Margaret Johnson
Chief Creative Officer, Partner

How Perseverance—and the Yellow Pages—Launched Margaret Johnson’s Award-winning Career

For Margaret Johnson, Chief Creative Officer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, it took a summer college course in advertising and a torn-out page from a phone book to kick off her successful career path of 27 years in the industry.

It's exactly this kind of perseverance that has led to Margaret’s impactful work in the industry. Overseeing award-winning campaigns such as the ‘Not a Gun” campaign that raises awareness of the fact that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, Margaret is here to ensure the breakthrough work that leaves GS&P is “the best it can be.”

Read on to find out more about Margaret’s industry work, how far the impact of one Nike campaign went, her own personal work that recently won a Cannes Lions, and how she deals with work-life balance or as she affectionately calls it, “one big, chaotic jambalaya.”

Tell us about what you are doing now.

I’m the Chief Creative Officer here at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, responsible for all the creative work that leaves the agency and making sure it’s the best it can be.

Over the past six months, I’ve been amazed by how innovative my creative teams have been in the middle of a pandemic. They’ve created:

  • The “Not a Gun” campaign, which raises awareness of the fact that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people
  • A Twitter bot that combats racism against Asians online
  • An underwater film narrated by Morgan Freeman to educate people that by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic than fish.

In 2018, I formed a nonprofit called Daughters of the Evolution with my daughter Vivian. We created ‘Lessons in Herstory,’ an app that we launched at SXSW, and this year it won a Gold Cannes Lions and the prestigious White Pencil at D&AD. It uses augmented reality to celebrate stories of women typically omitted from history textbooks.

How did you get to where you are today?

I took a summer-school [college] course in advertising at Parsons in NYC. By the end of the summer, I knew that advertising was what I wanted to do, but I needed to put together a portfolio. The morning that I was leaving New York, I walked over to a phone booth and tore out the advertising section of the Yellow Pages. I cold-called two dozen advertising agencies in NYC and asked the receptionists to put me through to “the creative department.” You’d be surprised how many actually did. Each time I got through, I’d ask, “Where’s the best place to put together a portfolio?” More of them said the Portfolio Center than any other place. So, I went to Atlanta. From there I worked at agencies in Providence, then Dallas, [and] finally landed in SF at Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

Women often attribute much of their success to the support from the people they surround themselves with. How do you foster strong professional relationships as you grow in your career?

I try to be generous with my time. Help others when they need help, and they’ll return the favor down the line. Also, don’t ever forget the people who got you where you are and make sure to bring them with you. Lift as you rise.

What’s one way you’ve invested in yourself that’s had the most impact over the course of your career? What about within the past year?

“You have to look for it, but creativity is the best cure for cabin fever.”

I’ve always tried to have a colorful life outside of advertising—you need experiences to draw from. Movies, film festivals, museums, music—all of it finds its way into your work, eventually. It’s been especially obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s a musician from the SF Ballet who plays the cello most evenings now from his front stoop since the ballet is closed. You have to look for it, but creativity is the best cure for cabin fever.

How do you view work-life integration, especially now, and what advice can you share with others who may be struggling with it?

For me, work and life have always blended into one big, chaotic jambalaya. It’s part of being a working mom. I do conference calls in my car from soccer-field parking lots, but I never miss the game.

Best advice on how to overcome typecasting in the workplace?

If you’re being given a certain type of assignment repeatedly, and you want something different, ask for it. Your boss may never know what you aspire to work on if you never tell her.

That said, sometimes it’s OK to lean into what you know. I remember being one of the only women in the creative department and being bummed that I always got the “girl assignments.” But looking back, the work that I did very early on for the Nike women’s brand turned out to be some of the best and most rewarding stuff I’ve done in my career. A young woman read from one of our ads during a funeral for one of the Columbine victims, saying that it gave her strength to get through it all.

What’s one tip you can share or something you’ve learned on how to handle salary negotiations or raises?

  • Make sure you are kicking ass. That always makes negotiations easier.
  • Be very clear when you ask for the raise or promotion. Make sure you come prepared with all the reasons you deserve it.
  • If you’re not happy with the answer, ask again. I usually haven’t gotten the raises and promotions I asked for right away but asking plants the seed and sets you up for the next negotiation.
  • Make sure you’re paying attention to what’s going on in your job market—that usually dictates how receptive companies are in giving raises.

Who has helped you in your journey (any mentors?) and how did they help shape your career?

“They taught me to work hard, to have a life outside of work and never to compromise.”

Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein have been wonderful mentors. They taught me to work hard, to have a life outside of work and never to compromise. Oh, and it’s never finished until it’s live and out in the world!

What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“You need a brand.” I realized I’d been focusing entirely on my creative work and not at all on my career. So, I learned to be more of a participant in the industry, to work the room a little more instead of waiting for good things to come to me. I’d advise every creative to do the same.