Lions for multiple campaigns: Frito-Lay’s “DORITOS Rainbows,” SONIC’s “#SquareShakes,” “Unacceptable Acceptance Letters,” the Ad Council’s “I Am a Witness” and the Dalí Museum’s “Dreams of Dalí” (an Oculus Rift experience). 

“Margaret has grown up at GS&P and has the DNA of the agency in her blood,” said Silverstein. “She’s fearless and has led us with innovative creative thinking that taps into culture. She’s earned the admiration of our people and our clients, and there is no one else we would want to carry forth our legacy.

SHOOT: Reflect on what the promotion to chief creative officer means to you personally and professionally. 

Johnson: Professionally, I feel a great sense of responsibility to ensure that the agency’s legacy lives up to what Rich and Jeff set out to create 33 years ago. At the same time, I want to leave my own stamp on this place. 

Personally, I feel vindicated. After the birth of my first child, I had lunch with a recruiter from WPP, who told me there were a lot of male creatives in advertising who were more famous than me—not because they were more talented, but because they put a lot of effort into building their personal brands. Her advice was to define and build my own brand. This promotion tells me that I succeeded in making a name for myself in the industry without compromising my creative standards.

SHOOT:  What are your priorities in your new role as CCO? And how do you now dovetail with Jeff and Rich.

Johnson: As CCO I want to continue challenging our people to create work that’s never been done before, using the best storytelling tools out there. In the past year, we expanded from using media into actually designing and creating products—a new line of chips with Frito-Lay and a bespoke Instagram-formatted beverage with SONIC. We became the first to create an emoji linked to a social cause and the first to use Oculus Rift to take people inside a piece of art.

A few of these ideas came from sitting on Facebook’s Creative Council and participating in their hackathons. The press and recognition that came from those firsts were astounding, and I want to keep pushing the boundaries that way.
If we’re going to sustain this momentum, we need to provide creatives with the tools they need to be inspired. Right now, we’re expanding our in-house production facility, a social content studio and the BETA Group, a creative technology group. We’re also continuing to put our in-house media planning and buying at the center of the creative process for clients like Adobe.

Rich and Jeff will be alongside me in this next chapter, though I am in charge of hiring and the overall creative output of the agency. They are my advisors and mentors, and are always great sounding boards. 

SHOOT: What are the biggest challenges (creative, business, marketplace) facing agencies like GS&P today, and what as CCO are you doing to help meet those challenges?

Johnson: I feel very lucky to have inherited such an eclectic and multi-disciplined creative legacy at GS&P. We’ve always made an effort to take an approach that’s smart but also human, which should never change. The challenge is to hold onto that human element while staying at the front of the tech curve—resisting the temptation to use new technology for technology’s sake rather than because it’s the best tool to tell a story with.

Recently, we’ve been talking a lot about “Mass Intimacy,” which is the idea of work that lots of people want to engage with because it affects them on a personal level. Our human, emotional approach is key to this. 

We’re already doing this work in the form of DORITOS Rainbows to support LGBT rights; films that call out sexual assault on college campuses (the “Unacceptable Acceptance Letters” campaign); and an emoji that empowers people to fight cyberbullying (“I Am a Witness”). These are issues that people feel passionate about and naturally want to engage with and share.

SHOOT: Provide some background in terms of your long and rich history at Goodby Silverstein & Partners; when you broke in and in what capacity. 

Johnson: My first job was as a junior art director at David Lubars’ shop in Providence, Rhode Island. It was called Leonard Monahan Lubars & Kelly, and a creative director named Jeremy Postaer gave me a shot. In a telephone call that I had with him before the hire, he said, “I like your book.” It looked just like his, by the way. I had studied his work in the award annuals and, um, “patterned” my portfolio after his. He had asked me, “But how do I know if you’re any good?”

I told him, “I don’t know. If you like my ads, you’ll like me.”

Shortly after I got to Providence, Jeremy ended up leaving LML&K and went to Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. My next job was in Dallas. I worked for Grant Richards and Todd Tilford in a cool, carved-out R&D agency-within-an-agency at the Richards Group. After working there for about a year or so, Grant left and headed to GS&P as well.

Shortly after, Grant and Jeremy told me I ought to consider joining them at Goodby Silverstein & Partners. And I did.

The rest is history. Some of my early work included Yahoo!’s interactive “Bus Stop Derby,” campaigns for Nike Women and Logitech’s “Ivan Cobenk” spot starring Kevin Bacon as a guy who is in love with...Kevin Bacon. One of the campaigns I’m proudest of was the Häagen-Dazs “HD Loves HB” campaign, which prompted Congress to conduct hearings on colony collapse disorder. 

I became GS&P’s first-ever female partner in 2012, an ECD in 2015 and CCO in 2016. 

SHOOT: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your long tenure at Goodby Silverstein & Partners? And how are you applying those lessons as CCO to the agency now as you carry forth its creative legacy?

Johnson: Perfect is boring. To nurture creativity that drives innovation, you can’t be afraid to fail. If you’re brave, you’ll stumble into situations that are more interesting and creative, and that are a catalyst to make things happen. I encourage people who are starting out to take risks. Sure, some of those will be failures, but that’s part of the process. Ultimately, I believe you’ll be more successful creatively if you are willing to walk outside the linear path. 

Give creatives the freedom to chase their passions. Rich and Jeff have always been very generous with this and have led by example with all their philanthropic efforts. When you provide freedom, it’s amazing what creative people will do. Often our best campaigns, like “I Am a Witness,” happened because people want to fix something very hard to fix. 

Have a side hustle. Create a documentary film. Publish stuff that inspires you using any platform available to you. Have an outlet outside of work that fuels your creativity. 

A few more from Jeff and Rich:

  • “No one will fight harder for good work than you will.” 
  • “You can make something good out of any assignment.”
  • “This could be funnier.” On my deathbed, I will hear both Rich’s and Jeff’s voices saying this over and over, until it’s finally...over!