CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/MICHAEL JOHNSON - New D&AD president may be a mystery to adland

By JENNY WATTS, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 06 September 2002 12:00AM

Michael Johnson wants to integrate advertising and design, Jenny Watts writes.

It's all very well being described by The Sunday Times as "The Government's favourite designer and "bright, fluent and relentlessly articulate by The Guardian. But if Michael Johnson, the incoming president of D&AD, is best known in adland as "the bloke who did the 1994 annual cover with the squishy pencil case", he may well need his industry credentials broadcast more loudly.

Johnson will succeed Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's executive creative director, Peter Souter, as president in January. At 38 years old, Johnson is one of D&AD's youngest presidents. "I'm younger than Peter, which pisses him off, Johnson jokes. But he knows he needs to raise his profile in the ad industry. "One of the downsides of being 38 and a designer means I'm painfully aware no-one in advertising knows who I am, he rues.

So who is he? Johnson left university with a first in design and marketing to start work in London.

And the proud owner of five yellow Pencils is no stranger to advertising, having spent some time in Sydney as the art director to a then little-known 19-year-old Australian called Dave Droga. However, in 1992 Johnson moved back to London to set up his own company, Johnson Banks, at the age of 28. The company now counts the Government, Carlton and Procter & Gamble among its clients.

Droga, now Saatchi & Saatchi's executive creative director, thinks Johnson's relative anonymity in adland will be to his advantage: "He can come into the job with fresh eyes. He doesn't have agendas passed on to him and doesn't have to be worried about putting noses out of joint because he doesn't know whose noses they are."

How much can be achieved in a one-year tenure remains to be seen in an organisation once mired in corruption, but which has since put its house in order. Under D&AD's current chief executive, David Kester, it has now built a reputation for being an efficient, well-run operation. However, the void between the advertising and design camps is still prominent.

"There is a tendency for the design side to feel the poor relation," Johnson admits, saying he'll be holding focus groups with the disillusioned element when he starts.

"It's true that there is a disenchanted late-30s to early-40s design group, which trained when D&AD was seen as a bit of a 'club' and is quite cynical about it."

Souter adds: "The problem is that young designers aren't as interested in D&AD as advertising creatives, who have lots more opportunities to win awards and to shine more quickly."

One of the anomalies of D&AD is that the advertising categories are considerably more expensive to enter than their design counterparts, which has led to ad agencies shifting into the graphic design categories where possible.

With different people lobbying for different categories, how will Johnson bring cohesion to the body? "It's been the classic brief for years, he comments, "but getting the two sides together has to be the best way."

One key initiative he'll be introducing is designed to bridge this divide. A new category, with the working title "integrated creativity", will be judged by a mixture of designers, advertisers, product designers and clients. The idea will be to encourage agencies to enter their integrated campaigns - either on their own or collaboratively. Johnson says: "The design and communications aspects will all be judged as a totality, not as separate elements. He reckons most liberated thinkers in the business agree this is the way forward, claiming the notion of a schism between ad agencies and design agencies is breaking down.

As far as he's concerned, the lines are already blurred; his company has produced work that most would consider advertising including campaigns for the French Metro system. But isn't this cannibalising ad agencies' business? "I think that's tough really, don't you? he responds. "The smart ones realise it's moving on anyway and this is what clients want."

And Johnson has other plans afoot. D&AD is preparing for a crackdown on scam ads. "It's going to be much more difficult for people to cheat, he says. To this end D&AD is considering setting up a tribunal and introducing a penalty system that punishes cheats according to the seriousness of the crime.

Johnson's future plans also include lectures about integrated creativity and thinking about ways to get D&AD lecturers into the provinces to make it less London-centric.

He's also spent the past two years planning "Rewind", an exhibition at the V&A museum looking at the first 40 years of D&AD. And next month the issue of integration will be tackled in his book Problem Solved, which looks at design and advertising as overlapping disciplines, rather than separate worlds.

With all these plans, Johnson is hoping to introduce himself to D&AD's advertising element alongside the designers who know him. But can he really make a difference in just 12 months? "I'll try, he says. "Most of my compatriots in design think I'm a closet ad man. They may be right."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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