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It’s the tail end of June, and Cannes Lions is in full swing. Down in the bowels of the Palais, the Film Lions – the most competitive and prestigious of all the categories – is being judged. 

The jury has been stuck in a dark room for a week, watching hundreds of films on loop, only emerging, vampire-like, when the sun has gone down. Discussions are becoming heated; egos are flexing; emotions are running high. Fists slam on tables. An electronic voting device is hurled across the room. And in the eye of the hurricane sits Margaret Johnson, calmly issuing directions in her Southern drawl.

The exciting thing is you’re getting inspired. You have to feed your creativity, and one of the coolest things about Cannes is seeing things that aren’t from your part of the world.

All this is a rosé-induced fever dream, of course, but it’s how we like to imagine the scene under the stewardship of Goodby Silverstein’s straight-talking CCO. A Cannes veteran, Johnson has previously sat on the Titanium and Promo & Activation juries, but this is her first time as president. “I couldn’t be more excited about being president of the Film Jury,” she says of her appointment. “It’s by far the most competitive category – you’ve got the most talented people in the world doing their storytelling on this platform.” 

With so much good work to sift through, how will she be directing the jury? Johnson favours a practical approach. “I’ll encourage them to judge with an eye to craft and concept, to be impartial and fair – and have a good time.” A good time? Is that possible when all your colleagues are necking champers on the Croisette? “To be in the south of France and trapped in a dark room is a little daunting, to be sure. But the exciting thing is you’re getting inspired. You have to feed your creativity, and one of the coolest things about Cannes is seeing things that aren’t from your part of the world.”

Kasikornbank – Friendshit

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Thailand produced one of the 2018 festival’s most original films in Friendshit, GREYnJ’s film for Kasikornbank, about a girl trying to make friends at her new school with help from her best mate and a mobile banking app. “It’s is hilarious, it’s insanely raw and the casting’s unexpected,” says Johnson. “We talk about craft so much, and the craft here is the rawness of the footage and the clumsy ending which brings humour to the piece.”

Has she seen anything as fresh in this year’s crop of contenders? She praises AMV and Bodyform’s filmic ode to lady bits, Viva La Vulva, for “taking a taboo and celebrating it” as well as its “incredible art direction – which feels super-cool and modern”. 

Libresse Sverige – Viva La Vulva

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A 20-year veteran of Goodby Silverstein & Partners (she was named its first CCO in 2016), Johnson was drawn to advertising while studying journalism at the University of North Carolina, her graphic design classes proving more interesting than writing newspaper articles. 

When it came to choosing an art college, the ever-practical Johnson did her research and cold-called two dozen New York agencies for advice on the best place to go. “I’d ring somewhere like BBDO New York and the receptionist would say, “who do you want to speak to?” and I’d say “a creative”, not knowing there were probably 600 of them in the building,” she laughs.

There’s a like-mindedness between Jeff, Rich and myself – we prioritise the work, that’s our focus. We only want to put interesting things out into the world.

Despite that rookie error, she managed to get through to “some poor souls” who recommended the Portfolio Center in Atlanta. There, she pored over ad annuals and became “obsessed” with the work of art director Jeremy Postaer, a GS&P alumnus. “I loosely patterned my portfolio on his,” she admits. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it paid off on graduation, when Postaer offered her her first job, at Leonard Monahan Lubars & Kelly. In 1994, when he returned to GS&P, she took up an art director role at The Richards Group in Dallas, working under Grant Richards. Richards, too, later moved to GS&P and together with Postaer encouraged Johnson to join in 1996. 

And that’s where she’s been ever since – creating and overseeing such culture-shifting initiatives as encouraging millennials to vote (Doritos’ No Choice Chips), preventing drunk driving (Tostitos’ Party Safe Bag) and tackling rape culture on college campuses (Unacceptable Acceptance Letters). 

Is it the work or the culture that’s kept her at Goodby’s for so long? A bit of both, says Johnson. “The fact Jeff [Goodby] and Rich [Silverstein] are still walking the halls, they’re still part of the agency, [and] that keeps the culture strong. And there’s a like-mindedness between Jeff, Rich and myself – we prioritise the work, that’s our focus. We only want to put interesting things out into the world, so we have that mutual commitment.”

There are so many different platforms now, and you have to tell your story in a bespoke way for each one.

These days, it’s a world that seems largely indifferent to ads, says Johnson, so “anything we can do to be entertaining and encourage people to interact with brands is a good thing.” That’s why, though many moan about the presence of Google, Snapchat, Facebook and their ilk on the beaches, Johnson reckons having the tech giants at Cannes is useful. “These are the platforms we’re using in advertising every day, and they’re constantly changing. Their being at Cannes, and creatives being exposed to all the newest tech and platforms, only helps our storytelling. There are so many different platforms now, and you have to tell your story in a bespoke way for each one.”

Logitech – Ivan Cobenk

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Take Ivan Cobenk, her double Lion-winning spot for Logitech/Google TV, in which Kevin Bacon plays his own creepy super-fan to great comic effect, displaying memorabilia, from samplers stitched with Bacon’s face to a specially commissioned portrait of the pair (“Every time you watch it, you find a little Easter egg you haven’t noticed before.”) 

As a classic TVC, it stands the test of time – but think of the social and integrated possibilities if it were made now, says Johnson. An eBay shop for the physical memorabilia, Ivan’s personal Instagram account…  

By contrast, the “super raw and scrappy” aesthetic of Unacceptable Acceptance Letters, shot entirely on iPhone by Brewer, a director duo from PRETTYBIRD, worked particularly well on social media, which it was designed for.

#DontAcceptRape – The Unacceptable Acceptance Letters

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In the clips, schoolgirls excitedly read out college acceptance letters, where a coveted place includes “losing [your] virginity to a rapist who will only be suspended for one day”. The tagline? ‘If they accept you, don’t accept this’. 

The campaign was inspired by 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, about sexual assaults on US campuses and cover-ups by administrators; Johnson was horrified to see her own alma mater mentioned. “I felt compelled to [help] create a campaign that would stop this kind of thing happening – and if it does happen, hold the colleges accountable. I’m really proud of those spots.”

As a filmmaker, you’re dealing with budgets, weather, talent, editing, the story arc. There’s a ton of shit coming at you, like a tornado.

So can a standalone film do enough to break through these days? Johnson reckons so. “There’ll always be a place for classic films. Take Spike Jonze’s Apple spot [Welcome Home]. You have a visceral reaction when you watch it, because the graphics are beautiful and it’s an emotional piece.”

Johnson has a better appreciation of film craft than most creatives, having spent time in the director’s chair: her 2008 docu-short Dunkumentary, which screened at the ‘real’ Cannes Festival as part of the Short Film Corner, follows the quest of Josh McHugh – a 34-year-old white man of average height (and Johnson’s IRL husband) – to physically ‘dunk’ a basketball. 

Dunkumentary (Trailer)

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“As a filmmaker, you’re dealing with budgets, weather, talent, editing, the story arc,” she explains. “There’s a ton of shit coming at you, like a tornado. It makes you realise how hard it is to come out the other side with something you’re truly proud of.” Which sounds uncannily like our imaginary jury room. But with Johnson at the helm, the right verdicts are bound to emerge from the chaos. 

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