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Tim Johnson


For more than 30 years, Tim has helped companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 500 in industries as diverse as agriculture, consumer electronics, financial services, many shades of tech and more.

Prior to starting UPRAISE, Tim was the managing director of Golin, Inc.’s San Francisco office and director of its worldwide tech practice.  Clients of the practice included giants such as Amazon, Cisco, HP, Oracle, Texas Instruments and many more.  The team included more than 200 professionals worldwide.

Before Golin, Tim was a senior vice president at Ruder Finn’s Chicago office, where he helped expand the office from pure public relations to integrated communications, and for many organizations, wrote and designed their first websites.

Prior, he was an account executive at Rubenstein, Wolfson & Co., in New York, serving financial services clients such as Barclay’s Bank, GE Financial, and Unum.

Here, Tim shares a few highlights and lowlights.

Q: Who was your favorite CEO to work with?

A:   It was probably Lou Gerstner when he led IBM.  The company had fallen behind competitors and become very slow moving and bureaucratic.  He was brought it to revive it.  And revive it he did!  As far as communications were concerned, he was very clear in what messages he wanted disseminated and also made it clear if he was unhappy with your progress.  To his credit, he also was very complimentary when he was happy with our work. I got to sit on his stool once when presenting at the IBM auditorium in Armonk.  He was short and his stool had taller legs than the others.

Q: What was it like working with Steve Jobs at Pixar?

A:  When we pitched Pixar, their process was to vet all our ideas with their marketing group prior to pitching Steve. The Golin team came up with some great creative and we were ready.  After pitching our hearts out, Steve looked up from his omnipresent yellow pad and said, “these are the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard,” and left. He apparently forgot he said that, because in our six-month review, we’d beaten all metrics agreed upon and even he was happy.

Q: How about Jeff Bezos?

A:  I have never met a person so laser focused on building a business centered around customer service.  Even when the analysts were beating up Amazon stock early on, Jeff stuck to this focus.  But Amazon was a tough and demanding client.  Their attitude was, “We’re Amazon, of course we’re supposed to get 150 articles for every release we put out!”

Q: Who served as your mentors?

A:  There were many mentors and role models that helped me.  One that stood out was Joyce Hergenhan.  Joyce was head of communications at GE when they acquired my client at the time, broker/dealer Kidder, Peabody.  She reported to Jack Welch, who was transforming GE into the behemoth it became.  He was a feisty character, but had a noticeable stutter when he spoke in front of large audiences.  We worked out a solution:  we wrote three openings for all of Jack’s speeches that were each about two minutes in length.  He memorized these over time and it gave him time to get comfortable with the podium, the room and the audience. It worked great.  I still use this approach, even with CEOs that don’t stutter.

Q: What was your most embarrassing moment?

A: Well, there’s a lot to choose from.  High on the list is the new business pitch for HP’s printer business in Boise, about $100,000 per month in revenue.  We spent weeks preparing and the team met at Oakland Airport for the flight.  We arrived in Boise and realized I’d left the bag with all the hard copies of the presentation in the boarding area.  Many snarky looks from my team.  Luckily, the HP guys were very gracious and we won anyway.

Q: Startups often have little budget for marketing, why do you like working with them?

A: Because we make a difference.  I love working with big companies like Amazon, Bank of America, GE, HP and others, but with a startup, we often take the role of CMO and if we fail, the startup fails.  Crafting the positioning, getting the marketing engine organized, building their media, analyst, and social presence, are all essential to their success. I like being in the thick of it.

Q: Why do you like being a mentor at Plug and Play?

A: I rub elbows with some of the most creative, innovative people in the world.  These are people most of us have never heard of, but who are doing amazing things with hundreds of different technologies.  Many of these startups are from overseas, so not only are they risking it all starting a new company, they are doing it in the U.S. where they are often unfamiliar with the language, IP law, accounting standards and more.  I admire these people a ton!

Q: What is the craziest startup pitch you heard?

A: It was two Korean women who I think were still in university and were very soft spoken, it was hard to hear them pitch.  They had invented a phone skin that was also a taser!!  Push a button on one end and out the other end came two prongs and 10,000 volts!  I don’t think it made it to market.  Luckily, they did not bring a demo to the pitch.

Q: What was your most difficult decision?

A: During the dotcom bust, we’d had to lay off many people as startup after startup folded.  Keeping the remaining clients was critical. The marketing director at one client, who accounted for about 20 percent of our revenues, started to make verbal advances to one of our female SAEs. Luckily, they were located in Denver so we didn’t see them in person often.  But the advances got stronger and more inappropriate over time.  Talking to the marketing director and CEO did nothing.  Finally, he crossed a line and I resigned the business.  It made a bad year worse, but it was the right thing to do.

Tim Johnson