Dick Johnson, a larger-than-life auto advertising giant, passed away this week after a long battle with cardiac issues. Johnson retired from BBDO Detroit in 2001 in his late 50s as chairman-chief creative officer, just a few years after the Germans at Daimler had acquired and taken control of Chrysler Corp.
Here he is in his BBDO creative “war room” in a photo from Paul Stenquist, who worked for Dick and remained his friend.
I met Johnson in 1999 during an interview scheduled for an hour in his spacious BBDO office, then in Southfield. It lasted 5 hours. We drank a lot of Pepsi while we talked and watched a lot of reels. He started the session with his early years. His fifth grade teacher told him he had talent after seeing a poster he did. He took that to heart. “I’m not a natural leader. I’m a complainer,” he quipped, telling me his high school year book dubbed him as “a big letter man” (he played 4 sports) who “complains about everything.”
Johnson majored in English at Bucknell in Pennsylvania, where he also played football. Johnson, recalling having to watch game videos of himself and his Bucknell team, told me “if you don’t run your pattern everyone laughs, so you’re really playing for the camera.” He added “a good way to live your life is act as if you’re being videotaped.”
After graduating, Johnson taught composition at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York for a year before coming to Detroit as a copywriter in 1964 for Ross Roy Communications.
Johnson didn’t suffer fools lightly and he wasn’t a fan of New Yorkers trying to handle car accounts. He was a smart and witty ad man who worked at eight ad agencies on various car accounts, including Buick and Pontiac, as well as non-car brand like Texaco and Tampax. He had three tours of duty at BBDO.
“The hardest thing I do is guys fill the room with their work and I go over it script by script,” he told me. “I have to find the merit in the work and what’s harder is if it’s not there what can we do to get it there.”
Johnson said his first big campaign presentation to a client was in 1977 for the Dodge Omni, when he pitched the Big Idea “It Does It All.” But in 1979, BBDO lost the Chrysler account, when Chairman Lee Iacocca moved it to Kenyan & Eckardt. Johnson moved to Doner’s Baltimore office.
He came back to BBDO Detroit in 1982 on the Dodge account and wanted to use all red cars in ads. He didn’t win that battle then. He quit in ’85 and joined Saatchi & Saatchi Compton as creative director on AMC’s Jeep account. He started a “no people rule” for the launch of the new Jeep Comanche because “I wanted to make Jeep a magical brand.” He said “if you try to define a brand by the characters of the drivers, you’ve lost the magic.”
He brought that philosophy to BBDO Detroit when he returned in 1991 as vice chairman and chief creative officer on the Dodge accounts. His challenge: to launch the all-new Intrepid in 1993. That was the start of red cars and title cards for Dodge, with “This Changes Everything” as the campaign’s theme in eight TV spots. They hired actor Ed Herrmann as narrator and he hardly ever appeared on screen. Nearly every ad was shot in a studio no matter which model.
Here’s one for the Durango
Back then, Johnson was doing what most of the other car companies weren’t smart ad campaigns with a consistent look and feel. Sounds simple, but lots of other automakers had very different-looking ads for the same models. Johnson also convinced Dodge officials to get regional dealer ad associations to use the same national work for a more unified brand message. Again, sounds simple, but many carmakers had different shops doing work for the retailers’ regional groups.
When Chrysler called a big shoot-out for the 1994 launch of the ’95 Plymouth and Dodge Neon model, Johnson and his team bested Bozell, which handled Chrysler, Plymouth, Jeep and Eagle. Chrysler used BBDO’s friendly “Hi” blitz for both brands’ look-alike Neons. Johnson said BBDO’s two years of Gen X research gave the creative team the right insight for the ads. Take a look
By the later part of the ’90s BBDO was winning all kinds of recognition for its Dodge advertising, including Effies, Mobius, and International Broadcast Awards. More importantly, Johnson & his band of creatives were helping to rebuild the Dodge brand. He was promoted to president of BBDO Detroit, a job he told me he didn’t really want, but took it “because I didn’t want someone over me.”
He described his management style as giving his creatives “a gymnasium to play in instead of a closet.” And Johnson believed “clients shouldn’t be creative directors; they should be satisfied with their agency making very accurate recommendations based on fact.” He also told me “one of the greatest sins in this business is the piracy of taking credit for something you didn’t do.” Yes, he had high standards and ethics – for himself and his team.
Maybe that’s why the guy was so well liked. BBDO grad Stenquist recalled that Johnson was” loved by both his clients and staff” and knew how to get the best from his creative team. Stenquist added Johnson would “stay out of our way until he sensed it was time to get involved, then he’d simply say ‘let’s gather.’”
Perhaps Brad Thomas, CEO of Jupiter, a creative rep firm outside of Detroit said it best: “We have lost an advertising legend.”