The Legacy of Leadership

News Phil Johnson Head 14 Rt1 2048X1152

“Relationships can last a lifetime.”

That’s a core tenet Phil Johnson shared with me as he prepares to leave his role as Colle McVoy’s chief operating officer after a 33-year career at the agency. Phil is a remarkable leader, mentor, client partner and friend. I sat down with him — as I have many times over the years — to glean insights and learnings from his remarkable career journey.

As our discussion began, I was reminded that Phil is a no-nonsense leader with a common-sense approach and humbleness that belies his savvy business acumen. Phil started as an “account guy” at Colle McVoy and grew to be the agency’s first director of client services and eventually became president before being named COO in 2004. His steadfast approach has helped transform Colle McVoy into a modern, transformational agency.

During his career, Phil has become known as an expert in challenging the status quo, whether he’s revitalizing a brand, reorganizing a business group or elevating innovative technology. Along the way, Phil has earned accolades for his leadership and ability to help brands thrive, including recognition as Marketer of the Year by the National Agri-Marketing Association and Outstanding Advertising Alumnus by the University of Nebraska.

I asked what tips he can share with young professionals as well as with the more grizzled pros like me. The discussion focused on how to be successful in the ever-changing, ever-challenged agency environment.

What advice would you give people just starting out in advertising?

Time and time again it has been proven to me that success in this industry is about relationships. Start every day by constantly earning trust from your colleagues and clients. But relationships are not exclusive to work. Relationships with neighbors and community members also have tremendous impact on your sustained career success. That often means volunteering at nonprofit organizations that align with your personal interests and values. It’s amazing how often a local connection can blossom into a regional and then national network.

Today, Colle McVoy’s long-standing client relationships — including our 25-year partnerships with CHS and Land O’Lakes — reflect a commitment to nurturing relationships and never taking a partnership for granted. Relationships that endure for decades are nurtured through mutual respect and two-way communication. These bonds help sustain both the good moments and the more challenging ones.

Also, one more piece of advice for those starting their advertising careers: Be willing to take on any assignment that comes your way. That doesn’t mean you have to be a junkyard dog and embrace scraps. Rather, lend a hand with a wide range of business challenges. Those experiences can be learning opportunities and help make you valuable. Our industry thrives on the insights that come from diverse experiences and perspectives.

Your career has evolved greatly during your 40-plus-year career, particularly at Colle McVoy. What advice would you give seasoned professionals on how to maintain a long career in this industry?

Embrace change. Break the routines. Push yourself to be uncomfortable — constantly. This will help you lead change and stay ahead of industry headwinds. For me, that means being informed and inquisitive in the midst of constant change and disruption. In brand leadership, it’s been vital for me to stay in tune with the greater business world by voraciously reading business media like The Wall Street Journal and The Economist alongside blogs and podcasts. I also seek to be an early adopter through firsthand experience with new platforms, apps and innovations.

An entrepreneurial spirit has also helped me thrive over the past 40-plus years, as well as overcome the inevitable challenges and changes within a vibrant, fast-moving industry. We often hear that culture eats strategy for lunch. I also believe that creative eats big money for lunch. Inspiring, groundbreaking creative work starts with a business imperative and strategic rationale. But there’s often a tension between what data science tells us is the business rationale behind every idea or campaign. The inquisitive mindset, combined with the ongoing quest for invention and reinvention, provides the groundwork for creative teams to develop disruptive work that grows brands and drives business growth.

My key takeaway: Live with a sense of urgency that never accepts the status quo. If you aren’t paranoid about your clients’ business and their competitors, you’re in trouble.

One more piece of advice?

Stay humble. In other words, don’t get too big for your britches. That means never thinking you have all the answers. A know-it-all attitude hinders relationships and is the roadblock to invention and transformation. Be genuine, curious and real.

Phil, thank you for the partnership and passion you have demonstrated at Colle McVoy. It is clear to all that you follow your own advice.

Best wishes on your next.