Donnell Johnson knew he wanted to work in advertising when he was 12, after seeing the first Apple Macintosh commercial during the 1984 Super Bowl.
“After that spot ran I literally said ‘I want to do that,’” the Philadelphia native said of the Orwellian “1984”-inspired spot. “That’s what I’m still trying to achieve: a classic piece of advertising that will live forever.”
Johnson is now pursing that goal at Saatchi & Saatchi LA in Torrance, where he recently joined as associate creative director and copywriter. He may have taken a big step toward creating that buzzed-about, popular commercial with his work for the Toyota Sienna. Johnson created a campaign for the conservatively styled minivan in which a fictional married couple with kids exudes a kind of pride and urban cool often associated with the owners of high-end German sports sedans.
“Everyone was kind of trying to avoid working on it, but I was like. ‘Oh, man, can I please be on it?’ I love problem-solving,” Johnson said.
To create the concept, he pored over minivan blogs, where he saw ownership portrayed as a “badge of shame.” In his “Swagger Wagon” ad, he replaced that shame with excessive confidence.
“My style comes from being very observational of people and really loving psychology,” said Johnson, who graduated from Millersville University of Pennsylvania in 1993 with a major in psychology before studying pop culture and creative branding at Miami Ad School in the late ’90s.
In addition to a string of TV commercials, he has helped create 10 online videos, including a rap video featuring the Sienna parents. The videos have become popular on YouTube.
“There is a huge trend in advertising to do something like this,” Johnson said of the online spinoffs. “But we backed into it. You connect with people first; you make it human and you do it right.”
Johnson, 38, lives in Venice with his fiancée, Lindsey Aquino. In his spare time, he enjoys playing basketball and rooting for the Miami Dolphins during football season.
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