The Agency Interview: 26 Questions with Digital Marketing Pioneer Norm Johnston

The author of Adaptive Marketing opens up about competitive advantage, the tipping point for digital vs TV, and how to peel a banana

July 15, 2017

Agency Interview

This post orginally appeared on the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions EMEA blog.

Who better to put on the spot about the direction of digital marketing than somebody who’s been involved in it from the start? Now the Global Chief Strategy and Digital Officer at Mindshare, Norm Johnston first joined Modem Media, the UK’s first digital agency, back in 1997. He’s been helping to drive the use of digital and data in marketing ever since.

For the latest in our EMEA series of interviews with leading agency figures, we fired no less than 26 questions at the author of Adaptive Marketing, Norm’s new book exploring real-time data strategies for brands. They covered everything from media agency transparency and social media strategies, to annoying habits and zombie apocalypses. It’s not your usual B2B marketing interview. Scroll down to hear why Norm believes we could soon be reaching the tipping point for digital vs TV, how marketers can unlock competitive advantage from data – and the vital role that Star Trek Conventions play in agency recruitment.

Look out for more interviews from EMEA agency leaders coming to our blog soon. And if you can’t wait for more insights like these, sit back with a copy of our Global Agency Interview collection eBook, available for free download here.

1. What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Some LinkedIn posts topped up with a Nespresso, fresh fruit, and Shredded Wheat.

2. What’s the last great thing you binge-watched and why?
I lived in Minnesota for five years, so I’ve been binging on Fargo, which seems to get better every season. They had ice-coffee in Minnesota long before Starbucks. Flipping freezing up there. 

3. What’s the industry buzzword that annoys you the most these days?
Data lake. I guess we should also have data ponds, estuaries, and polynyas.

4. Where do you stand on the media agency transparency debate at the moment?I’m strongly in favour of it, which is why as GroupM we have always been transparent and up-front on both our disclosed and non-disclosed models.   

5. What’s the last great book you read?
Adaptive Marketing. Written by some guy from Ohio.

6. Why was it great?
It’s an unbelievably insightful and fascinating book on data and marketing. It’s available on Amazon. Buy, buy, buy.

7. What’s your favourite vacation spot?
Love the west coast of Scotland. Whiskey, sea eagles, great hikes, beautiful beaches, great people.

8. What’s the biggest change in the agency business since you started?
People who completely disregarded or even worse, dissed digital marketing for years have now suddenly become digital gurus and evangelists. Part of me is thrilled, part of me wants to puke.

9. How have you (and your agency) adapted?
We hire people at Star Trek conventions. We are much more agile, much more digital, much more data-friendly, all of which requires a radically different mind and skill set.

10. What’s your proudest moment in business?
Opening up Modem Media, the first digital agency, in the UK back in1997. How an American dork with bad khakis and an even worse haircut managed to land on these shores and, by 2000, build the UK’s #1 digital agency from scratch is still beyond me. It was a long time ago in a marketing galaxy far, far away.

11. In life?
Convincing my wife to marry me. Twenty years later I’m not sure she fully realizes what she’s got herself into yet. 

12. What’s the most important way the rise of social media, from YouTube to Facebook to LinkedIn, has changed the way companies reach their audiences?
It’s created this wonderful synchronous marketing experience. Marketing is a lot more like ping pong these days. The communication is no longer one-way, and that data flow gives you a continuous stream of actionable insight across your business, whether recruitment or advertising or product development.

13. Digital ad spending is poised to surpass TV ad spending. Is this a problem for agencies or an opportunity?
A huge opportunity. Cord cutting hasn’t been as high as many feared, but once live sports and events end up with Amazon and others there will be a frenzy of slashing those cables. TV is about to go through a massive period of disruption and innovation that will be thrilling for many of us, while deeply disturbing for those clinging on to old TV, that last bastion of traditional advertising.

14. What is attractive to you about living in London?
I’ve been here for twenty years and I’m still discovering new areas. And if it rains there is always a pub nearby.

15. How has the availability of data changed marketing (or not)?
Digital has given us much more data faster than ever before, and that data delivers an enormous amount of insight that companies can use to adapt their marketing efforts rapidly. Jack Welch once said there are only two sources of competitive advantage, knowing more about your customers than the competition, and acting on that information faster than the competition. Digital and the data it delivers give you both.  

16. How do you use LinkedIn — for networking? For content marketing? Searching for talent? For sales prospecting? For staying abreast of news?
All the above. I check it multiple times each day. I love the content, and it’s indispensable when it comes to researching meetings with new clients. It’s amazing what you can discover about people. In fact, I’m slightly shocked when someone comes to meet me and they haven’t bothered to look at my LinkedIn profile. A no-brainer really.  

17. How do you use LinkedIn advertising for your clients, and what’s working well for them?
It has amazing targeting capabilities and a rich data set, so a powerful ability to engage specific segments and adapt everything from product to messaging, which we’ve done successfully for clients like American Express, Rolex, and Ford. Blackrock has done an amazing job in telling brand-related stories and sharing rich content. LinkedIn is one of the few big digital platforms with global scale, active engagement, and a distinct positioning from the other usual suspects.

18. What is your top-secret superpower?
My Ohio accent.

19. Who should play you in the movie version of your life?
People say I look like Bruce Springsteen and Dustin Hoffmann, which is a rather bizzare combination, so perhaps a younger version of either one of them.

20. If you weren't at Mindshare what would you be doing?
History teacher.

21. What do you have an irrational hatred for?

22. Best movies ever?
I’m a Bank Holiday, Indian curry, and action-adventure kind of guy. Live and Let DieWhere Eagles Dare, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom would do just nicely.

23. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to write a great series of spy novels. Depressingly I ended up writing and publishing a book on marketing and data.  I guess at least I’m in the US Library of Congress.

24. What's your most annoying habit?
I peel a banana the wrong way (or the right way if you are an ape).

25. How long would you survive a zombie apocalypse?
After twenty years in advertising I am a zombie.  

26. What jobs did you have at school and what lessons did you learn from them that you still put into practice today?
I did a summer in accounting, and it was worse than root canal surgery. I quickly figured that going to the Cannes Advertising Festival would be a lot more fun than going the Sioux Falls Accountants Conference.   

You’ll find more insights from B2B agency leaders in our Global Agency Interview Collection eBook, which is available for download now.