Boys+Girls’ recently-hired ECD Bridget Johnson on rejecting the copywriter/art director divide, moving thousands of miles to live in Dublin and taking experiential work to new levels
“I’m thrilled to see internationally acclaimed and award-winning creative leader, Bridget Johnson, join Ireland's largest independently-owned creative agency Boys + Girls as ECD. I expect Bridget will become a tour de force in the commercial creative industry here in Ireland, and the fact that she is inadvertently raising the profile of female leaders in the field is an added bonus.” Charley Stoney, CEO, IAPI
LBB> You’ve only this year moved to Ireland from South Africa. Where did you grow up and when did you first think about advertising?
Bridget> I was born and bred in Johannesburg, from an Irish background - my father's family was Irish, my maiden name is O'Donoghue - but definitely a South African.
I started out actually studying law, so I was going to be a lawyer, which I think would have been a great career for me because I'm terribly argumentative. But in my final year at university Ogilvy came to do a recruitment session. They did this whole big, wham-bam sell on advertising. And I thought, "wow!"
I guess I've always had two loves. Although I'm a writer, I've actually always loved drawing. So at varsity I had these two things - I wanted to study law, but then also maybe go into graphic design. So when Ogilvy came and did a recruitment drive I thought, "Ooh ideas - that's really what I'm about!"
LBB> So from day one you didn’t want to be a copywriter or an art director - you wanted to be a creative?
Bridget> 100%. It's actually interesting that you pointed out, because I think that is absolutely what attracted me - the vision of ideas. If I'm absolutely honest I probably chose copywriting because I have a fair facility with writing, but someone in my early career said to me, "don't be an art director - they do all the hard work!" Which is true. So I decided writing was the way forward.
LBB> What sort of agencies did you cut your creative teeth in?
Bridget> I didn't go straight to Ogilvy. I did some dotting around in smaller houses first. My introduction to the industry was through independent agencies, so it's quite funny that I'm back with an independent now after growing up at the likes of Ogilvy etc.
It was also the energy of really strong creative-led independent companies that initially made me fall in love with the industry so you know I had this idea that it really only felt right, when I was in a small independent.
And you know how things happen. I moved on and then went to a couple of places and finally found myself at Ogilvy where I think I probably had my best years in a sense, just in terms of finding the right people for me at the right time.
The leadership at Ogilvy at the time really knew how to build a really cohesive team. And not just in the creative department but through strategy and client service. At the time, Ogilvy was really at the top of the creative game in South Africa.
LBB> And what campaigns were crucial to learning your craft as a creative?
Bridget> I worked on Coca-Cola, I worked on KFC. I ran the Kimberly-Clark business, so I ran Huggies and Kotex, all of which were amazing projects - big multinationals that I was very proud and pleased to advance. And there's definitely work across KFC which pushed the bar. I had some really great wins on those accounts.
Then I think part of that lawyer part of my psyche is I'm a born activist and I've always loved cause work. Probably one of my most memorable pieces of work was working on an AIDS Foundation, which was a client of Ogilvy's called The Topsy Foundation. We did a piece of work for them around educating people on the power of ARVs [anti-retroviral drugs]. This was at a time when Africa was in a massive AIDS crisis and the real core of that problem was that the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS meant that people in townships and rural areas would seriously rather get sick and die than take ARVs because there was just such a stigma.
Through The Topsy Foundation we found this phenomenal woman called Selinah, who had a very advanced stage of AIDS. At the time we found her she actually had a CD4 count that meant she was about a couple of weeks away from dying. And we had this idea. It was the mother of all demonstration ads but that's really understating it. I think we were able to tell her story in an incredibly emotional way. She didn't even speak English. She agreed to trial ARVs and have us film her recovery over three months. And she literally recovered fully on ARVs.
The piece of work we created for that went on to win at Cannes, etc. But much more important than that, it was truly a humbling experience in so many ways. All the creatives who touched it handled it with such respect. And it was driven by her. It was driven by this massive sacrifice that this woman made. She was really sick. And the cameraman who worked with her was right there. But she had this resolve. She just wanted to be filmed, because she understood that if people could see if it worked and if she got better, maybe other people would benefit. That showed me how powerful creativity can be.
Long after that piece we were still getting letters, one from a doctor in America who said that he saw that film and it prompted him to become a volunteer at The Topsy Foundation. A lot of creatives love cause work but that's a piece of work I'm really proud of.
I've also been a quite a big advocate for effectiveness. I really believe that you need to have effective work and I've been lucky enough to touch on projects like the launch of Cadbury Bubbly in South Africa all those years ago which won effectiveness awards and was incredibly creative as well. We floated cows over a field. So that's important to me.
LBB> And after many years working in South Africa, this year you moved to Ireland to join Boys+Girls. Is it right that you first encountered them judging D&AD?
Bridget> That's exactly right. I was judging with Avril Delaney who at the time worked for Boys+Girls [she is now a senior creative at Grey London]. She and I just sort of hit it off on the panel. I've done a lot of judging gigs and I think for creatives D&AD is sort of the serious one. First of all you feel enormously honoured to be asked to judge, but also you feel like you're with the world's top minds. And certainly this panel was brilliant. It was lovely to just have the soft, gentle voice of Avril. I think we were probably quite impressed with each other, she seemed lovely, and we got chatting about Ireland and I said well I would actually be quite keen to investigate coming to Ireland. I've always in the back of my mind loved the idea of maybe spending some time here. And she said "as it happens we're kind of looking for someone" and put me in touch with Rory [Hamilton, partner and ECD]. I didn't really think too much about it but then after that meeting Rory and feeding off that energy (Rory's got a force of positivity about him), we hit it off, and that's how it happened.
LBB> That’s so nice. And so was it mostly the vibe that you got from like Avril and Rory?
Bridget> No, not alone. As soon as I met Avril, I liked her and was impressed by her, so obviously went and looked at Boys+Girls and realised that actually some of the pieces I liked in judging had come from them. I was really impressed with a few pieces of work. The initial piece of work that drew me was definitely The Connected Island for Three, which is the kind of work that really impresses me because it's not an awards bait piece of work. It's a clear, consistent effort over years, with a really unbelievable outcome. The fact that it could be replicated on other similar islands, I was terribly impressed with it.
Then there was The Connected Restaurant which I thought was an interesting, really powerful idea as well, and a couple of other pieces that I saw. And then in D&AD I also judged the Swim Ireland Daddy work. I thought these guys are definitely doing something amazing, to have to have such strong work at the forefront, and they're relatively tiny. Maybe it's an activist thing as well. I quite like the energy of working for a smaller up-and-coming shop. Maybe I can have a role to play in really keeping that energy at a high level.
LBB> Aside from the agency, you decided to move to Ireland. That's a big decision to make. What convinced you that that was worth doing?
Bridget> My husband and I have been speaking about going overseas for a few years and giving the opportunity to our children to live on a different continent, to have a different experience, which was something that neither of us had. But it was always on the back burner. And when this opportunity came along we kind of sat down and thought it's now or never. We actually sat the kids down as well, both of whom, by the way, were very settled in South Africa. We assessed it as a family and the kids said, "Let's do it."
Why Ireland? I have lived in England before. I've also worked. I've worked on Dove with Ogilvy London. I think it was the opportunity that came first. It just felt to me like maybe I could make more of a difference in an already crackerjack powerhouse that was Boys+Girls, as opposed to looking in the UK for something that I can sink my teeth into.
Ireland felt gentler, maybe slightly more familiar because of my heritage, and a softer landing I think. My experience of Irish people has always been incredibly welcoming, funny, charming, they don't take themselves too seriously. So, the craic was attractive.
LBB> I wanted to quote back to you something Rory said in his interview. He has decades of experience of living in Ireland, and you have only months. So I think it's interesting to contrast how you feel. He said: “at the root of a lot of Irish creativity lies an anti-establishment humour that’s brilliantly, often witheringly, cynical.”
Bridget> I do think that's the case. I think that the voice with which a lot of Irish humour is written, often comes from that anti-establishment, cynical place. But I actually find Irish people like that as well - deeply cynical. I think it is the source of great humour, so I love it for that. But it's interesting for me because I come from such a different culture. I think South Africa is far more bullish and far more "rah-rah". That's a great balance I think - I'm able to lift people up, when maybe that cynicism drags them down, but I'm also able to learn from it, because like so much great literature, it's where beautiful work comes from. So I'm hoping that my very positive South African outlook, mixed with that deep cynical but beautiful anti-establishment humour, will make for some great work.
If I were to make just a general observation, it would be lovely to see the industry as a whole and all the agencies taking more chances. I think that in some ways in my short experience, there seems to be a slight reticence in really putting up big bold different ideas. And maybe that's a symptom of the economic climate? I get all the reasons for it. But I think it's quite exciting that as we go into the future there's possibly more opportunity to do big, bold, radically different work.
LBB> When we interviewed Rory he teased that this year might see lots of interesting experiential stuff coming out of Boys+Girls. Have you been working on anything that you can talk about since he spoke to us?
Bridget> There are a couple of projects definitely that are quiet in the experiential space that are hugely exciting, and if we get it right, should be happening towards the end of this year. I think they're the kind of projects that, if we produce them well and in the way that they're intended, can have massive impact on a global scale. I don't want to say too much more than that, because I don't want to set up expectations. I never like to talk about our work until it's done and dusted. I always believe that the work should speak first and then the commentary should come later, rather than teeing things up too much. But yeah, a lot of fun stuff. And we're saying our prayers that we get a few things across the line.
I think it's going to be amazing. It's going to be done in a way, like so much else about this pandemic experience, that's a kind of hybrid experience that is pretty different. I don't think we've really seen anything like it before. And I think that that's exciting.
LBB> Are there any other sorts of work that you are really excited to do more of, or to push within Boys+Girls?
Bridget> So much is uncertain right now. And I think that that's creating quite a lot of fear, and people are reluctant to really invest in things still. I guess that's where people like us hopefully really come into our own - by sending ideas ahead of the curve, so that we can make stuff happen. But it is tricky, because it feels like the world is on this giant pause (but coming out of it). And because experiential is still so hard to commit to, I think that's where we've seen the least development and the least growth, creatively.
But I would like more bold work. It sounds funny coming from a South African, but I'm really interested to observe how Boys+Girls can do real Irish work that's beyond an accent, and a way of writing. I do think there's a tone of voice to Irish writing that's powerful. But I'd love to see deep Irish insights, really come to the fore more. And I would love the the rest of the world to look at it and go "oh my God, that could only have come out of Ireland." That would give me a real kick if we can do more of that sort of work. And if I can in any way help people articulate and identify that.
LBB> Hopefully your perspective allows you to see what that is more clearly in a sense.
Bridget> Definitely. And that's really been borne out in a few months. I do feel like Irish people are quite reticent, maybe even apologetic sometimes about the fact that we're a small-ish island. I chatted about it to a Kiwi that was with us, at Boys+Girls and we agreed, it's interesting. It's almost like Irish people don't know how good they are. And what a unique perspective they have. They just need to own it. So if I can be a part of that, that will be really exciting for me.
LBB> You've moved across the world to a different continent. Do you have any advice for other creatives around the world who might want to do the same?
Bridget> Do it, do it, do it. It changes your entire world, and your entire perspective, but you learn things about yourself that you never knew you could learn, or that you never knew you had to learn. What is interesting is the lessons and the results come quickly. And it really is very invigorating, it's terrifying, and it's still early days for me. Yeah, but if you're thinking of moving. Do it, do it, do it, do it.