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Facebook's Brittany Johnson | Creativity, Influencers and the Future of Agencies

In the corner of a small cafe in Chelsea, I met up with Brittany Johnson to learn from her inside perspective on the digital marketing world. Brittany’s unique take on this rapidly changing industry is advocated by her key position at the world’s most famous platform. Having held internships and turned down offers from a selection of the most prestigious agencies in the US, Brittany’s current role is Creative Strategist and Instagram Specialist at Facebook’s Creative Shop. Predominantly, she works with Instagram and helps build creative strategies for brands across Facebook’s platforms.

Brittany’s path to Facebook was not straightforward. She discusses why she moved away from the traditional agency model, how she retraced her creative steps to pursue her dream role, and debates the importance of pushing for greater diversity within the upper echelons of the creative industries.

Since our interview took place in March of this year, Brittany was awarded Ms. ADCOLOR 2019 for helping build out crucial programs for young creatives. The prestigious award is a symbol of Brittany’s rise through her insatiable ability to seize each and every opportunity she comes across. In relative terms, Brittany is hardly out of College, but her experience and viewpoint on advertising mirrors that of a seasoned creative with an infectious drive.

What what was your path to Facebook?

I knew I was always a creative from when I was three years old. My mom always tells this story of when I got a dress as a gift. A normal three year old would have just been really excited, but I went in my room and cut it up, re-designed it and made a matching scarf. Totally wrecked the dress, but in my mind I was reimagining it. So I always knew I wanted to be creative, I loved illustrating and creating. At school, I always excelled in art classes.

At home, I grew up in an all-Jamacian household. I was the first born here and I never really heard of the professional artist. You heard of the struggling artist and the successful doctor, lawyer or business-person - so I thought I had to do something in that realm. But if I could find a way to interweave creativity into that I would, which is what initially drew me into advertising.

With your role at Facebook, are you able to be creative?

It’s interesting with my background. I had a very roundabout way of getting to Facebook. I studied advertising in undergrad which, at that university, was a difficult program to get into. Once I was there, and I told them I wanted to be on the creative side, they told me that I would have had to study something like a double major in fine art. By that time I was in junior year and I wasn’t prepared to do two more years of school just to get a fine art degree.

Instead, I went down the route of media planning, which is when you basically buy the spots where the creative is shown. For instance, you’d say; We want a thirty second spot after “How to get away with murder” - because that’s what our audience watches.

Soon after, I did an internship through MAIP program - Multicultural Advertising Intern Program -  with Digitas in New York and worked on the American Express account doing media planning. Then at the end of the internship I actually got the job offer, so I could come back to my senior year having already got a job. It felt awesome. I couldn’t wait to graduate.

Before I graduated, I actually got to be a part of this program - The Most Promising Multicultural Student. They select 50 students from across the US every year, and I got selected. Then through that program I actually met a recruiter at Wieden+Kennedy.

If you’re not familiar with Wieden they’re, I would say, probably the most creative advertising agency in the world. They do all of the advertising for Nike, Old Spice, Coca Cola. Dan Wieden literally coined Just Do It.

So I went to Wieden in Portland, Oregon. And, although it was a culture shock, it inspired me. It brought me back to what I really wanted to do, which was creating. I had my internship role as a media planner, but during lunch I would stalk the Creative Directors and constantly ask them - How did you get to do what you are doing? What does your day to day look like? Every time they told me their story, it sounded exactly like what I wanted to do.

It was there I found out that I had to go back to portfolio school if I was to pursue Art Direction.

How much value would you place on these internships?

Not only did they help me build relationships with the agencies that I interned at, but they taught me skills that I never would have never known from school. How to network, to raise your hand when they open up for questions, and really work on your elevator pitch - it’s those tangible skills that really make a difference when your amongst 20 other interns.

Those early experiences at those large agencies must have been incredible. Now with the rise of the digital influencer, do you see the role of larger agencies and production houses shifting?

The ecosystem is definitely changing. I interned at three different agencies in total. When I was coming out of portfolio school - which people literally call ‘ad school’ as you’re creating creative advertising - the traditional path is to go directly to an agency. When I told my professors that I was leaving to go to Facebook they said; that's going to change the trajectory of your career, because you’re not going to a creative agency. But I’m so glad I took a chance because it changed my perspective on creativity.

But to answer your question, I think the agency model will evolve. My role is to inspire and provoke brands and their agencies, specifically beauty brands, how to build mobile-first advertising.

[For the traditional agency model] The ad that came out yesterday was created 6-months to 1 year ago. It had a huge production budget and an established director to shoot it. Lots of people have to say yes yes yes down the line. But in today’s digital world, you have to create in an agile way to impact culture and trends in real time.

Influencer marketing is becoming regulated, and for a while it did give off wild west vibes, how do you see it maturing in the next year or two?

It goes back to what we were talking about before; agencies, brands and consumers. For a long time, the influence was in the hands of the very few. The few people in the creative agencies, right at the very top who had all the biggest brands and budgets. And then we saw that starting to shift towards people, who were coined influencers. To me, an influencer is someone who is a thought leader in a specific community and has influence in that community.

So it went from very few to being….. democratised. Now anyone can influence their community. The shift has gone from a monologue to a dialogue. The brands that are getting it right understand people and are listening to their consumers. Now you hear all these buzzwords - authenticity, transparency - but it’s true. People, especially millennials, are putting their spending power behind brands they can connect with. That’s why influencers arrived in such an interesting way, because it became like a recommendation from a friend. Now, this person [I follow] that I share a passion or community with, I also trust as a resource of information.

However, now we’re at this stage where we’re constantly seeing influencer content, and sometimes it can feel inauthentic. It’s about the brands adding value to people's lives. Great advertising has shifted from product first ideas, to people first ideas. With people comes influencers, comes the community, comes shared interest and passions and being transparent about those ideals.

Brittany speaking at Whalar's event; Instagram, Beyond the Squares alongside our North American Managing Director, Jo Cronk.

What are the key ingredients for a successful collaboration?

My viewpoint is, lets learn from the creatives. Brands need to stop telling creators what to do and actually listen to them. They build their following, they know their community. They know what these people are talking about or are interested in. So I think brands, and agencies, should start listening to the creative voice more.

A successful collaboration is - right match, right time, right media. To break it down, it’s about the endemic relationship between the creator and the brand. Is there some form of shared community, shared passion, shared point of interest between these two entities?

It’s also about them listening to one another. The brand knows their product and creators know people. Brands are good at driving business results and creators understand authenticity. The challenge now with influencer content is that the business results can vary. Leveraging the authenticity of influencers while driving business results is the sweet spot. I think the sharing of information between brands and creators will lead to better ideas.

What inspires you?

I met Andre 3000 from Outkast recently at an art gallery and I asked him, what advice would you give to a young creative starting their career? Get inspiration from other genres. He said if hip hop artist only listened to other hip hop it would be incest and they wouldn’t create anything new.

I try to find new stimulus for inspiration on Instagram and IRL. Living in New York City and traveling around the world inspires me to learn about new cultures and meet new people.

The people I work with also inspire me. I've had the privilege of working with many amazing Creative Directors and learning about their creative process.


Working with these creative directors must be amazing, how do they come to ideas, what’s their process?

It always starts with a problem. Our job is to find a creative way to solve that problem.

If you don’t understand the problem, you don’t understand the people you’re creating for, then you’ll never get to the right solution. Working with the people I’ve mentioned has definitely reinforced that. Everytime we get a brief, the first question is: what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?

A really interesting part of working at creative shop within Facebook is that we’re a tech company. Although creativity can be subjective, the proof is in data. We’re measuring and learning at all stages throughout a campaign, so it’s a very iterative process.

Tell me more about the creative shops and what purpose it serves.

Creative Shop serves to inspire and provoke our clients and partners to create ideas that build valuable connections between people and businesses on our platforms.

You’ve kindly agreed to speak on our panel next week - Influencer Marketing: Beyond the Squares, is that something you enjoy doing?

Now I enjoy it. I am definitely an introvert at heart. I have to give credit to the MAIP program. The mentors I met through that program really pushed me out of my shell and inspired me to let my voice be heard.

Portfolio school and my role at Facebook also helped me become more comfortable with public speaking. I've had a lot of practice and view feedback as a gift.


Brittany Presenting at this years' Most Promising Multicultural Students

If you could go back to your younger self is there anything you would have done differently or any advice you’d give to yourself?

I wish I would have understood the power and endless possibilities of creativity. One of my goals as I advance in my career, is to give back to younger creatives. Especially young creatives of color because in marginalized communities there aren't many creative role models. They don’t often see people that look like them that are also creative and successful.

I wouldn’t take any of my failures away because that’s what I've learned from the most. I think I would have pushed the boundaries more, especially in portfolio school. Just do more wild shit. Creating work and not caring what my teachers thought about it and just owning it - you’ve got nothing to lose.

Could you see yourself mentoring?

I have a MAIP mentee right now and I give back to those organisations I mentioned like ADCOLOR, MAIP and MPMS”. Three weeks ago I presented the awards at MPMS which was so rewarding. I also host events at Facebook for those organisations. Every summer intern we have I invite to Facebook to teach them the different narratives that creative shop has made or how to use Instagram stories in really cool ways. I really enjoy giving back to these organisations and helping foster the new creative generation.

What advice do you have for people starting out in this industry?

Don’t be afraid to take risks. Your network is your net worth. Be curious and open to learning.


** Recently, I reached out to Brittany so we could include, in her own words, how much being awarded Ms ADCOLOR means to her. She kindly offered this explanation of how deep the organisation runs through both her career path and belief system.

“The ADCOLOR awards and conference champions diversity and inclusion in creative industries. Their mission is to rise up and reach back. I fell in love with the organization back in 2015, when I was selected as an ADCOLOR Future. Since then, I’ve served as a volunteer and helped lead the Facebook partnership by raising awareness through creating IG Stories and FB Live content. This year I have the honor of being Ms. ADCOLOR 2019. This role means a lot to me because it gives me a platform to empower young professionals, women, and people of color through creativity.”