Agency Life | Brand | Development
- Under: Agency Life
30 years. 3 decades. 10,950 days. That’s how long CHIEF has been creating transformative work for our clients—here in DC and around the globe. But a lot has changed in the world since we opened our doors in July 1987, so we sat down with Co-Founders (and husband and wife team) Margaret and Scott Johnson to get a glimpse into what those early days were like and what they see for our BRAVE future.
First of all, as a young couple just starting off, how did you get the idea (and courage!) to open a business together? Did you have any reservations about mixing work and family?
Margaret: Not at all, it felt completely natural. At the time we both were working at nonprofits—working 80 hour work weeks at 20 hour a week salaries. We wanted control over our schedules, and the ability to devote time to our family and friends.
Scott: Frankly, I was a windsurfer and was looking for a way to get more time on the water while also having a sustainable career. At the time, I was the Director of Marketing & Communications at a progressive think tank. Part of my job involved designing and laying out newsletters and books by hand. Back then we did that with galleys and wax, so when I learned about the computer program Pagemaker 1.0—which was a very EARLY predecessor to Quark Xpress and InDesign—I knew it would be a game changer in the industry.
So we began renting computer time for $5/hour from the Public Interest Computer Association (PICA) here in Dupont Circle. After a year of borrowed computer time, we used the money I received for my birthday on July 1, 1987 to buy a first edition MacIntosh Plus computer and we officially incorporated CHIEF (known then as Rock Creek Publishing Group).
Margaret: And that thing I mentioned about wanting more time in our schedules… we actually had less time. I would work all day at the environmental publishing group Island Press and come home and work with Scott all night. For many years I had to work day jobs to keep us afloat. CHIEF became a 30-year labor of love.
Scott: And a true family business in every sense of the word! It wasn’t just me and Margaret, for the better half of two decades my mother Jean Johnson (a CPA) kept us solvent.
Wow, you’ve come a long way since those early days—from desktop publishing shop to global digital agency, tell us more about the evolution of CHIEF.
Scott: When we started we were operating out of our home in Mount Pleasant. We had a couple of employees working with Margaret and me in a tiny room. It wasn’t much, but we were so proud of it.
In the late 1980s, there were only two agencies doing digital in this town, CHIEF and Free Hand Press. While we were competitors, we would help each other out if one of our computers or scanners broke down (novel technology at the time.) One day, in walks Clay Marshall. Amazed by his design skills, technical knowledge and BRAVE “don’t worry I’ll take care of it” attitude, we knew we had to have him. So that’s how we got CHIEF’s longest-serving team member. He’s been family to us for over 25 years!
Margaret: It’s crazy to think of those early days before the internet. We made our first big purchase, a $1,800 fax machine, because clients were getting tired of sending couriers to deliver floppy disks filled with newsletter content.
Scott: And remember how long it took to even open those text files? With only one disk reader and no hard drive, we had to first load the startup program, then Pagemaker and then each work file disk sequentially. Some remote writers would send two or three pages of text via a 360 baud modem and it would take would take an hour and a half to transmit. If it got interrupted for any reason, we had to start all over.
Wow, talk about tedious...but you kept plugging away. Tell us about some of your first big publishing contracts.
Scott: Our first clients were small (back then) non-profits like Greenpeace, the National Organization for Women and the Farmworker Justice Fund. Our first big contract was a monthly newsletter for a conservative politician, entitled: “From the Right”. Shortly thereafter, we had our second large contract—a 50 page weekly advertorial newspaper called News USA. We were working on some of the earliest forms of “native” sponsored content.
Margaret: That News USA contract was huge boost for our business, and our family—since at the time we were still operating out of home. Often we would receive 50 pages of content on a Wednesday night, and would need to lay it out by the next morning. With two young kids, we decided in the 1997 that it was time to get offsite office space.
Scott: We secured office space in Bethesda and quickly grew our team to about 12 people. We felt like we had finally made it. But then a series of external factors collided, and our business took a major hit.
Prior to 9/11, most of work was for associations. We were designing communications plans and marketing materials for their annual conferences. After 9/11 nobody wanted to travel, and with the tech bubble burst, the economy had shifted. Nobody was spending money on marketing—graphic design and advertising firms were closing left and right. We were really struggling. Within weeks 50% of our work was gone. Banks were not lending money to anyone. After 15 years, we were one payroll away from closing our doors.
Margaret: Then we learned that the Small Business Association (SBA) had set up an emergency fund to support small businesses that had been adversely affected by 9/11. Within two weeks the SBA came through with a direct $50k loan—low interest and payable over 9 years.
Scott: This was a pivotal moment in CHIEF’s history. We eventually started winning more and more business and were able to pay off the loan in full within 2 years—but we are forever grateful to the SBA for keeping us on our feet. It’s the helping hand they gave us when we were only 12 people that has allowed us to employee 130 today. To this day, we never miss an opportunity to say how grateful we are to the SBA for believing in us, when no one else would.
What a testament to the work the SBA does and the resilience of CHIEF! What is it about our BE BRAVE worldview that has allowed us to stand the test of time?
Margaret: It’s the transformative experience we try so hard to give to our clients. For instance, in the early days of the internet (and before e-mail) we were hired to build a website but didn’t even have a technology team in place. What did we do? We learned quickly. We adapted. Clay read a book!
Scott: You know in the beginning we were just trying to do great work and have happy clients that kept coming back and telling their friends about us. So we have always kept looking for people like Clay that knew how to (and wanted to) do transformative work. When we met Chris Lester in 1997 we new we had found the guy that could take our vision to levels that even we had never dreamed possible.
Margaret: Another critical move was bringing Dave Rinaldo on board. A former govie, he really showed us the power of bringing CHIEF’s creative and strategic expertise to the federal government. As COO, he was also instrumental in professionalizing all of our processes to prepare us for the massive growth he helped us achieve. He brought with him a lot of relationships, and a lay of the landscape. Dave helped us see the immense opportunity CHIEF had for creating change in the Federal space.
Scott: And then there’s Anuj Vedak—who we can’t say enough good things about. Anuj joined CHIEF in 2011 to help make sure that our rapid growth didn’t turn us into an agency we didn’t want to be. He has been instrumental in helping us manage growth without losing our soul. Margaret and I think of him as CHIEF’s Chief Happiness Officer—we rely on him to make sure that our clients are happy and that our team is happy.
Our talent is definitely what makes us who we are. Looking to the future, what do you hope CHIEF accomplishes in the next 30 years?
Scott: You know we have worked with the biggest brands in the Federal government and nonprofit world—we’re talking the White House, State Department and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. In the next phase of CHIEF, I would like to see us work with the biggest global brands PERIOD.
Margaret: Honestly it’s hard to predict what’s next, but if there’s one thing I know it’s that CHIEF will adapt to our clients’ needs and what’s next in the industry. That’s what truly sets us apart—we see change as an opportunity not an inconvenience. We value vision as much as we do technology, and it’s this balance that keeps public and private sector clients coming back year after year.
Scott: Margaret and I are very fortunate to have four amazing partners, who we will look to in guiding CHIEF for the next 30 years.
The future belongs to them, and our entire team, but we will always be the first to say go forth and BE BRAVE.
Congrats Scott and Margaret on 30 years of CHIEF! Stay tuned next week as we sit down with another pair of CHIEF partners, and get a pulse on how the rest of the CHIEF team feels about this momentous occasion.