Veteran adman Dick Johnson, the man behind the Dodge commercials, is in his element in the 'war room,' where his specialty is fine-tuning something that's oh-so-close into something that sparkles.
Johnson, 54, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO Worldwide's Southfield, Mich., office, is the self-described 'editor' of the 21 creatives who work on Dodge's $551 million national and $90 million dealer association account.
In the meeting area known as the war room, where his battle dress generally includes a plaid shirt and sneakers, he reviews his staff's proposed ads and TV scripts. 'I'm here to fine-tune the work,' he says. 'If merit isn't there, what can we do to get it there? I'm fortunate to be at the end of the line with my eyes clean.'
Johnson helped create a new image for DaimlerChrysler's Dodge brand when the Intrepid hit the market in 1993. But he didn't do it by himself. Copywriter Jerry Hunnicutt suggested 'This Changes Everything' for the Intrepid launch. Johnson initially rejected it. But then changed his mind after Hunnicutt's persistence - and Johnson's realization that the slogan would set the stage for introducing the new products.
'The thinking was there was a difference between the old Dodge and the new Dodge,' Johnson recalls. Hunnicutt's phrase, he decided, was the 'glue' to bring it all together. The sentence became the ad theme for the Intrepid and the beginning of title cards - the on-screen TV headlines that precede virtually every Dodge commercial.
'He operates with an iron fist and a velvet glove,' notes Craig MacGowan, who worked three years for Johnson as senior VP-broadcast director until March 1997. MacGowan, now an independent producer and director, credits his former boss with knowing what he wants from his team and trying to make the creative process fun.
'I'd much rather see that than work for somebody without a clue.' MacGowan adds.
Marty Levine, general manager of Dodge through most of its transition this decade, says Johnson's contributions to creating 'the New Dodge' go beyond creative. He credits Johnson with making an effort to understand the business objectives before developing creative ideas - something other agencies he worked with in the past didn't always do. Johnson, says Levine, 'was one of the strategists.'
The two men first worked together in the mid-1980s. At the time, Johnson was creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Compton, working on the American Motors Jeep account. Levine was general marketing manager of Jeep, which later was acquired by Chrysler.
It was during that era that Johnson developed what he calls his 'no-people rule,' a practice that continues today. Since the Intrepid's launch, for example, Dodge commercials feature actor Edward Herrmann as narrator or on-screen pitchman. The vehicle on display is usually red, and other people rarely appear.
'Dick made the product the hero of the commercials,' MacGowan says.
A gym, not a closet
The outspoken Johnson favors plaid shirts, jeans and sneakers. He describes his management style as giving his creatives 'a gymnasium to play in instead of a closet.'
Johnson majored in English and played football at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. He taught composition at New York's prestigious Parsons School of Design for a year before coming to Detroit in 1964 as a copywriter at Ross Roy Communications. He said he started learning his trade while working on unglamorous industrial accounts.
During his 34-year career he has worked at eight agencies and handled car accounts including Buick and Pontiac, plus other major brands such as Texaco and Tampax. He has been at BBDO since 1991, his third tour of duty there. The first time Johnson left BBDO was in 1979, when Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca yanked the $120 million ad account and moved it to Kenyan & Eckhardt.
Tom Clark, president of BBDO North America, is glad to have him back. He attributes Johnson with an 'innate strength for recognizing good and bad advertising.' He says Johnson has worked with a number of distinguished creatives over the years, and 'Dick Johnson is as good as any of them, maybe better.'