"The Unreasonable Man"
"We know ourselves whether it was good or not good, and we're not fueled by anyone else's acclaim."
Carl Johnson, the co-founder and CEO of Anomaly, talks about what makes him an 'unreasonable man', why Anomaly was named Ad Age's 2017 Agency of the Year despite not being an ad agency, and what he thinks is critical to ensuring the future of his company.
- Decide what matters to you.
- Define success for yourself - and rewrite the rules so they work for you.
- Never stop asking, 'is this important to me, and is it worth it'?
"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT
Episode 2: Carl Johnson
Charles: Hello, you're listening to Fearless where we explore the art and science of leading creativity, an unpredictable, amorphous, and invaluable resource critical to every modern business. Each week, we talk to leaders of the world's most disruptive companies – how they're jumping into the fire, crossing the chasm, and blowing up the status quo – leaders who've mastered the art of turning the impossible into the profitable. So stay tuned because in the next half hour, anything could happen.
Welcome to this episode of Fearless. Anomaly is a disruptive force in today's advertising, marketing, and comunication industries, recently named as Ad Age's Agency of the Year for 2017. You know, as an aside, I'm often struck by the competence of giving an award for a year that's only four months old. It feels a bit like giving out the Oscars in July of the year before. You're assuming that nothing's going to beat that over the rest of this year. It also feels a bit like naming the man of the match when there's still five minutes to go, which happened at a game I was watching over the weekend. I mean, if someone scores a hat-trick in those last five minutes, it creates a pretty awkward situation for the player who's always been named man of the match, doesn't it? "Sorry about that, can we have our award back? We need to give it to someone else." Anyway, I digress.
Anomaly was built not simply to make ads, but to solve their clients' problems. They position themselves as business partners to their clients and exhibit a commitment to not simply talk about a developing IP but to do it. Today they have offices in North America, Canada, Europe, and Asia. They are the definition of a modern, progressive, disruptive, and highly creative company.
Carl Johnson is one of the company's co-founders and its global CEO. He is also an iconoclast. He has been described as a maverick, irreverent, and outspoken. He sees the world differently and he has the courage of his convictions. He, too, is an anomaly. I sat down with Carl at a quiet corner of Anomaly's New York office and talked to him about how this company came to be, about how he and his partners are maintaining the company's creativity even as the business expands, and about what matters most to him as a leader.
Charles: Carl, welcome, first of all.
Carl Johnson: Thank you.
Charles: I wanted to say that I know you pretty well, and I thought I knew quite a lot about you. What I didn't know actually was that you have the same name as the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto.
Carl Johnson: Yeah. It makes Google search quite fun.
Charles: It really does. It popped up, I thought it must be him, he'll show up first, and in fact no. I was like, "Oh my gosh."
Carl Johnson: Yeah, wild.
Charles: He's got a very interesting biography. I couldn't get him sadly.
Carl Johnson: Yeah, I'm the stand in. Fair enough, fair enough.
Charles: So you are, in fact, for the few people that listen to this that might not know, you are in fact the founding partner and global CEO of Anomaly.
Carl Johnson: True.
Charles: You created this.
Carl Johnson: Me and other partners.
Charles: Yeah, absolutely. We are in fact sitting in a part of Anomaly that you told me you didn't know existed until today.
Carl Johnson: This is true. This is a sound booth in part of our in-house production. I wondered how the magic happened and now I know.
Charles: Yeah. And actually there's a line outside trying to get in I see. So we're in a popular part of Anomaly. You also, as I was looking at your Twitter feed, you also describe yourself on your Twitter profile as the father, coach, and joke to four sons.
Carl Johnson: This is true.
Charles: Tell us about that.
Carl Johnson: Family's always been important to me. I've got four boys. We run it a bit like a sports team; I'm the coach. I think I can play still, but I can't. As you can imagine in a sort of boys' club, they just have zero respect, mock me, take the piss all day every day as part of the banter. So they laugh and I'm a joke to them. I think somewhere deep down there may be a smidgen of respect, or maybe I'll get it when they're older, but right now I'm just a fat, old bloke who can't kick a ball.
Charles: Yeah, it's sad isn't it, this aging thing, because we all have to see ourselves differently. Actually going back to your childhood, what's your first memory of something striking you as being creative? What's your first memory of creativity?
Carl Johnson: That's really interesting actually. I think creativity until I was in this business at sort of 21 was defined as something I absolutely could not do, something that's not for me at all. I just related creativity to art, and I'm really good at maths and I can't do art. All I could do was draw really badly, so I used to dread the lessons. I couldn't do pottery, I couldn't do metalwork, so creativity was a source of embarrassment as something to be avoided at all costs.
Charles: How interesting. And how do you see yourself now? Do you think you're creative now?
Carl Johnson: I think I'm creative ... I think there's two version of it. I think I'm creative in the true sense of the word. I'm able to have new concepts, new ideas, to reconfigure things. I am no more creative executionally in a craft sense than I was then. I'm not. I can recognize it, I can appreciate it, I can agitate for it by challenging whether it's somebody's best or have we seen that bit before, is it fresh. I can't personally execute at all, but I think one of the keys to the success of Anomaly has been our broader understanding of what the term even means. And if you look up what it means, it is to do with seeing things in new forms, new combinations, new shapes, whether that be a pricing structure or an organizational structure, not just a photograph.
Charles: It's interesting actually because there's a quote stenciled on the wall here in the New York office of Anomaly by George Bernard Shaw, which you know, but for those people that haven't walked into your office, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." So viewing creativity through that lens, this agency is actually, this company is a reflection of that.
Carl Johnson: It is. I think it's a recognition that creating new anything is hard, and there's an enormous amount of momentum, weight, legacy in the way. And that what it takes in terms of less vision and more willpower and persistence and force is what's surprising. Again, as a suit who loves the power of creativity, I recognize that beyond agitating for it I think creating an environment that supports it, one of the greatest contributions I could make is to be relentlessly persistent in enabling it and fueling it. Because it's hard. There's a million people who will tell you why you can't do it, why there's not enough time, why there's not enough money, why all those things you're imagining can't happen. And there are many, many times when they can, but you just have to have the bloody-mindedness and the force inside you to make it happen.
Charles: And what do you think are the biggest obstacles to taking that incredible, incredible force. I think creativity is probably the greatest business resource any company has at its disposal. What do you think are the greatest obstacles to unlocking creativity in a business environment?
Carl Johnson: The company needs to believe it matters at its very center, and sometimes there are people who say it but don't mean it. There's lots of things that companies say and they think they sound good, but when push comes to shove they're not prepared to commit to it. Like a lot of things, is it true? You talk about the power of creativity and the importance of it. How far are you prepared to go? Are you prepared to invest in the time? Are you prepared to invest in an uncomfortable conversation with a client? Are you prepared to pressure yourselves with higher standards? It's really ... The force comes because you mean it and because it matters. To certain creative people it matters because it's burning inside them and they need to get it out, and that is completely understandable. To the people that surround them, so it's not just a purely artistic pursuit, those people need to believe it's worth the pain. And it is pain.
Charles: Yeah, absolutely. I see that. I see that in the best companies it really is a battle between art and commerce. I think the tension of those two pieces is important. You need those two disciplines, or those two forces, to fight together all the time to get the balance right.
Carl Johnson: I don't think they're ... I think the trick is that they're not opposing. I think the trick is to harness one for the other. There is in some, not very good, companies, they say, "Well, do you want it to work or do you want it to be good creatively?" And you go, "Well, I hate the question. I think the question is flawed." I'd rather ask a better question, which is, we're going to make it work, how can I apply maximum creativity to that end? So I think that one supports the other. One is a means to an end.
It's the age-old cliché in ad agency, for example, where the creatives are pure and idealistic and just want to do something great, and the suits are just going to get in the way. Not true at all. Not true at all. Irrelevant creativity is irrelevant and a waste of time and money. Harnessed, focused, disciplined creativity applied to a business problem is awesome, and all the best suits would get behind that. The debate is not creativity or commerce, it's creativity in order to create more successful commerce.
Charles: And do you see Anomaly as an ad agency?
Carl Johnson: Definitely not.
Charles: How do you describe it?
Carl Johnson: I don't describe it very often because it's too hard. No, no. We were a combination of smart and lucky. So the smart thing was we named ... I mean the best bit of branding strategy we've done is for our own company because we've positioned it as an anomaly – it's the name, but it's also the proposition. We are a deviation from the norm. And the norm when we set up was a screwed up mess of siloed legacy agencies, slow-moving, and just not built for a new world. So we smartly positioned ourselves as different from that.
But the really lucky bit, which we hadn't fully appreciated, was we don't exactly define what we are, which allows us to evolve as the world evolves. If you think about all the companies that are now shaping our world, they didn't exist when we began. There was no Uber. There was no Airbnb. There was barely Facebook, if there even was. The smartness was Anomaly being created as something that is different, and then it's our job to make sure that it's relevant.
To really understand Anomaly, you have to understand what we're trying to do, which is essentially solve clients' business problems, and we will use any tool we can. So when people ask me to describe it, I say, look, I can't really. It's an anomaly. We're a bunch of smart people trying with all honesty to solve a client's problem with no bias as to what that answer is, whether it's design or events or ads or partnerships. The real question is not what box do we fit in, but are we good or are we not good? Are we useful to you or not useful to you? They're the only questions.
Charles: And what was the genesis for the company? How did it come to be?
Carl Johnson: I had an agency in London, long time ago. Sold it in the late '90s to Omnicom as they were building a global network around TBWA. They bought Chiat/Day in the US, they bought other good agencies all around the world, and they bought my agency, which was called Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow Johnson. Classic London name.
Charles: You snuck your name in at the end.
Carl Johnson: Everyone stuck your name in there, and it was all a bit ridiculous. But anyway, it was a very good advertising agency. Really, very good. Highly creative, highly strategic, but after nine years we sold that. We were tired. We sold it and it merged with TBWA. And it was a good agency. I then got invited by the global CEO, Mike Greenlees, to come to New York because TBWA New York was very bad, and he wanted some fresh thinking. He basically said, "Go in there, do what you have to do, and make it better."
In truth, it was quite easy to make it better. So I did a few pretty easy things: give it some purpose, give it some clear leadership, give it some hope, promote good people, eliminate negative political people, win some business, do some good work you can rally around. It was quite easy to look quite good quite quickly. So I got promoted and got given this job global chief operating officer. The best thing I did in that job was to basically address the question, what does the network of the future look like? Which is a great question.
Charles: Great question. What was the answer?
Carl Johnson: The answer was a bit like Anomaly. In truth, it was. I was complaining about this ... I did it with Johnny Vulkan who's one of the founding partners here. It was get rid of the silos, you can't recommend only advertising. And it just, at the end of it, I knew what it looked like on a diagram, but the change of management to get it from 100 and something offices to look like that was an impossible job. I don't have the patience to do that job. Truthfully, I'm not a great manager, definitely a better leader than manager, and I wouldn't have been able to lead the process through all of the change and the reconstruction to turn TBWA into that. So I was not up for that job.
Then, I was in New York, 9/11 happened. I live in New York with four children, my wife. We live downtown, this isn't why I came to New York. So I took my kids away and we all went to Sydney for two years. I thought, well, I've had an agency, I've sold it, I've been very lucky, I've got options in life, I'm just going to stay on the beach. This is looking very good. Sydney is an amazing place; the sun shines, they like sport, the beaches are great. And I was pretty much into, "Thank you, goodnight, I'm retiring."
Charles: How old were you at that point?
Carl Johnson: I would have been 41.
Charles: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carl Johnson: So it was exactly the plan-
Charles: That would be a lot of people's definition of success actually.
Carl Johnson: That was my plan. My plan was start an agency, sell it, retire at 40. So I'd have been about 41. Then one of my other founding partners, Jason DeLand, who's 15 years younger than me, he had left Chiat/Day and was wandering off in the world when I was in Australia. He came back to America and said, "I've got to have my own agency. I don't like any of these agencies, they suck. I'm too young, no one's heard of me, I'm not credible. I know what I need, I need that Carl Johnson bloke. I'm going to get him off the beach, and I'm going to make him come back, and we're going to start a company together."
He's an incredibly determined and smart bloke, and somehow he managed to get me off that beach, principally with a speech about how we could change the industry. I was not interested in doing an ad agency, and I wasn't interested in just mucking about and doing an okay company. The desire to do something of significance where you go, we could change the industry. Time's have changed. The industry is siloed and stagnant. It needs a new force. He appealed to [inaudible 00:16:49] my ambition and my desire to learn and grow, and if you're going to build a new type of company that changes the industry, you're going to have to learn and grow. So he knew me well enough to know which buttons to push. So he did, so I came back. 2004 we started, and that's it.
Charles: And do you thank him or blame him at this point?
Carl Johnson: Both. No, I mean truthfully obviously I would not have done it without him. I would not have come back. I would be in Australia, I would be retired. Probably, knowing me, I'd have a chain of coffee shops because I would not have been able to do nothing. I'd have been looking around going, "You know what they need to do? Their branding is no good there, music's no good. We maybe could launch an album." I'd have been doing something just because I would have been too restless. But I thank him for getting me back and for being my partner in building a really good company that I enjoy being in, and I blame him for how much damn time it takes, how much of my life it gobbles up. You have to be ... It's essential that all day every day is stimulating because it does, as anybody who's an entrepreneur knows, it eats up most of your day, so you better be sure you're doing something that's worth it.
Charles: And how can you tell? How do you judge the success or otherwise of what you're doing on a ... Because I know you have a very different set of values than the average agency founder, owner, CEO.
Carl Johnson: I ask questions like ... I actually ask question like, am I happy? Is the adrenaline still flowing? Do I get up every day and want to walk to work? Do I like being there? Do I like the people that work with me? Do I like our clients? And then if I fail on any of those, I'm not going to do it because I don't have to do it. I could be on the beach, and I know I would like that. So I need all those things to be positives. Then the sort of professional dimension is, have we done something that moved the game forward? Can we feel proud of what we've done? Now, luckily, I've got a yes to all those. Am I satisfied that we have reached the peak? Definitely not. You know, if nobody was listening, I'd say we're about half as good as we could be.
Charles: Well, who knows, there might not be anybody listening.
Carl Johnson: There might not be anybody listening. There's you, you're listening. No, that's the truth. So it's all about the larger perspective of is it worth it in my whole life to be spending this much time, and they are personal, human.
Charles: Have you always been driven by that perspective?
Carl Johnson: I was driven by ... I have been since I went to university. I was luckily good at sport and good at schoolwork sort of naturally, and I didn't have to work that hard to be successful. But I was always competitive and wanted to succeed because I like the feeling of being good. It's just a feeling of knowing inside that you're good, and I was a good sportsman, I liked that feeling. And I was good at certain subjects in school, particularly things like maths. Then I managed to bluff my way into Oxford. I went there, again ... My big brother went there. I went there because it's a flipping astonishing experience. It's sort of an incredibly privileged way of life; it's ridiculous. So I managed to go there, which was amazing.
And then in truth, although I spent 75% of my time playing rugby, which was fantastic, I did spend the other 25% doing politics, philosophy, and economics. In the doing of the philosophy, it did really make me think, and I do think I got most of my clarity from studying philosophy. I got used to asking the real question and pushing further and further back. So I did go all the way back to, why am I doing this? So I have a very strong sense of what's the North Star, what are the first principles on which you're going to live and work and deal with people, and also a very strong sense that you have control of your own destiny. If you accept that you are driving the bus, then there's no one else to blame and there and no excuses and you have your hands on the wheel. If you don't like where it's going, go somewhere else.
Charles: How do you deal with people? You described yourself as a coach to your father, I think you're also obviously a coach to a lot of the people here. How do you help them? Is helping them find their North Star part of what you see as your responsibility?
Carl Johnson: I think I'm sort of half good at this, I don't think I'm brilliant at this. I'm much better as a teacher by example. Even by saying things like I've just been saying to somebody in the agency and asking them to make sure that they can answer that question for themselves and by repeating the importance of values and knowing the North Star, I'm helping them center themselves. See, what you don't want is people who are confused, conflicted. You have to work hard in our business. You have to know why you're doing it. There is no one right answer, but there's a right answer for you. My way of teaching is to say out loud things like this, personal and values-based things, then you invite them to do the same process. Then they'll know why they're there on a Sunday.
Charles: It's so important. I think it's hard to overstate the importance of that perspective. There's so much of the work that I do with leaders around what is your personal brand, and what I find is if you can get a leader to acknowledge and define, for the first time in many cases, what do I stand for, what do I believe, and then say that out loud to somebody, you suddenly have your own North Star, to use your language, that you hold yourself to account to, and at the end of the day, there's nobody more important to hold yourself to hold yourself to account to.
Carl Johnson: No. But, again, once you accept that that's the case, you can't hide from yourself.
Carl Johnson: Which is good.
Charles: It's the publication of it that's important, right?
Carl Johnson: Yeah, yeah. Now I think ... People have asked me before, what were the keys to success of Anomaly so far, et cetera, et cetera. I think that clarity is one of the single most important things.
Charles: Clarity in terms of ...
Carl Johnson: Clarity of everything. We know why we're doing anything. We know.
Charles: So how much of your day is spent stripping away the noise to help people see?
Carl Johnson: A lot. In every meeting about a client, every brief, it's about pursuing clarity at that level, in a brief. It's about clarity over whether we're talking about a personnel issue, and it's about clarity at the highest level about why Anomaly exists. It's not quite what is the meaning of the life, but not far short. And that clarity is often where people get lost. They don't have it. They're running around looking at options and solutions, and nobody has quite said, "What problem are we exactly trying to fix?" And then you push back a few things ... And again, this is where I'm saying that studying philosophy, whether it be logic or meaning-of-life type questions, you just get clearer and then you push and you push.
Again, even if it's on a client brief, somebody will say, "Well, we've got this brief about creating content, blah, blah, blah, blah for a brand," and you just need someone to go, "Before we go further, can we just answer this question: how does that client make money? What business are they in so then I'll know what role this content is meant to be playing?" So, yes, clarity all day every day at every level on every subject.
Charles: So when you're looking to hire people for this company, are you looking for certain attributes?
Carl Johnson: Yeah, I've said a lot that we can teach people knowledge, you can learn knowledge, it's much harder to teach people values or attributes. You can't make someone who is selfish selfless, and you can't imbue generosity of heart into somebody. You can tweak things like empathy and making them better at listening and caring, but there are some people who just drip all these values.
So we look really hard at values. And they're the ones that will make them good team players, people who take pride in the success of their team. People who don't care whose idea it is, they really don't care – people say they don't care, but they really don't care. People who know what it is to win and lose. People who have struggled. Any story of, for example I'll use something I know about, anybody's who's played a high level of competitive sport, to me I know they have worked hard, and I know they've failed, and I know they've probably been cut, and I know that they've been celebrated, and I know they know how to deal with all of that crap. The parallels with work are very similar. So you know some things about that. People who've started businesses and failed after two or three years of effort, you know that they went through a lot to get there.
So, yes, we look really hard at values. It's helpful if they've got specific expertise in certain areas, otherwise you start from the beginning, but they don't have to know everything. In fact, we don't want anyone that knows everything because they would be wrong because no one does.
Charles: And you're a big believer in developing people.
Carl Johnson: Yeah. I think ... Our company ... A lot of companies are probably hard to join. Our company's quite hard to join because it works in a strange way, and it's quite rare for it to be as idealistic as I'm laying out here, and so some people are a bit confused. It's also a little bit messy in terms of structure, so you find your own way a little bit. Even though it's full of nice, supportive, helpful people, it really works well for some people and less well for others. But we've got to get behind the people who work here rather than get them in, throw them on the coal face, and then go outside searching for the next shiny star.
I love growing our own. People like Franke Rodriguez, who's the chief exec of New York and Toronto, he's been here 10 years. I think he joined as an account supervisor. I think he only ever worked at Digitas. But his hunger to grow and to learn was so ridiculously evident, he did, and then he became ... We double promoted him, made him the chief exec of Canada when he was about 32, and then we've just given him New York as well. He just will not stop growing.
Charles: And what does he bring that works for you?
Carl Johnson: What works for me is the overwhelming desire to learn coupled with a truly generous, big heart and an empathy that makes you just want to be with him, be part of his team, and he cares. So, him, he's a great example. Karina, she's been here six years. She came in and it was a flipping hard job. Coming in as a partner of New York where you've got six founding partners marauding around in an unstructured, impossible-to-draw organogram and make sense of that, and she did. So having arrived, succeeded, I've sat next to her for six years, and seen her learn and then gain control of this operation here is phenomenal.
We're always going to get behind people like that. Again, just promoted her, global chief operating officer, and we want her and Franke to now teach others. But we're doing it at every level. Whether it's an account exec or a data analyst, it's much more effective to hire well and invest behind those people. Obviously you need to supplement with outsiders as you grow, but it's really rewarding to see people develop inside.
Charles: And you're actually putting together a training capability, [inaudible 00:29:13] ... And a physical manifestation.
Carl Johnson: Yeah. Again, some things we're great at and some things we're a bit slow to get to. We were a little bit guilty of the classic startup, founder-driven company where the founders are everywhere, they're doing everything, you're expected to learn by observing, there's no formal training, you're lucky if you get any feedback, and if you haven't got any bad feedback, you should feel happy, and that's about it. That's the best you can hope for. Now that's great when you're about 30 people and pretty pathetic when you're about 600 people. About 18 months ago, we decided to commit seriously to training, because New York in particular was too big, 300 and something people.
We took one of our best ... This was the big decision: who the hell can teach? And we concluded you can only teach from within. We took a lady called Ali, [Ali Sable 00:30:09], who was the head of account management, a superb suit leader, but she'd also been responsible for recruitment and nurturing talent. We basically persuaded her to become the global head of talent because we figured that replacing her as a lead suit would be easier than bringing in somebody fresh to teach. So we dragged her away from account management, empowered her, she leads a team.
We carved out a few thousand square feet making it more like a classroom learning center, which we're going to call DNA, our little pun on the word Anomaly, and we're going to build a curriculum and then we're going to commit to it. We're going to spend time and money, we're doing it already, but we're going to make people go. If you don't want to be trained, if you don't want to get better, that's a really bad signal I think it sends. It says you don't care about yourself and you don't want to get any better, which I don't understand. I don't understand on a personal level and I don't understand at a corporate level why you would not want to improve.
So, yeah. Space, money, people. And as you get bigger as well, of course, we're fighting the inevitable dilution of the effect of the partners because we can't be in all the rooms all the time. What we mustn't do is do what everybody else does – as you get bigger, you get worse. It's almost like a flipping guaranteed, 100% cert rule. As you get bigger, you're going to get worse. We have briefed Ali to as we get bigger, we'd like to get better. How do you pull that off? It is possible if you give yourself a hard enough job, and if we write down what is in so many people's heads and formalize it, commit to it, we have a chance to keep recruiting good people and grow, which I think gives people phenomenal opportunities.
Charles: I think it's one of the great weaknesses of a lot of creative companies, that they don't create institutional knowledge as you've just described. I think you're right, you get to a certain point and you suddenly realize, it's a massive competitive advantage because the knowledge and skill contained within a company like this is enormous if you can capture it, catalog it, and purpose it.
Carl Johnson: Yeah. This is probably oversimplified, but there's leadership, management, and being a practitioner. We happen to have founding partners who are good leaders and good practitioners, but are not natural managers. A lot of the core management practices – writing things down, having processes, job descriptions, feedback mechanisms – we don't have a lot of those because you're either doing the work or you're leading. And that gap is a weakness that I personally should have spotted about four years ago instead of about two years ago. But you're in denial a little bit because you're too busy leading and practicing.
Charles: I think it's also a difficult separation point for a lot of people to see even, to your point, when they're in the middle of living that way. I said to a client about a year ago, "You're a better leader than you are a manager," and they said, "There's no difference." I said-
Carl Johnson: There's so much difference.
Charles: Yeah. What's your definition of the difference? How do you describe leadership versus management?
Carl Johnson: Obviously this would be a bad definition because, again, I can ... To me, leadership is about defining the future, espousing the principles, inspiring the company, and providing direction for it. Management, to me, is about ensuring the delivery of that vision and those principles in practice, often using structures and management tools and techniques. So it's about ensuring that there is a structure, there are committees, there are processes, there are things to make that vision happen. Otherwise you're standing on a stage, the company feels really clear, very motivated, believes in the company, and, like an army about to go into battle, would go into battle. But if you didn't have any management, they've got no weapons, they've got no plan, they don't know what formation they're going. They're just a rabble running behind leaders.
Charles: Such a good description.
Carl Johnson: You know what I mean?
Charles: That is so good. Yeah, no, it totally resonates. Actually I might steal that. It's really good actually.
Carl Johnson: I just wish I'd had this conversation years ago.
Charles: Well, it's interesting isn't it because the company really is a reflection of that. It has been so strongly led, it really is an anomaly. It stands out in many ways. You were recognized, I think both to your pride and your chagrin as Ad Age's Agency of the Year.
Carl Johnson: Yeah.
Charles: I don't know whether ... Some days I'm sure you think that's a good thing, other days probably not. But now, as you say, as you get larger, the notion of how do you bring discipline, structure, and process, enough of that in so you don't get in the way of what makes you special, but enough to be allowed to scale. That's the challenge.
Carl Johnson: That's the challenge, and I think what we did was we were so desperate ... On the spectrum of anarchy to bureaucracy, we were so desperate to not be a bureaucracy where you have to send the approval form to hire an account exec to Paris before you can do anything, we were so desperate to avoid anything that smacked of legacies or bureaucracies, that we leant towards free-form. A lot of that is great and energizing, but it literally will screw the company up if you don't put some practices in place.
As soon as you say, "Hey, look, here's this thing" ... You've got 600 people. It won't work unless you do. It just won't. You keep saying things like, "Everything is [inaudible 00:35:54]," and the 30 people that were there when you did Virgin America to prove that case, then 10 of them are here and there's a load of more who have no idea what you're talking about. Write it down or film it or give [inaudible 00:36:09], but you've got to teach. As soon as you say that and you just admit it ... Again, back to your point, you just look in the mirror and go, "This is the truth, and the only person that's fixing it is you, and there's no one to blame, and there's no hiding place," then it becomes really easy. You've got to hire Ali Sable in her new position, and you've got to give her money and space to do it.
Charles: Yeah, I think it's so powerful. What I've realized over time is that creative people want to make one thing more than anything else, which is a difference, and you need to purpose them towards what's the difference. But it's also true I think that a lot of people who start businesses spend quite a lot of time for the first two, three, four years working very hard to make sure that their company is not the company they came from or doesn't-ing have. And people actually become what you were saying, people get lost around that because it doesn't mean anything after a while. The avoidance of something is not the same as a strategy.
Carl Johnson: Yeah. I think it's ... We've had a little bit of that problem in other offices. So we'll do Anomaly in New York and then we'll open somewhere. I remember in one or two of the offices, some people confused being Anomaly with always providing a non-traditional answer. And you go, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no." Anomaly will always be focused on delivering the right answer whatever it is. If the right answer is an ad, do an ad. Whereas, if you get it wrong, you going, "Well, we're definitely not doing an ad, are we, because we're anti-ad." You go, "I'm not anti-ads, we're pro everything." And there's a really big difference, as you say. Again, but that's a good example of that's not written down anywhere. There's not a handbook for how to be a partner opening an Anomaly office, and there should be.
Charles: And there probably never will be ... Oh, you think there should be?
Carl Johnson: No, there should be. There should be. I think there should be a sheet of paper with the 20 golden rules, and it probably comes down to that.
Charles: That sounds about right. I honestly think this notion of don't be something ... I used to play a lot of golf, and like a lot of golfers I'd stand on the tee with the water on the right and you'd say, "Don't hit the ball in the water," and the ball would go in the water. Somebody told me years later, somebody with I think a degree in psychology, said the human brain can't hear the word "don't", so it just drops that off.
Carl Johnson: Hit the ball in the water.
Charles: Hit the ball in the water. So the avoidance of the negative is something actually to be avoiding. Don't don't focus on the negative advice.
Carl Johnson: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Charles: It's so interesting. How do you see yourself?
Carl Johnson: Lucky. I mean lucky. I think the luckiest thing I did was I found a job I like and I'm good at. I went to university and I had absolutely no clue. I had no, no clue. No one did internships; that's a new thing compared to me. Basically what happened was you went to university and you got a job. And you started to think about what your job would be in about February before you graduated, and then all the companies, you'd go, "What do I want to do? Do I want to be a banker or do I want to join marketing? Or what do I want to do?" I had absolutely no idea in the February and I'm graduating June.
Charles: And a degree in PPE tends to create that outcome doesn't it?
Carl Johnson: Well, it does.
Charles: PPE's designed for that.
Carl Johnson: [crosstalk 00:39:31] for everything and nothing.
Charles: Yes. Exactly.
Carl Johnson: But I'd had no vocational desire. I wasn't born going, "I need to be a doctor." I didn't have anything driving me. I think what I'd really learned at university was I really understood myself, which is, if you think about matching about matching yourself to a career, super helpful. So clarity of self is crucial. I decided, in those days ... I interviewed with anybody and everybody. Mainly as a sort of research exercise to go, could I ever do this job? Could I ever work with these people? It became ... And I did. I went and I went I'm never working with that lot. As a bank, I'm not that person. I've got no desire to look like that, talk like that, or discuss these topics, so I don't want that.
And then halfway through ... And I sort of interviewed with everything, from industrial relations, oil companies, Unilever, Proctors, and then I went to a sort of open evening an ad agency was having. I thought, "What's that like then?" So I went in line. The first thing was they had an open evening. So they had an evening, a [inaudible 00:40:40]. I thought, "Oh, that's interesting." First thing you do when you walk in is you get a drink, and you go, "This is already good." Then the lights go down and basically young, enthusiastic people start playing you ads and talking about the business, and they're fun and they're funny and it's sharp, and you go, "This is good. I can do this."
So then I basically stumbled into interviews. It was immediately obvious that that's where I should be. I also knew my ... The big learning I had for myself was two really big learnings. If I'm not excited, I'm actually bad. I don't go down from like 10 out of 10 to 8 out of 10, I go from 10 to 2 because I'm disinterested, and I'm worse than an average person. I'm rubbish. So unless I'm galvanized by work ... But I found that even just the open evening exciting.
So then I went to the conversations, and I was doing all right, and I had an interview. The one, again, I most remember I was being ... The agency was doing four interviews at the same time. They were interviewing four applicants in four different corners of the room. So you sit there. You're in a big room and there's a guy being interviewed in each of the four corners, and you go, "What? This is ... They're not being very respectful here." And you can see them, and they're asking all the usual questions – why do you want to do this – and I was giving all the usual answers. And then I could tell towards the end that I had lost the guy. Because it was that sort of he's looking over my shoulder, he's looking at someone. I thought, "Fuck, I've lost this. There's no way I'm getting this job." But my instinct was this is ... Everybody's going through the motions. I am, he is, I'm going to lose this one, and I want this one.
So he says, "Have you got any questions?" And I thought, well, I've got nothing to lose. So my instinct took over and I said, "Yeah. Why have you got so many of the wrong people being interviewed today?" He went, "What do you mean?" I said, "All these people are all accountants that are in the wrong room." He said, "Whoa." I said, "Look at them all. They're dull, they're boring. You're business is more interesting." Anyway, basically I cut through in the last moment, and then you get sent down to London and have a load interviews. And I managed to get ... And then I got a load of jobs in advertising. I got rejected by four times as many as I got, but I got one. And then I [inaudible 00:43:02].
But the main thing I did was I lucked out on choosing the right career. These days, it's harder than ever. When I look at my own kids I think, I don't know how the hell you work out where to work, but if you can correctly line yourself up, then it isn't that hard to work hard because you like it. So I count myself as someone who was initially super lucky, and then has done a very good job of applying myself through years of fatigue.
Charles: So you're just tired all the time.
Carl Johnson: It's hard. It's hard. Even if it's good, it's hard. It's a tiring job. There's no easy money.
Charles: How do you think other people see you? Because you have quite a reputation.
Carl Johnson: I don't know. Actually I'm not very ... I don't know what other people think. I would think ... I think they think I'm harder than I am. I don't know.
Charles: Harder in the English sense?
Carl Johnson: Tougher.
Carl Johnson: I think they think I'm scarier than I really am. I don't know. I would hope they thought I was honest and authentic, and that would be pretty good. That would be pretty good.
Charles: You say what you mean.
Carl Johnson: Yeah, I do. I'm not unkind, I'm not unsympathetic. For example, if somebody is trying their hardest and they're just not very good, we're incredibly tolerant. If they're really talented and not trying, we're incredibly intolerant. That's like the biggest crime. If you're wasting talent because you just can't be asked, that's not very good. We've got a slight blue collar work ethic in here amongst the partners. If you've been lucky enough to have the talent, you have an obligation to use the talent by committing yourself to it.
Charles: Do you worry about what the industry thinks of you personally?
Carl Johnson: No.
Charles: You don't care.
Carl Johnson: Not at all. I've found it ... I learned that very late. I wish I'd known that when I was about 15. This is one I didn't learn 'til I was about 35, and I think I only learnt it because I'd had a successful agency so I could afford to not care. But it is so liberating not to ask what will so and so think. I don't actually ... I am comfortable in my actions. I know I'm doing it for the right reasons. I don't care. I'd prefer people to think nice things, but I'm not going to chase it. I'm not going to pander to it, and I'm not going to do things just to get it, which is why we're not great at PR because we don't really care. We know ourselves whether it was good or not good, and we're not fueled by anyone else's acclaim. Again, if you think of the liberation that gives you to do the right thing and what you want.
It's one of the reasons I came to America to be honest. In London, the ad scene is still pretty incestuous, it's pretty tight. Everybody knows everybody, everybody knows everything about everybody. You can't have lunch without bumping into five people in the same restaurant. In America, I am really clear that we are completely insignificant. We're in New York. This is Wall Street. This is big media organizations. This is so many people who are way more significant than some punk little agency. So there's a great freedom in anonymity. You come to work, you do what you want to do, you set your own standards, you're honest enough to know whether you delivered, and then you're free. There's no burden. I can't stand the sort of pettiness and pandering to someone else's acclaim.
So that's why the Agency of the Year thing is great. And I don't mind when we're not. I know we've had great years when we weren't Agency of the Year, and if I was being objective, I think we might have been, perhaps should have been, but you win and sometimes you don't win. I'm not going to drive the company to winning it; that isn't an objective. An objective is to do what we actually care about – the work, our culture, our commercial success, our personal satisfaction. If doing that is deemed worthy of Agency of the Year, I am delighted because, again, it's great for everybody who works here, it helps in recruitment. But we're not focused on it, and we're not driving to it, and we'll probably never win it again. And I don't mind.
Charles: What does worry you?
Carl Johnson: Fucking up the company by failing to ... Two things probably. If we let it go wrong because it gets too big to keep it good, that would be really irritating because that would be entirely our fault. So on the sort of smallest version, screwing it up. On a slightly more ambitious agenda, we have license with a positioning like Anomaly to do just about anything we like. The failure at that end would be to not take advantage of that permission. If we stop asking "what else do you want to do?" at all, that would be a sin of omission. It would be as of not having been ambitious enough. One is about a screw up; that's like the [inaudible 00:48:51]. The other is we've built a platform, we've got 600 people, we make lots of money, we can do what we like with it. Go on then, what do you want to do? So I think that would be the one ... I would regret that more than the other one. I would regret that because it's a phenomenal opportunity and platform we've built for ourselves.
Charles: So how do you get up every day making sure that that's not what happens?
Carl Johnson: I don't. I should. I need to talk to you more. No, I don't, I just have to keep thinking how to ... And I think the beauty might be by fixing the small one of not screwing it up, we may institutionalize processes and behaviors and knowledge liberating me and the other guys to have the time to ask that question. Ironically, fixing one will provide the solution to the other. I just figured that out right now. Yeah, that's the thing. That's the exciting thing. Fix the damn future the next five years by embedding all the right stuffing, then capitalize on that platform and do something special.
We can go anywhere, literally anywhere. That's almost scary, but we can. We can raise money, we can spend money, we can go into categories we like, we can start brands, we can buy brands, we can own coffee shops, we can create our own content platform. We can do anything we like. Anything we want to do, if we're good enough, we have built the permission to do, which is, now that's quite exciting. That's worth coming to work for.
Charles: And how will you decide? I mean what are the criteria that you would use to look at? What's the instinct and what's the feeling that you have to get in your stomach in order to know, yeah, this is the thing?
Carl Johnson: I think we've learned from some of our IP projects not to stray too far from what we actually know. We've done some things in the past where we might be at a ... We're in a market we don't know, we're involved in manufacturing in China, which we have no clue about. And we may well have a great brand vision, but it will all fall apart in execution. So I think we will be looking to leverage proven, demonstrable experience rather than, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to have a vineyard?" "Well, it would be, but what do you know about it?" "Nothing." "Maybe you shouldn't do it then." So I think we'll be looking to find that space where we're leveraging what we already know pretty damn well.
I think, for example, the last year's launch of our cannabis brand Hmbldt is a good example. Innovation, strategy, design, marketing, branding, and seeing white space in a market with a commercial eye. Perfect example. Lots of what we learnt there was built off of our understanding of innovation, white space, which we learned across Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Diageo, ABI, Hershey, and everybody else. We understand need states, we understand how to create products for different needs, we understand design. But it's the taking of that in an entrepreneurial way into a new space where we sense in the wider world there is a lot heat and energy and money, cannabis.
So I think more of things like that. Come to the core of what we know, dial it around and point it somewhere else. Don't know what the answer is, but I know it can't just be made up. "Wouldn't it be cool to own a chocolate brand?" "Yeah, but what do you know about that?" "Not much." "Okay, maybe you shouldn't."
Charles: What do you think the future of creativity looks like?
Carl Johnson: Well, I think the real game, which is quite interesting, is just the ever-broadening realization of what, like we said at the beginning, what creativity really encompasses. For Converse, one of our clients, we did a research survey about the meaning of creativity in China. We were quite interested. We used the term creativity a lot in that brand, very creative brand. It's, you know, an oft-used word. It's a pretty big word, and it means quite a lot of different things, and we thought we better just check what the hell we meant. Do we mean musicians? Do we mean artists? What do we mean?
The finding, which was astonishing, was that the number one creative icons in China of youth are the entrepreneurs. Number one most creative person in China, Jack Ma. So you go, whoa, whoa. Now we're talking about creating businesses, that's creative. Elon Musk, you don't get much more creative than that.
Charles: Yeah, no you don't.
Carl Johnson: So I think the exciting thing that everything to do with technology, and the entrepreneurial spirit that's come with that, the exciting thing is that the meaning of the word has been dramatically broadened, allowing more people in and more people to see themselves as creative. I mean everybody knows that it isn't just executional craft art, and everybody knows that every time they are posting on Instagram or putting together a playlist they're expressing some form of creativity. But to go all the way to where we are now where you're creating businesses and new visions I think is what's exciting. So I love the idea of releasing much more creativity in the world by opening the gates to what it means.
Charles: As I listen to you today, what I hear are three major themes I guess. One is the importance of being really clear with what's important to you, knowing yourself and what matters to you, thinking about that a lot. Two is really having a clear understanding about the kind of business you want to build and what success looks like for that, and ignoring the rules that are in place and setting your own. And then I think third that I've heard is never stop asking the question about why am I doing this, why are we doing this, let's make sure that this is actually worth the time and the energy that it's going to take to put into it. Is that right?
Carl Johnson: Yup. Because I think they keep fueling each other because you know where the energy is coming from. You re-focus, re-energize, re-galvanize because you know why you're doing it. But that's why I think you don't want a job, you want a mission. People who use words like purpose for brands and things, I prefer a mission for a company. Again, because of love of sport I can relate this to teams. We're going to win what? Why are we all doing this? And it's not to play every Saturday just. Well, it could be, but that's not why I'm doing it. This isn't recreational football. We're in the premier league, I want to win. I want to be the best team there is.
Charles: I'm sorry that's not going to happen for you this year as a Chelsea supporter, but there we go.
Carl Johnson: Spurs season ticket holder here, still holding onto hope. No. Yeah, I think you've got to ... It's hard. And to be successful in any field is hard, whether you're writing, painting, creating, whatever it is you're doing, so you've got to know why. I think that I do. You've got to know why you're going to give everything. There's a lot of other really good people out there, why are you going to succeed? And I think if you get that clear, you will always know. And most people are not very clear, they're not trained to ask themselves.
Some of them ... A bit Jack Nicholson here. Some of them can't handle the truth of the answer. Let's pretend they're in a job they hate. That's a lot of people. They get up, they're on some crappy commute, they go to the office, their soul dies a little bit, they get back on the train, and they go home tired and a bit irritated and frustrated. What the fuck? I think the question that says, look in the mirror and go, is this what I want to do with my life? If you say no, you now have to act. So it's better sometimes, they think, not to ask that question because they can't handle the consequence.
Whereas we want the answer. And if the answer is ever no, we have to make it so that the answer is yes. We will change it so it's yes because the no means stop then. Get up, get out. Get out of New York. Don't open a coffee shop. Do what you want that will make you happy. Who are you doing this for? You have to know the answer to that. Do you know what I mean? So to me it's absolute clarity around all those things provides not only the focus for a business or your life, but it gives you the energy because you know why. It's so energy sapping to be in conflict.
When I see us walking into a room and I think we're pitching against another agency and I feel in my heart that they're probably dialing it in, some of them don't even want to be there, I fancy our chances all day because I know we will have tried harder, we'll have pushed ourselves further, and we will give more. And I believe we will give more to the client, and they can sense our conviction and they can sense our commitment. Even if there was a draw, we would win on that feeling that we could engender in a client because it's real.
Charles: Yeah, I think that's a great word actually to end this with. I want to thank you for saying yes to sharing your thoughts with me today. Absolutely fascinating conversation, as I thought it would be, and thanks again for joining me.
Carl Johnson: No problem. Slight therapy session.
Charles: Fearless has been brought to you by Deloitte Digital, a creative digital consultancy for a disruptive age. Find them at deloittedigital.com.
That wraps up this episode of Fearless. Join us next time as we delve further into the art and science of leading some of the world's most disruptive businesses and unlocking the power of creativity to change ourselves and the world. Thanks for joining us.
[4:30] What was Carl’s first memory of doing something creative?
[6:40] All progress depends on an unreasonable man. Creating something new is very hard.
[10:55] Carl believes his company was both a bit smart and lucky.
[12:45] How did Anomaly get started?
[18:30] How does Carl judge the success of Anomaly?
[21:45] How does Carl help his team grow and be an anomaly?
[23:40] Carl believes that one of the keys to success is having extreme clarity for your goals and vision.
[24:55] What kind of skillsets does Carl look for when hiring someone?
[31:10] If you don’t want to be trained or learn new things, that sends a very bad signal. Carl frankly doesn’t understand those types of people.
[33:30] What’s the difference between management and leadership?
[34:00] Carl believes the luckiest thing that he ever did was find a job he likes and is good at!
[43:50] There’s no such thing as easy money.
[47:30] What is Anomaly’s objective?
[51:25] Although Carl’s company is very innovative, they still plan to leverage what they already know, and propel themselves further into new and interesting industries. They are not constantly breaking down walls and barriers.
[54:55] Carl loves the thought of showing the world what creativity really means.
[56:10] Nobody wants a job. They want a mission.