Nick Johnson, influential digital media ad leader, dies at 55

Nicholas S. Johnson, the chief revenue officer at creator monetization firm Spotter, died yesterday at 55 years old. Johnson was a highly regarded ad sales leader in digital media, with a career that took him from the early internet and online publishing to connected TV and the new creator economy.

Peter Naylor, VP of advertising sales at Netflix, said Johnson was a “friend and mentor to a huge amount of media executives.” Those relationships helped Johnson at pivotal moments, Naylor said.

Naylor recalled one of his favorite memories, when Johnson led NBCUniversal’s pitch to brands for a secretive new streaming venture, which was about to be announced in 2008. “He was given 24 hours to sell this unknown product,” Naylor said, “and based on the deep trust he had with clients, he closed seven advertisers to say yes on the spot to the service that months later would be called Hulu.”

“People basically said yes, because it was Nick who was asking,” Naylor said. “Those were the kinds of relationships he had.”

Johnson’s career tracked the digital media revolution that started in the 1990s. He sold media for, a joint venture between CNN and Sports Illustrated out of Time Warner, according to his LinkedIn profile. Johnson later had a stint at Lycos, the early search portal. In 2006, he was VP of ad sales at Reuters, and was later senior VP of digital media sales at NBCUniversal until 2012.

In 2021, Johnson joined Spotter, which was valued at about $1.7 billion last year, and has done deals with top YouTube channels, including MrBeast, Dude Perfect, Like Nastya and Unspeakable.

‘Relentless … but also the sweetest person you’d ever meet’

“The leap he made from old media to the cutting edge of new media today, with creator monetization [at Spotter],” said Ian Schafer, co-founder and CEO of media firm Stealth Mode Sports, “he was able to make that leap and go from being on the frontlines of the old guard to being on frontlines of the new guard. … He reinvented syndication for the creator age.”

Schafer, who was founder and CEO of digital ad agency Deep Focus until 2018, said he was close with Johnson for two decades. Johnson lived in Madison, New Jersey, with his wife, Kirsten, and three children, Cole, Campbell and Caroline. Johnson was a fixture in the advertising and media circles in the area, Schafer said, and friends planned to gather in New York on Thursday to reflect on Johnson’s contributions.

“In New Jersey, there was always a chance, and probably the odds are, that you would bump into Nick in the airport,” Schafer said. “And sometimes you want to travel in peace but if I ever saw him out the corner of my eye, I would make sure that we found each other and give him a hug, a man-sized hug, that was who he was.”

Johnson was known as a tenacious salesman, always on the move, “he was relentless,” Schafer said, “but also the sweetest person you’d ever meet.”