For many years, J. Walter Thompson was considered an industry titan, responsible for some of the most enduring and iconic creative work that continues to resonate in pop culture today. Additionally, the agency’s early innovations remain essential pieces of the industry landscape.
In addition to two famed Oscar Meyer jingles (one for hot dogs and another for bologna) and the legendary “I don’t wanna grow up” song for Toys ‘R Us, JWT created “Snap, Crackle and Pop” for Kellogg’s and was credited for inventing the grilled cheese sandwich for Kraft.
Other high-profile work included the Rock of Gibraltar for Prudential—a symbol first introduced in 1897 that endures for the brand today—and iconic positioning for the likes of DeBeers, 7Up, the U.S. Marines and others.
After Ford hired JWT in 1943, the agency helped launch the Mustang in the 1960s, eventually creating the first globally broadcast commercial in 1999.
The concept of the creative department—employing writers and artists creating advertising content for clients, replacing in-house departments—was invented by the agency. JWT also became the first American ad agency to expand internationally with the founding of its London office in 1899.
In 1908, JWT became the first to employ a female copywriter by hiring Helen Lansdowne Resor, who eventually became vice president. According to Burt Manning in “Advertising Leadership 1864-1989,” Lansdowne “won Thompson the reputation for being the agency in which bright young women had the best chance to succeed.” To this day, the agency pays homage to her legacy with an international scholarship in her name, promoting female creative advertising students around the globe.
Internal issues were a momentum killer
A high profile sexual harassment case against former CEO Gustavo Martinez in 2016 overshadowed other aspects of JWT’s reputation. The issue further exacerbated existing problems with employee morale, which—according to one anonymous former senior creative who worked at the agency for several years—had been low for some time.
He said issues plaguing the agency include layoffs; a continuous decline in new clients; and the controversial way in which JWT handled former global chief communications officer Erin Johnson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Martinez—by entering a “confidential agreement” with her after waging an unnecessary two-year legal battle that her lawyers described as the agency retaliating against her for speaking out. (Martinez continued working for WPP in Spain after he resigned from his position as JWT CEO following the suit.)
“It felt like the place was starting to die a little bit,” the former senior creative said, talking about the New York office specifically, which he said he saw downsize from five floors to just one and a half when he left. The Johnson situation, he added, was “just a whole clusterfuck.”
A creative renaissance interrupted
Named Adweek’s 2009 Global Agency of the Year, the agency performed admirably over the last 10 years on the awards circuit, winning 278 Cannes Lions. In 2016, JWT nabbed 50 total awards, including a Grand Prix out of the network’s Amsterdam office for ING, which programmed AI to paint like Rembrandt.
In 2017, the agency won 21 total Lions for work including the development of an amphibious prosthetic leg for Northwell Health and the widely praised “Unsafety Check” campaign for Black Lives Matter (both out of the New York office). This year, the agency won 20 Lions (three gold, six silver and 11 bronze) yet none originated from JWT’s New York headquarters.
By comparison, the agency’s WPP brethren, Ogilvy, has been at or near the top of Cannes’ network of the year category and won a total of 106 Lions in 2018.
But Johnson’s lawsuit against Martinez loomed large, proving to be a massive distraction to overcome as there was more focus on the internal issues at the agency as opposed to its output, raising questions about JWT’s creative direction and culture. Moreover, according to other former staffers, JWT was mainly driven by financial decisions and less by creative output and talent investment, which led to a consistent turnover of staff.
In what could be interpreted as a financial cut in March, the agency eliminated its worldwide chief creative officer position. At around the same time, Matt Eastwood, who had held the position from 2014, departed the company. Brent Choi, who had been president of the agency’s Canadian operations and CCO of global brands at the network, also left in June.
The most recent round of layoffs in May left employees “with no sense of safety,” said the former senior creative, who quit because he didn’t see a personal path of elevation at JWT. By the time of his departure, he said JWT felt like a “pharma agency” because it didn’t have much business outside Johnson & Johnson.
He also said he didn’t agree with upper management on many issues.
Choi, who had been CCO of JWT Canada and New York before he left six months after being repositioned as president of the Canadian division and chief creative officer of global brands, was the only executive he felt was helping to reestablish agency culture, the anonymous source added.
“I liked working with Brent,” he said. “The people under him felt eager and wanted to make a name for themselves.”
He believed Choi was “pushed out” because he had only brought in small clients and pro bono work, which “was good for the image” but didn’t help the agency’s revenue growth.
In an email to Adweek, Choi denied that he was pushed out of the agency and insisted his departure was a mutual decision.
The former employee said he “didn’t really like” the management style of Choi’s replacements, North America CEO Simon Pearce and JWT New York CCO Ben James. He said the new leadership team relied heavily on Wunderman to fuel JWT work, so he was unsurprised by the merger news but felt it made JWT look “desperate.”
The creative said the name JWT had ultimately become “a distractor” and, “while there’s so much history” behind it, it inevitably caused clients to wrongfully think of the agency as one that can do traditional TV ads—and nothing else.
An agency built for the new advertising order?
Despite the internal perception of the agency’s creative culture, those outside its walls believe that a more streamlined and comprehensive Wunderman Thompson, led by Mel Edwards and Tamara Ingram as CEO and chairman respectively, can become a high performer and capture some of the mojo that made it an industry legend in the first place.
Jay Pattisall, principal analyst at Forrester, said there will be “two interpretations” of the merger: “the death of a storied, iconic agency brand” and the “birth of a new type of creative agency with data, tech, digital marketing and brand creativity all wrapped up in one.”
“[It’s] a great opportunity for WPP to strengthen their creative offering … which has been a bit of a drag on economic performance,” Pattisall added.
Pivotal senior analyst Brian Wieser pointed out that both of these interpretations could be true. “A brand can die, and it can be resuscitated,” he said. “This doesn’t mean JWT can’t mean something at some point in the future. Just because these names go away now doesn’t mean they’re dead forever.”
When all is said and done, though, it can be hard to come to terms with witnessing an industry legend move on to its next chapter.
“I’m sad to see the JWT brand go,” said Cutwater president Christian Hughes, who previously spent five years as global business director at the WPP agency. “But a rebranding was probably required; otherwise, it just looks as though the older of the two companies ruled the roost. That [wouldn’t be] the signal of change they wanted to send.”
Reporting by Lindsay Rittenhouse, Erik Oster, Patrick Coffee and Doug Zanger.