published Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Joe Johnson’s focus helps marketing group grow

Joe Johnson is head of The Johnson Group marketing firm.
Joe Johnson is head of The Johnson Group marketing firm.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

JOE JOHNSON

Title: President of The Johnson Group

Age: 50

Education: Marketing degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Career: Johnson started his marketing career at Chattanooga firm Croxall and Associates. He started The Johnson Group in 1996.

Personal: Johnson and his wife, Leslie, have a 23-year-old son.

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Ever had a craving for Mayfield ice cream driving down the highway?

Has your mouth watered for a Krystal burger while watching TV?

You probably have Joe Johnson to thank — or blame, if you’re trying to diet.

Johnson and the roughly 50 employees at his marketing company are behind countless award-winning billboards, TV commercials and magazine ads for a variety of local and national companies.

Advertising has changed a bit since The Johnson Group started in 1996. Facebook, Google and Hulu now can be as important as print and television, but Johnson’s firm found success sticking to basics.

“If you have a creative mind, you can do a social media ad just as easy as you can do a TV one,” Johnson said. “The present and the future of marketing is having a powerful message.”

Johnson has searched for those messages most of his life. He went to Notre Dame High School before heading to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to study marketing.

The economy was down when he came out of college in the 1980s. The day before he took a job washing dogs for a vet, Johnson got his foot in the door at Chattanooga ad agency Croxall and Associates. The job involved a lot of filing — his first day was spent moving boxes of files from one office to another — but he continued to study the industry until he got the job he wanted.

“I liked it,” he said. “Not the moving part, but the advertising part.”

Soon enough, he was able to start his own ad firm with a few colleagues.

As The Johnson Group started making a new for itself, the Chattanooga advertising scene was changing. The city itself was rapidly growing, cleaning up its polluted, industrial past, and the big companies needing advertising were shifting.

“You had to go out and prove you could do things,” Johnson said. “We did it very slow and methodically.”

The Johnson Group focused on specific industries such as mobile phones and gradually gained a strong track record of success they used to sell their services to bigger clients. Today, Johnson does work for Krystal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, McKee Foods and several other large local players.

Johnson loves his home town. He passed his passion on to his 23-year-old son Joe, who wants to get involved in the local restaurant industry.

But being Chattanooga-based sometimes poses a problem. Major advertisers sometimes turn up their noses when solicited by a firm not from a major advertising Mecca such as New York or Chicago.

But when The Johnson Group gets a meeting with clients, the firm almost always seals the deal, Johnson said.

“We have some real driver personalities,” he said. “We’re very good when we pitch.”

The real fun starts after a company hires The Johnson Group. He and his people try to become part of the demographic they’re selling to, spending a day at a Krystal drive-through to learn how customers are making decisions or hanging out at a truck stop to figure out how to get more drivers for local trucking giant U.S. Xpress.

“It can be time-consuming,” Johnson said. “It can be incredibly fun, too.”

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