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Alastair Johnston

Behind the scenes with a superagent to Arnie, Jack, Gary and Tiger

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Alastair Johnston—who rose from unknown intern in the 1950s to IMG founder Mark McCormack’s right-hand man to his current roles as vice chairman of IMG Worldwide and the trusted executor of Arnold Palmer’s estate—has been a first-hand witness to the power of the golf spokesperson. He’s been at the negotiating table for untold deals between companies and the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tiger Woods and more.

The following interview and selected advertisements compose a tribute to the profitable, occasionally strange, often beautiful, decades-long marriage of golfers and the printed advertisement. View the full feature here.

You’ve now done two of these massive volumes of print advertisements. What in particular do you love about this pursuit?

I’d previously written a book called Chronicles of Golf: 1457–1857, and this was obviously a much different piece of golf history, so I enjoyed that. Also, to be completely honest, this latest book has much more of a focus on Arnold Palmer and his influence, and it was nice to look back on whatever small contribution I made to that. 

Still, not every ad can bring you joy. There had to have been some clangers out there.

We didn’t focus on the endemic golf-industry ads for either book, which thankfully broadened the appeal. But even outside of those, I can’t tell you the amount of ads I saw that connect driving a car to driving a golf ball or gripping a club with the grip of a tire on the road. Pardon the phrase, but those sort of analogies can get very tiresome.

As time moves on, the printed ad, as you knew it well from the 1960s through the 1990s, is becoming less prevalent. You don’t strike me as the type of person to get woeful about it, but how do you feel?

I wrote in the introduction to the book that it can be regarded as a gallery of golfing art deco, a visual portrayal of biographies or merely a historical record, but fundamentally, no matter your generation, I think the nostalgic appeal of these ads will always resonate.

And no, I didn’t have a feeling of any regret at all in doing either book. Time moves on. I’m not woeful about it because, at the end of the day, I’m still in a business that relies on sponsors that fuel the machine of sports marketing. So now we just go to a different pump to get the gasoline. 

You’ve been integral to so many deals with Arnold Palmer over your career. Do any stick out as particular successes?

Actually, one that always sticks out to me as a great example is with Jack Nicklaus. In 2002, I asked Jack if he were willing to entertain a relationship with Royal Bank of Scotland. He was initially skeptical, but he became more interested when he realized that, by market capitalization, it was the fifth-largest bank in the world. They wanted to be known as a worldwide brand, but were struggling against the perception that it was a local, British bank. So they had rebranded as RBS and wanted Jack to help their new messaging.

At the same time, Tiger Woods was the biggest name in golf, and at every opportunity, the media would gratuitously mention Tiger chasing Jack’s major championship record. We came up with a slogan that would draft off of this narrative, using the power of Jack’s personal brand: “The standard to which others aspire.”

It was extremely effective. Every time Tiger won or even competed at a major, the stories were of him chasing Jack—the standard to which he aspired. People then easily made the connection to RBS. 

Did you have anything like that with Tiger?

Yes, Tiger’s advertisements with Accenture. They were ubiquitous before the fire hydrant incident. Before that relationship began, I had a conversation with Tiger—this was early in his career—about how he would be staged in advertisements, and how he needed to use them to foster personal connections to his fans and the golf world at large. To some extent, he would also be judged by the companies he worked with. 

In my opinion, Accenture’s plan to use him in a massive, global marketing campaign focusing on strong values, where he would be seen by millions worldwide, was appropriate, relevant and effective—and, as it turned out, irreplaceable for both parties.

These ads weren’t accidents. Obviously not all of them were effective, but the best ones show the kind of strategy involved in their creation, correct?

Of course. There is a whole lot of thought that goes into the personality, character, reputation, demeanor and respect of your spokesperson. It’s not one size fits all by any means. 

Unless you were Arnold Palmer.

The beauty of Arnold was that he could go to the top of the corporate triangle, as we called it, and partner with brands like Rolex and Cadillac because they were aspirational and successful. But people also trusted him to tell them what oil to put in their car, because that’s what he was doing when he was growing up in Latrobe [Pennsylvania]. 

He had such a broad demographic reach: young, old, male, female, golfer and even non-golfer. I always used to tell him that we need to make sure he is relevant in people’s lives, and we continue to do that even today. When you take that all into account, it’s no surprise so many companies thought he would be the perfect purveyor of their message. 

No one in golf history comes close to Arnold in terms of that kind of advertising power, right? Not even Tiger or Jack?

No. No one. And considering all the different ways people today, especially young folk, get their influence, maybe no one ever again.


Thanks to Johnston and Davis Design for access to the material used in this feature.

Just 600 copies of Johnston’s Arnold Palmer, Look This Way Please! 120 Years of Golfers in Advertising are available, and only through a tax-deductible donation to the Arnold & Winnie Palmer Foundation.

For more information, contact info@PalmerFoundation.org with the subject line “Alastair Johnston Book Inquiry.”