Carl Johnson reboots his London operation

Anomaly: Johnson (right) aims to improve the London offshoot starting with the appointment of Harrisson as chief executive.
Anomaly: Johnson (right) aims to improve the London offshoot starting with the appointment of Harrisson as chief executive.

In from New York, Anomaly's global chief tells Campaign how he plans to turn the UK tide

Carl Johnson is frustrated. His agency's global network has grown by 400 percent in the past year in both fees and profits. This has been fueled by a stellar performance in its New York, Toronto and Shanghai offices. And yet the London office has suffered a series of false starts, and has yet to really trouble the established shops in the capital.

On paper, Anomaly London should have been flourishing in today’s environment that rewards an integrated, digital and nimble approach.

Johnson believes the problem has been "bad luck, bad chemistry, bad casting and bad decision-making by me."

But Anomaly’s global chief executive has a plan to change all of this. And central to this is the appointment of Camilla Harrisson as the chief executive.

Harrisson says: "I’ve been at M&C Saatchi for nine years and never had my head turned. This was just too great to not do — whether I’d been in my role for five minutes or five years."

Will the agency get it right this time? Campaign quizzed Johnson about his global plans when he was in London last week.

You have grown by 400 per cent in both profits and fees in the past year. Where has this growth come from?

New York, Toronto and Shanghai are the big sources of growth, with innovation, long-form content and all things social driving that.

What are your key areas of focus for the global Anomaly network in the next 12 months?

To relentlessly push for excellence in all the existing offices while determining what the ‘new model’ network looks like as we plan further expansion.

How will Anomaly in US be different in five years’ time?

Bigger. Better. Even more diverse skill sets. Even more nationalities.

Your agency recently created "the gentleman’s wager" for Johnnie Walker Blue. Are clients now asking for a different type of content?

Clients aren’t asking for different forms of content — they’re asking for different solutions to business problems. It’s an immediate mistake to focus on content. "What’s the problem?" is the right question, not "What time-length do you want?"

You launched Anomaly because you thought the ad industry was "slow to adapt to changing times." Do you think it is adapting faster now?

I’m still surprised at the lack of urgency and delighted to see it. Our greatest source of business is dissatisfied clients of juggernaut networks.

Why does Anomaly’s proposition seem to be lost in translation in London? 

Four essential factors. An agency is only as strong as the partnership and, if that isn’t right, any proposition isn’t going to work well. That’s the key mistake I made.

Importantly, we didn’t prioritize the UK. Anomaly in New York is an existing large-scale business that is surging, and Shanghai is the future, so with the level of growth we have been experiencing, we put no pressure on ourselves to address London. That has just changed.

We don’t chase PR at all, perhaps to a fault. We are more in the camp of "never complain, never explain." This standing off to the side of the industry isn’t right in London. To help lead change in the industry, we need to jump in the middle and stir it up a bit.

What is certain is that our proposition is right for this market: 15 minutes with a consultant, client or progressive talent confirms that.

What lessons have you learnt from "miscasting" previous leaders?

A frustrating list. Remember that what works on paper may not work in the real world. Make sure that they have the hunger, the inner resilience to battle for success — as even the best agencies don’t get it all their own way. The insight that I need to overlay the specific nature of each market on top of whether they’re talented and an "anomaly." And, ironically, trust just a little less in my instinct.

How do you know Harrisson is the right hire?

I know it in my bones and, if I’m wrong on this, I know nothing. Every conversation I have with her reinforces how perfect she is. A compelling blend of strength and warmth, of ideas and action, of big-picture context and the smallest of detail.

Beyond that, she’s just a positive energy to spend time with, which is helpful in a business built on people and relationships. The unbelievably positive reaction from the industry continues to reinforce that feeling of supreme confidence I have in her. Beyond what I think, crucially, I received three recommendations from people who know her that I trust — her new partner at Anomaly — Stuart Smith; our president in New York — Karina Wilsher; and a search consultant friend who knows Anomaly as well as anyone — Jane Clark.

What are your plans to jump-start the London office?

Hire Camilla and commit properly to the market: heart, mind and body. Under no circumstances alter the proposition, beliefs or values of Anomaly. That will work.

What targets have you set for London over the next 12 months? 

None yet — that’s a discussion between me and Camilla. What it isn’t really about, though, is the next 12 months. The task is to lay the foundations for the long-term success of Anomaly in a market that will continue to change.

How is the UK different from other countries? 

There’s a high concentration of talent here with a high level of craft skill, so you really need to be able to deliver in execution. In addition, you need to work at maintaining your visibility in the industry.

The opportunity lies in the observation that it’s maybe not as commercially minded, maybe not as entrepreneurial and certainly not as embracing of the changes in the media landscape.

An agency that can truly partner with clients to solve business problems and not just spout clichés will do well.

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