Margaret Johnson, Goodby Silverstein & Partners’ first new creative partner in over a decade and its first female partner, has worked on nearly every agency account in her 16 years at the San Francisco shop. Landing a job there, let alone moving into GS+P’s inner circle, was the last thing she expected after a GS+P job interview where Rich Silverstein delivered a withering critique of her work, hurling an ad across his office. In a chat with Adweek, Johnson offers a glimpse of her time at the agency, including the day Elizabeth Taylor made the unflappable Jeff Goodby blush.
Adweek: How did you get to GS+P?
My very first job was at Leonard Monahan Lubars & Kelly where Jeremy Postaer, who was my idol at the time, hired me to work under him. When he went back to GS+P, I moved to The Richards Group and worked for Grant Richards. Then Grant left and went to GS+P. Eventually those two said, "You should come out here and talk to these guys."
What were the first accounts you worked on at the agency?
The first commercial I ever did was for Polaroid. I shot it with (director) Kinka Usher and that was a big splashy experience for me because before that my work was all print stuff. One of my first agency experiences was with Jeff (Goodby) who had a friend at (San Francisco’s) KGO radio who wanted to do a billboard for coverage of 49er games. This other guy and I came up with the idea where we would make the billboard backdrops look like football mesh jerseys and the letters look like the ones you see on the back of them. The day the billboards went up, Jeff told me it was the smallest type he’d ever seen on a billboard, that it looked like the legal stuff you see at the bottom of the page. I offered him my next paycheck, but, of course, it wouldn’t pay to patch even one of these billboards, yet alone all over the city. He patched them all and ended up paying for the favor for his friend. It was a bit of a rocky start.
Your best Jeff Goodby story?
He and I were doing an Elizabeth Arden project and we had to go to Elizabeth Taylor’s house to pitch her a couple of ideas. We’re sitting in her living room and one of the guys in her entourage comes down, claps his hands and says, "Miss Taylor is ready." Everybody had to stand up, and Elizabeth slowly walks down the stairs in a long ball gown, carrying a tiny little dog, with all these guys flanking her so she didn’t fall. She ends up sitting right next to Jeff. He launches into a funny story about how we live in San Francisco, and we ride the trolley car up and down California St., and he was just getting all whipped up. He was totally taken with her. She started stroking his leg, saying, "I don’t want anyone feeling nervous around me." Jeff is a guy who never gets flustered and his face was beet red; he was giggling like a school boy. It was hilarious.
Have one about Rich Silverstein?
One that immediately comes to mind is my interview with him. I had one of those giant portfolios filled with laminated boards. I was sitting in his office which is the most pristine office I had ever seen. He comes storming in, super gruff like a New Yorker. He sits down and starts flipping through the portfolio and pauses at an ad that I was totally psyched about because it was the one piece that had gained some recognition. He keeps looking at it and looking at me. It was an ad for Continental Airlines, which was sponsoring the comeback of the Woodstock music festival so a 737 plane was wrapped in psychedelic stuff, peace signs and flowers. I’m thinking, "He’s loving this thing." Then he takes it and Frisbees it across the room and launches into a tirade about how bad the retouching is, how it’s a total fake, how I had a shoddy engraver do the Photoshop work. I tried to explain that we sold it to the client on a Friday and got the illustrator to draw up the thing over the weekend. He just said, "No one can hear your excuses when they’re flipping through a magazine." For me, it was, "Oh my God, interview immediately over and so is my career at GS+P." Miraculously I ended up getting hired.
How’s the agency changed in the time you’ve been there?
I’ve seen us completely expand and contract at times over the years. In the end, we’re resilient. When we lose clients, we work harder to get better clients, and we work harder to prove we’re still an amazing agency that does great work. The one thing that has been consistent is there is such a big focus on doing the very best work in the industry. As far as the type of work we do, we’ve evolved. Early on we were supertraditional. Now probably 75 percent of our work is more involved with the digital space.
The past year has been tough, with GS+P's resignation of HP and loss of Sprint. What’s the mood now?
It definitely hurts morale when you lose business. No one likes to lose clients; nobody likes to let people go. The good news is that we quickly reset, and we’ve had a lot of big wins, with Google and Cisco. We’ve replaced those (lost) clients with ones who are superforward thinking and who are going to allow us to do great work. We’re hiring again. We got a lot smaller, so the community felt better. When you have those big clients, you have to get a lot bigger and staff up for them really quickly. So this is an interesting time for us because we actually have time to consider who it is we’re hiring and making sure we have the very best talent.
How did you get the idea for Dunkumentary in 2008, which was featured in the Short Film Corner at Cannes?
My husband (Josh McHugh), in a former life, was a journalist who worked at Forbes and Wired. He pitched this story idea to Outside, wondering if he could train to dunk a basketball. I thought, "I’m going to have to live through this thing no matter what, and I always wanted to shoot a film so we decided this would be a cool project." I bought a camera, and my husband was the subject of this story. I would love to do another film, but the project I’m working on right now is actually a book called Don’t Kid Yourself, and it’s written for parents with kids and encouraging them not to lose sight of who they were before having children. I’m also doing this with my husband.