In conversation with… Nick Johnson

I properly met Nick (Partner & Managing Director of Nostos Network) for the first time after I’d just arrived in Austin to catch up with the Nostos crew (a network of indie agencies doing great things together). I was a bit drained from the flight, but dragged myself out for some pizza (Home Slice – soooo good). I sat at the bar and started tucking in, turned to my left only to find Nick doing the same.

I love Nick. He’s got this infectious energy that he brings to everything. He’s an ex-ad man who’s ditched running one ad agency to help build a thriving community of almost fifty of them, filled with some of the smartest (and nicest) marketing and tech experts.

I was lucky to grab some time with him recently where we talked about speeding tickets, Danny Meyer, the problem with getting comfortable and the brand that got away,

What’s your first ever job?

I would say, my first real job, outside of advertising, was waiting tables at a diner in my hometown of Kansas City that’s been around since the 30s or 40s.

I got the job when I was in high school because I liked to drive too fast and got way too many speeding tickets. One Saturday I got a ticket on the way to (and the way home from) a cross-country meet. I decided I was going to have to pay a lawyer to get them reduced to non-moving violations, so it wouldn’t go against my insurance. And I knew my parents would not be cool with paying for that.

So I went out that next morning and got a job, came back with a uniform in hand (a really dorky uniform with a bowtie) and I said really fast to them, “Hey, I got two tickets yesterday. But don’t worry about it, because I got a job waiting tables”.

I kept doing it until I graduated college, though I only worked at the restaurant one day a week during college because I was also interning at an ad agency. I always did the early Saturday morning and afternoon rush shifts (with lots of regulars). Whatever tips I made that day was what I could spend going out that evening. It was a really good gig.

I think being a waiter helps you learn how to read people really well. Teaches you how to adapt and interact based on the mood and vibe of the people at each table. And honestly, that’s been very helpful, across my advertising career. Reading the room.

Who would you most like to share a coffee with or go for a drink with?

This one’s really tough, but it would definitely be drinks and portably with Danny Meyer. He runs Union Square Hospitality Group, which is an amazing group of mostly high-end restaurants in New York City which have withstood the test of time.

He’s been involved with some of the greats like Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe and even Eleven Madison Park. Probably a dozen places. And I’ve been to all many times over the past 20 years. He’s not the chef behind them, but he’s built this hugely successful company that creates amazing experiences that people come back to over and over again.

His whole focus is on hospitality, and how important it is for the front and back of house to work seamlessly together to create these amazing experiences. His book, Setting the Table, is a good read; he explores the power of hospitality, not just in the restaurant world, but in business and life in-general.

He’s a really successful business person, but also, seems super humble. And coincidentally, from Missouri too. He has a legacy of empowering his teams. In fact, he’s actually sold some of his super successful restaurants to the executive chefs. My passion outside of work is travel and food and I’ve always loved the art and magic and all that goes into creating that perfect environment for a restaurant. Hundreds of decision and choices. So, I think this would be a fun cocktail chat for me.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

It was a kind of cool moment in time. I’d spent almost a decade helping build and run an independent agency (that’s still an indie over 20 years on) in San Francisco. Midway through I was made a partner and I was helping run the business.

We had been very successful, but I was getting kind of antsy and wanted to challenge myself in new ways. So, I went to New York and took a job to run an indie within a big agency holding company. Gotham was within McCann World Group, which is one of the largest agency networks and part of IPG (one of the big five holding companies).

During this time, I had one of my most satisfying feelings of accomplishment. Culminating at the Effie awards. This is kind of the pinnacle. If you’re a creative agency, you want to win Cannes Lion, but winning an Effie is about effectiveness – the impact that it’s had on the client’s business.

If you can win these two together, for the same work (which I’ve been lucky to do multiple times across multiple agencies), it’s such a cool feeling for the entire team – both agency and client.

And to be able to achieve that just two years into taking over at Gotham, as we were redefining the agency, was a huge lift for everyone. We won a Brand Renaissance Effie for Denny’s (Diners) because our work helped turn around the business in record time after sixteen quarters of declining sales. And we’d just won a Branded Content Lion at Cannes for the same campaign.

Then to top off the night, we won a David vs Goliath Effie for our Chobani Greek yogurt work that helped grow them from a regional player to a billion-dollar brand. Unseating Danone in the category.

We were also one of five US agencies that were asked to cover the Effies on social media (this was in 2012). So we decided to bring Tucker, a huge bull mastiff service dog who was a favourite at the agency, dressed in a tux, with an iPhone on his head. Tucker mingled all night, from table to table and covered the event, getting some great videos and pics. Everyone loved it and we generated tons of posts and press.

What inspired you to change the course of your career?

After about 25-30 years, it was the same thing that inspired me to leave a super successful agency that I was a partner at, after a decade, and move across the country to NYC.

I felt it was getting too comfortable. Comfort can be good and bad; you get too comfortable, and you can become complacent.

So, I feel like it’s important to shake things up, as often as you need to. To challenge yourself and grow. I’ve done that a couple of times throughout my career. At around 40 and then again around 50.

Nature or nurture?

This is tough. I want to say both, but I think that’s cheating. So, if I have to, I will say nurture.

I think the environment that you’re born into, and grow up in – your formative years – is super important in shaping who you are.

I was lucky to have an amazingly supportive family and even though I’m the only child to have left our hometown, I’m still super close to my parents. Being the youngest (of four), I feel like you can have a bit of a different experience growing up. Your parents have also grown and maybe a give you bit more freedom. And it’s kind of that combo of structure, discipline and also lack of structure, a bit of leniency, trust… that can really shape you.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard or been given?

Two things.

One, was …don’t get too comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I do think creating environments where people feel comfortable and safe, is super important. But don’t get complacent. I think it’s important to be pushing up against things – challenging conventions, fighting inertia – because that leads to such interesting breakthroughs, both personally and professionally. Be it creative briefs, campaign ideas, or career moves.

The second is …when you’re making key hires to your team or pitching for major new business, make time to have a meal with them. Get out of the office or conference room. These are both crucial decisions where it’s important to form a real connection if possible. Grab a drink, a lunch or a dinner… something, because I think it’s a super important gauge of chemistry and ensuring alignment of values. And often allows for a more personal connection.

What talent do you yearn for?

It’s definitely music-related (finally, I’ve moved on from restaurants!). I would love to be able to play the violin. And how amazing to be able to conduct an entire orchestra.

I had exposure to classical music from a young age. At some of the schools I went to in Kansas City, we’d go to the symphony to experience concerts – the hall, the musicians, the instruments and all the emotion that fills up the space. I love the emotion that the violin can elicit.

Then there’s this strange power of the conductor. To be able to draw all of that out of this huge ensemble of musicians. My partner, Dave and I, always try to go to a concert whenever we’re travelling, wherever we are in the world.

We did quite a bit of pro bono marketing and advertising work for The New York Pops orchestra when I running Gotham. One ongoing project was an education and outreach program for underprivileged elementary school kids from several outer boroughs of Manhattan. They’d send the conductor and some of the musicians into the schools to talk and to teach them. And then, at the end of the program, we would get the kids front row centre seats to one of their Carnegie Hall performances. An amazing experience.

What’s your favourite brand? And why?

BMW, only because it’s been elusive to me when it comes to working with them on their advertising. Over the years, I have definitely driven many, and often way too fast.

I’ve pitched the brand twice. At two different agencies. The first time, we got to the semifinals when we were a small (about 50 people) agency, and our work was getting lots of national attention, so we got invited to the pitch. We made it to the chemistry meeting, and they loved us, but they didn’t advance us as they thought an agency our size couldn’t handle all of BMW North America’s advertising.

We knew we were underdogs, so a bunch of us flew from San Francisco to Munich and rented a 5 Series and a Z4. Our goal was to recapture the spirit of BMW, by filming our trip from Munich through to the Nürburgring. We rode around the open track with Ringers (the professional drivers) and ended up in Frankfurt. Recapturing the Bavarian spirit that makes BMW special along the way.

The second time, we actually made it to the finals but still didn’t win the business.

Our ultimate consolation prize wasn’t too bad. Eventually, we went on to win Audi North America. And to this day, I still own an Audi because I felt guilty for winning that business and not owning one of their cars. Even though it’s a beautifully engineered machine, it’s not nearly as fun to drive as a BMW. Especially the roadsters! I also really appreciate the fearlessness they’ve exhibited as marketers from time to time.

What book would you recommend to others?

There’s a bunch of business books that have had an impact. And while not new, I’ve returned to Adam Morgan’s Eating the Big Fish, and The Pirate Inside often over the years; they were really formative for me and my partners as we were building agencies, and often pitching and working with Challenger brands. Adam’s workshops with clients are great too.

But I try to balance things out things with non-business books, including a lot of historical fiction. However, the one I want to recommend here is Lunch with FT. It’s a weekly series in the Financial Times Weekend edition that I’ve been religiously reading for many years. A reporter chats over lunch with someone interesting each week. They interview people from all over the world in various professions (from authors, chefs and politicians to entrepreneurs, activists and fashion designers) and recap their conversations (plus what they ate, drank and where). I love it because there’s so much you can learn from what motivates and inspires them; their background and childhood. So many different perspectives. I always come away with interesting quotes, books, and just lots of inspiration. They have two compilation books of select interviews from over the years.

What lesson was the hardest for you to learn?

This was a painful one for me to learn. Both times I was building out a senior management team – and I’ve not always gotten the hiring right. There have been many super smart people that I’ve loved working with at one point in time and place, but that doesn’t mean you can make the same magic happen in a new place and different time.

A couple of times, I’ve brought people into senior roles only to find out that we’d grown in different ways. And sometimes that can be a good thing, other times not. 

Want do want to do when you retire?

Travel. Eat. Drink. Repeat!

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