Anomaly's Carl Johnson: 'Most agencies are fucked up by fear and ego and greed'

Carl Johnson, co-founder and global chief executive of Anomaly, reckons that values are the "secret sauce" to a successful agency business.

If Bill Bernbach’s oft-quoted remark that "a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money" offers a benchmark for integrity in advertising, then the ballsy statement issued by Anomaly earlier this year, in the wake of resigning the Converse account and ending a 10-year partnership with Nike ("We chose to make ourselves available to other brands"), is right up there.

It is not the only headline-grabbing decision that the New York-based agency, co-founded by Carl Johnson in 2004, has made this year. In January, it announced it would be taking a "breather" from its remit as lead global agency on Apple’s Beats Electronics brand. Fearless or foolish - however you view the developments - Anomaly is certainly still making waves, and Johnson’s forthright views continue to make for good copy.

Despite a rigorous dismissal of the importance of creative awards - "it’s low on our agenda, because we prioritise our own brutal evaluation of ourselves" - Johnson set to make his first trip to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in years, in the hope and expectation of witnessing an industry responding to seismic structural change.

"In the early days I liked Cannes because I would get to meet talented and inspiring people from all over the world, but over the years that changed to become more of a marketplace and it had less value. I haven’t been for years, but I’m interested in this period of flux, so I am going this year, hoping it has changed again and there are some more interesting conversations," he says.

This period of "flux", and specifically the rise of the consultancies and in-house agencies, is expected to dominate the conversation between gulps of rosé on La Croisette. For Johnson, however, such market trends pose no threat to good agency businesses: "I love change. If you’re good, any kind of change is an opportunity, not a problem. If you’re not very good it’s a fucking nightmare.

"Rather than worrying about structure, I’d worry about whether you are excellent at anything that has real value. There are too many ordinary people doing ordinary things. The game is becoming increasingly meritocratic, which I like, when six people can beat 6,000 people because it’s a better fucking idea. Creative destruction is what’s going on around us, and out of that destruction is opportunity for many.

"Start realising that the winners will be those who can do something exceptional, and of real commercial value, that a machine, a consultant or a client can’t do themselves. If you don’t know what that is, start planning your exit, because you’re gone and just don’t know it yet," he adds.

Bigger, happier, more profitable

The Converse controversy aside, it has been another very decent year for Anomaly, which is majority owned by MDC.

It opened a new Berlin office, experienced rapid growth in its Los Angeles operations, established its "strongest" platform in London to date under the leadership of Camilla Harrisson, and made headlines with its "Jane Walker" rebrand of Johnnie Walker to celebrate International Women’s Day. The agency is eight times bigger and eight times more profitable than it was in 2010.

However, the greatest source of pride for Johnson over the last 12 months were the responses to an anonymous staff survey. When asked the question, "What do you think the most values?", the most popular answer was, "Its people."

"You can’t have a successful company without strong talent. As you get bigger, the biggest fear you have is you dilute the thing that makes you special. People will call you out in a heartbeat if you’re full of shit, so I was most pleased with that."

The emphasis on values is inextricably linked to why Campaign selected Johnson as one of its "Fearless Five" leaders offering a dynamic, innovative, shining example to an industry in danger of wallowing in self-pity - and not just because Anomaly is capable of resigning a major account in style.

Johnson jokes that, as an "over-educated, one-time PPE student at Oxford University", he perhaps spends too much timing thinking about the importance of values. Nevertheless, he argues that "fearlessness" is Anomaly’s "defining characteristic".

So what does "fearlessness" mean in an advertising context?

"The willingness to do what is right, irrespective of the consequences. The key is the combination of having unshakeable principles with the courage to act in support of them. That makes it about something much more than advertising," he says.

"If we believe a certain marketing programme is the right answer, and the client doesn’t want to do what’s right, then you either have to knowingly do what’s wrong, or you make a stand. If a client comes in and says they wants to sell more plastic around the world - you either take the $1m, or you say the world does not need more plastic, and we’re not going to do it.

"[Fearlessness] is a powerful force, because most agencies are fucked up by fear and ego and greed. The dirty little secret is that, if you are strong and if you are fearless, good things happen."

What "fearlessness" definitely does not refer to, Johnson adds with characteristic gusto, is the quality of creative work on display in the Palais in Cannes.

The best work, he says, offers "bigger answers" for a client’s problems, and is exemplified by "decisive acts" leading to long-term behavioural change, from brands taking a stand on net neutrality to US retailers refusing to stock guns. "I believe there is a huge amount of creativity out there, I’m just looking for a different expression of it," he adds.

"People in our industry get it wrong when they refer it to creative work. I don’t think that’s brave at all, because, unless you are paying for it, there are no consequences. There is nothing brave about saying to a client, ‘You should buy this breakthrough idea.’ That’s not brave; you’re supposed to fucking do that."