3 Lessons from the Co-Founders of CHIEF: Celebrating 30 years of business

We recently met with Co-founders of CHIEF, a full-service marketing agency that’s been in the District for 30 years, as a way to understand why they chose to start and grow their business in DC.

The duo stressed that while the industry and technology landscapes have changed tremendously, three key principles have stood the test of time:

“Embrace change or get left behind”

The trailblazers behind CHIEF are the dynamic couple Margaret and Scott Johnson. Long before the inception of CHIEF, Margaret and Scott were both working in the Dupont area and looking to branch out on their own. In 1987 they launched Rock Creek Publishing Group, a communications and design agency in DC and just one of just a handful of ‘digital’ agencies that existed at the time.

The Johnsons worked diligently out of their home in Mount Pleasant, renting time on local computers in an era when few offices had a computer and before the web even existed. With the advent of the internet, they hired their first employees, among them current CTO, Clay Marshall, who brought with him an arts background and an understanding of how to use technology to solve real-world problems

With a digital-first mindset in the midst of the 90’s tech boom, the agency pivoted to meet the evolving needs of their clients and the population at large. Even in the age of the internet bonanza many businesses didn’t fully embrace the need to innovate and adapt—but not Margaret and Scott. They hit the ground running, not skipping a beat before adding advanced technical capabilities to their team.

“Prioritize People and Inclusivity”

Ever since CHIEF’s humble beginnings, the Johnsons have prioritized the people they work with. They proudly shared that CHIEF has never laid anyone off, not even during the deep recessions or after 911 when so many other agencies closed their doors. They believe that this is the “essence of corporate responsibility” because “if people do a great work for you, you must reward their loyalty.”

Surrounded by the best and the brightest, the Johnsons have made their earliest employees partners, who handle day-to-day operations at CHIEF. When their very first employee decided to leave DC the Johnsons found a way to cultivate a bi-coastal working relationship with him, and Clay now operates CHIEF’s Portland office while setting vision for the larger CHIEF Technology team on both coasts

From a tiny home office, to an expansive space in Dupont and out West, CHIEF has grown immensely over the course of three decades. CHIEF creates motivating experiences for its clients, who comprise critical government agencies, nonprofits and consumer brands.Major milestones include the creation of CHIEF in 2011 and the CHIEF-Rock Creek merger in 2015. The agency now has 120+ employees, who hail from all over, and an impressive 2:1 Female to Male ratio among its employees. Breaking tech industry stereotypes left and right, CHIEF is a model for what inclusive innovation should look like.

“Be Brave”

Margaret and Scott wholeheartedly believe in their brand’s motto “BE BRAVE” and encourage people to leave their comfort zones and be inspired by the impossible. The Johnsons are proud of the work CHIEF has produced over the years and strive to continue innovating for as long as possible. The couple shares a love for Dupont Circle—the neighborhood they met in, came up with their business plan in and operate out of today—a hub of innovation and activity, which Scott has dubbed “the creative epicenter of DC.” They are also passionate about the District as a whole. “We love DC. Our clients are here, our employees are here and we can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

At WDCEP, we are constantly impressed by CHIEF’s brave story, bold work and ability to leap one step ahead of the curve. We can’t wait to see their continued innovation for decades to come.