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Interview: Phil Johnson, President, PJA Advertising + Marketing

Phil Johnson
President at PJA Advertising + Marketing

Phil is the President of PJA Advertising + Marketing, a creative agency servicing the technology and healthcare industries that has been recognized for two years in a row as BtoB Agency of the Year. Phil is also an active blogger at Advertising Ages Small Agency Diary blog, and hosts a podcast called The Complex Brand.

CB: What fascinates you about the web?

PJ: It’s amazing to watch popular taste being formed in real time and see what turns viral. The “How To Be Ninja” video has 12 million hits. Some anthropologist is going to have a field day.

I love the power the web gives to individuals and small organizations. They now share the same communications platform as the largest institutions. Ironically, it is now the large institutions that are trying to emulate individuals.

I’m fascinated by the way that social media approximates human relationships. You can stay in touch with hundreds of people, and follow what they’re doing, but you don’t really know them.

The web has changed the way we think about time. Because virtually every facet of public life gets captured online, it’s now possible to hit the replay button on any event and experience it over again.

CB: What would you change about it?

PJ: Since the web is a force unto itself, I’d focus more on how to make all of us more literate about its power. It scares me to watch my kids do research on the web and not necessarily understand where that fact for their term paper is coming from. I really like to follow the conversations taking place at The Berkman Center for Internet and Society. They’re talking about all the big issues the web poses for society.

CB: What technology has had the greatest impact on your firms process?

PJ: It’s easy to forget the impact that PDF technology has had on business. It‘s an essential platform for sharing creative work. Also, collaboration tools that let people build on ideas without being in the same location. We have this internal blog called Scratch where people post ideas and whatever they find interesting. I read it all the time, and it really fuels my thinking. This also may be obvious, but wireless technology has changed the whole physical dynamic of the office. You can be talking to someone in the hallway and launch a video iChat with a second person in San Francisco.

CB: How did you go from studying English and Philosophy to serving as the president of a 50-person agency?

PJ: Stupidity. I still dream of teaching high school English. In the early days, I just wanted to get a few interesting people together and see what happened. One thing led to another. Of course, once you hire a finance person, there is no turning back. A theme through my entire career has been an interest in building organizations, especially creative ones.

CB: Who has influenced or helped you the most in your career?

PJ: I’ve got a wise, old friend named Jack. I run most of my business ideas by him. So far, the only mistake I’ve ever made is not listening to his advice, because he’s always right. Everybody needs a friend like Jack.

CB: You blog for the Small Agency Diary at AdAge. What practices enable you to stay inspired and continue to produce interesting and insightful articles?

PJ: I love writing the blog and I try to submit a post every week. Mostly, I’m responding to the environment around me, what I see and hear in meetings and in the media. I try to mix it up between the personal and the practical. It always surprises me that people get really interested when you write about some business process like time sheets. I also like to write about the interpersonal part of running a business. There’s a ton of stuff about how to sell and be a better manager but not much about the emotional aspect of business.

CB: In your role, you must see tons of resumes. What do you look for in a prospective PJA team member?

PJ: You need to feel some electricity when you look at a resume or a portfolio, some exciting reason to meet that person. Practically speaking, I look for someone smarter than me. When we meet I want to hear them talk in great detail about work they have done so that I can sense their passion. In the back of my mind, I’m asking: Is this a genuine person? Ultimately, I want to work with good citizens who make the world a little better every day. P.S. Send me your resume.

CB: In a recent blog post, you wrote When the agency starts to feel pricing pressure, the first thing to suffer is the agency process. This is something I think most mid-sized agencies have experienced. What strategies have you found effective in addressing this problem?

PJ: When you feel pricing pressure, the impulse is to take shortcuts. That often means skipping important steps, usually the ones that require the valuable thinking that leads to innovative work. If clients have less money to produce a campaign, or a Web site, it’s better to think of a completely new idea that solves the client’s problem. That allows you to do a great job without compromising the process. Trust me, it’s hard.

CB: I believe that everyone has a specific and unique talent that comes in handy at just the right time. It might be something most people know about you or something very few know. What is your super-power?

PJ: Backgammon. It has helped me through a few difficult times.

CB: If the worlds technological and economic systems were to collapse and revert society to locally-focused, agrarian communities, what role would you assume?

PJ: My grandfather, who was a carpenter, always wanted me to learn a trade. I should have listened. Since we’re near the ocean, I would spend my time fishing.

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