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David Johnson

Executive Vice President, Senior Creative Director
BBDO Advertising Agency
New York, USA

What is your title and what do you do?

I'm an executive vice president, senior creative director at BBDO advertising agency.  At the end of the day, I'm a writer.  I work with an art director partner thinking up ad ideas for various products and then selling them to our clients.  Once an idea is bought by the client, we shepherd it all the way through production to get it on TV or in a magazine or newspaper or radio.  That might involve choosing a director, casting the actors, going to the shoot or radio record to help make sure they do it right, then all the post production stuff, editing, color correction, music recording, sound mixing, making sound effects, you name it.  Recent ads of mine you might remember might include one for Pepsi's Win a Billion promotion where a young guy is hanging around the Billionaire's Club and the stuffy old billionaires want to know how he made his money.  Also, one for Gillette Right Guard that's on now where 300-lb football player Warren Sapp of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is playing "foosball" in a bar and when he raises his arms in triumph his B.O. makes everyone, even the foosball players faint.  Also in recent years, Shaquille O'Neal running through TV sets to get a Pepsi and actress Denise Richards running through a screenplay that changes as the writer writing it changes his mind.

How did you become interested in a career in advertising?

I was not interested in advertising as a high school student and certainly not in college.  I did like to write and got my degree in journalism from the University of Missouri's School of Journalism.  I had several summer jobs involving writing, one for a small newsapaper in Moberly, Mo., another for American Aviation Publications in Washington, D.C.  After university, I pursued journalism for a while but it didn't excite me.  My sister knew someone in advertising so I decided to try that and liked it better.  I had to show samples of my writing (which thanks to journalism I had) and make a book of mock sample ads to get a job.  It was very tough in the beginning and I'm somewhat amazed I stuck it out.

As a kid, any job is a good thing to have.  You learn responsibility, to work as part of a larger organization, good work habits and hopefully you get some money, honey.  Unless you plan on inheriting a trust fund, I think work is a good thing to learn about early on because you'll be doing it for years.  May as well learn to do it right.  If you're lucky it might point you in the direction of a career or at the least educate you as to what you don't like to do.

What were your favorite classes in school?

I always liked literature and art and history courses.  I liked anything that involved essays and writing.  In high school I did not think of myself as a writer, partly because the school had a literary magazine run by a dictatorial English teacher and staffed by a bunch of kids I did not fit in with.  I figured if that was what writers were like, I wasn't going to be one.  Today I don't know if any of them are writers, yet I am.

What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects?

Mathematics was always tough for me.  I found I can do it but have to sweat bullets doing it and didn't enjoy it.  Other than being able to add my checkbook and maybe the discipline learned in surviving a difficult ordeal, I can't think what use those courses are to me today.  Nobody asks me to add things up here... that would be a big mistake.

What is a typical day (or week) like for you in the advertising business?  What are the steps required to design and implement a successful commercial or ad campaign?

If we're in the thinking phase on a project, which I am now for Pepsi, I come to the office, talk over ideas and the project with my partner, and each of us look for ideas anywhere: books, movies, cartoons, the newspaper, our own imaginations.  Part of the work involves first understanding the project: where the client is now, where they want to go... then it's really just sweating through reams of trees in the forest of ideas looking for a big one that fits.  Since we aren't meeting anybody we can dress however we like, forget suits and ties, in summer we wear shorts and T- shirts.  You don't have to dress up to be able to receive an idea that comes knocking.

Next we take out ideas to the people above us here at BBDO.  They may like what we have or have us change it.  Eventually we take it to the client and present it.  For TV we usually do that in storyboards with pictures and we may act it out a bit and play music or run about or whatever else gets the idea across.  Assuming they buy an idea, then we go into the production phase.  How do we get it done for the time and money involved?  It involves a whole army of people and each project is different.  Sometimes you have to travel to shoot a TV spot.  Mine have taken me to Brazil, Thailand, England, Hong Kong, England and California among other places.

What characteristics or personality traits help someone to be successful in your business?  What areas should students work on if they want to succeed in this business?

In my side of the business, the creative side, you have to quite obviously be creative, be able to think up ideas about any given thing.  You also have to be resilient and have a thick skin since most of your ideas will not be received well.  When they kill your ideas, rather than sit there and mope about it, you have to be able to get back on your feet and go think up new, hopefully even better ones.  That's your best revenge: sell an even better idea than that nice one they hated.  If you want to do this kind of work I would advise you see a lot of movies and TV, maybe study art, and take writing courses.  Also, think crazy thoughts, let your mind go free (except when your Dad and Mom need you to listen to them).

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Washington, DC, and went through the fourth grade in a suburb called Chevy Chase.  I had a Davy Crockett coonskin cap and was set to be another all-American kid when, for no particular reason, my mother (who was divorced) decided we would all go to live in Spain (my older brother and younger sister as well).  I didn't return to America till I was eighteen to go to college.

What difficulties did you encounter returning to the U.S. after going to school overseas?  What were the advantages of this experience that other children may not have had?

When I returned to America I felt very much like a fish out of water, I had very little in common with the other young people in college.  I actually had doubts whether I fit in in America and went back to Spain after that.  Problem is, I wasn't Spanish either and couldn't get working papers and a good job in Spain.  So I returned to America to become an American.  Versus kids who stayed in America, I learned another language and about other cultures, but having said that, I don't think it was worth the culture shock and loss of lifetime friends having grown up abroad.  I wouldn't do it to my kids.  A few years in another country, yes.  More, never.

If you had your choice of living anywhere in the world, where would you choose?

Now that my kids are grown and off to college, I'm free to think about living anywhere.  I like New York and my job here but I'd also like to live in other places, mostly Europe like Spain and Italy.  I own and fly a small plane.  I'd like to get it over there and fly around Europe and North Africa for a year or so.  If I could manage to successfully write books or movies, which I'm trying to do, I could live anywhere and do it.  One of my sisters is a successful illustrator and she can do just that.  Wherever she is, she can draw, scan it into her computer and sent it over the Internet to her clients in Japan, France, wherever.  She even does a lot of work for the people who make Barbie dolls. I envy her freedom to take her job anywhere.

Why did you consciously choose to raise your family in the United States?  Have your children ever had the opportunity to travel to other countries?  Have they learned any other languages?

I consciously chose to raise my kids in America and in one place, because I felt the negative effects of feeling like a stranger in your own country having grown up abroad.  It's difficult enough being a young person trying to fit in and find friends as it is.  You don't want to be a foreign geek on top of it.  I have also always really envied those people who have had friends they have known for a long time.  I have no idea where my childhood or even most of my high school friends are.

There is a certain strength from having them, grownups often call it networking, kids just call it having friends you know and can depend on.  I think parents who have the "opportunity" to take their family overseas for a time need to understand the downside of that, what is an "opportunity" for them might not totally be for their kids and they should hopefully make it a temporary dislodgement at most.

What advice do you have for students who may wish to find work in your field?

If you like ads and think you might be interested in them as a career, you should study the best ones.  Find a library that has award books like the Art Director's Annual, The One Show book, The Communication Arts Ad Annual, The D&AD annual.  You'll see some amazing and inspiring work. If you like to write, just write as often and as much as you can, the more you write, the better you get.  Write for your school's literary magazine or if that's too geeky, the newspaper... or write a diary or whatever.  If you like art, draw everything.  Take classes if you can, and watch good movies and TV shows.

What general advice do you have for all students who may read this interview?

Have fun.  Find things that turn you on and put a smile on your face.  You've got lots of time to figure out who you're going to be, explore different things.  If you find yourself bored and just sort of sitting around, something's out of whack.  Life is full of fun things, give yourself a kick in the pants and go out and find some.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?

I've always liked a part of the "Madrileño" philosophy, the people in Madrid call "el yo soy yo."  That translates as "The 'I am me'."  When your art teacher says why did you draw that tree as orange instead of green you say "porque yo soy yo" (because that's me).  It means be true to yourself.  Use your judgment on this one, use it at the wrong time and you could end up in the principal's office.  But, as a general rule, give yourself credit.  You know who you are and what you feel... better than anybody else does.  So don't let anybody else tell you how to paint your own picture in life.  I try not to, "porque yo soy yo."

- 19 August 2003


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Last Updated:
20 August 2003

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