JWT at 70

It may have lost Andrex, but the agency that has built a reputation on enduring client relations isn’t letting that spoil the party. Harriet Green looks back at 70 years of JWT

It may have lost Andrex, but the agency that has built a reputation on

enduring client relations isn’t letting that spoil the party. Harriet

Green looks back at 70 years of JWT



The puppy has trotted off, taking the Andrex with it - leaving J. Walter

Thompson sitting there, trousers round the ankles. An embarrassing

situation for an agency approaching its 70th anniversary. But there’s a

lesson, reckons Dominic Proctor, JWT’s chief executive: ‘As soon as you

think you have a safe client, it’s an ex-client.’



Wise after the event? Many might say so. Outsiders love to accuse

Thompsons of complacency. After all, this is an agency where one in five

clients have been around for more than 25 years. Of course, senior

figures deny complacency. Allen Thomas, JWT’s worldwide creative

director, says the agency’s apparent smooth progress is ‘like a swan -

graceful from above, but paddling extremely hard underneath’. And Martin

Sorrell, group chief executive of JWT’s parent, WPP, points out that all

advertising business is insecure (‘most of our contracts are on 90 days’

notice’).



Even revered agencies suffer. Scraps with established clients are not

new at JWT. Kellogg’s, a key client since 1938, was shaky in the 80s.

Jeremy Bullmore, JWT’s former London chairman, declares: ‘We were kicked

in the balls by Guinness [in 1982] and now we’ve been kicked in the

balls by Andrex.’



Golly, they make life sound hard. But in reality, the London agency has

flourished continuously, growing in 70 years from an 18-strong office in

Bush House to a national institution. Seventy years? You’d think it was

700.



In that time, JWT has built up a strong tradition. After World War II,

Thompsons positively strove against American influence, setting out to

be the ‘most English’ of agencies, recalls Miles Colebrook,

international group president of JWT Worldwide. Hence the reputation for

arrogant, Oxbridge-educated blue-bloods with double-barrelled surnames

and addresses in London and the country. But that’s all myth, scoffs

Nick Welch, formerly joint creative director. As with City institutions,

Welch says, Thompsons was really ‘a terrifying combination of posh

pirates and barrow boys, with the posh chaps front of house’.



The upper-class atmosphere can be a hindrance, chuckles Thomas: ‘Things

like [the entertainment premises at] Hay’s Mews are civilised - but it’s

a mixed blessing - everybody thinks we’re like a St James’s Club.’



As part of the Establishment, JWT clearly has a more settled outlook

than a funky start-up. Chris Jones, who takes over the worldwide agency

in January, will be JWT’s seventh chief executive. As Sorrell explains:

‘JWT is more institutional than other agencies - most of whom are still

in their first generation.’



And like other institutions, JWT doesn’t easily accept noisy individuals

deviating from its set ways. Andrew Robertson, a former group director

who is now managing director of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, repeats the

famous Thompsons mantra: ‘The agency is bigger than any individual.’

Dominic Proctor, JWT’s chief executive, who arrived ten years ago from

Butler Dennis Garland, recalls it being ‘difficult to earn your stripes

as a newcomer’. Richard Phillips, once a JWT copywriter and now a

commercials director, adds: ‘A strong corporate culture can be

frustrating for outsiders. There was this phrase coined by Jeremy

Bullmore - ‘leave the bathroom as you find it’. Running JWT is all about

stewardship.’



JWT is also about continuity: Bullmore, who started at JWT back in 1954

as a copywriter, is now a non-executive director at WPP. ‘JWT is good at

succession management,’ Robertson says. ‘Nothing just happens by

accident.’ Thus, for a year now, everybody has known that Burt Manning’s

successor as global chief will be Jones.



So entrenched is the JWT myth that people speak of a golden age. These

halcyon days encompass anything from the 50s onwards, but usually refer

to the mid-80s, after Colebrook and Thomas took over. Creative work

improved dramatically: classic campaigns included Maureen Lipman’s

Beattie ads for BT, the extension of the Oxo family and outstanding

campaigns for KitKat and Persil. Again - inevitably - today’s managers

dispute the ‘golden age’ myth. One former JWT man proposes a theory

about why there’s been no similar shift since then: ‘Beattie made a lot

of noise,’ he observes, ‘but you don’t get to create that all the time

with clients that you work with for a long time.’



Clearly, breathing new life into an old campaign can be harder than

creating something completely new. And that’s the particular strength of

JWT. Phillips, the writer behind those Beattie commercials, says:

‘Highly successful campaigns over long periods of time will always be

unfashionable in the ad business. JWT is never going to be Howell Henry

Chaldecott Lury. It’s like Marks and Spencer trying to be Vivienne

Westwood. The moment you put M&S in the label, it stops being Vivienne

Westwood. Naive creative people might be rude about the reel but what

agency wouldn’t want to be like JWT?’



Phillips believes Thompsons should stop trying to be funky: ‘They seem

to lack confidence, feeling they must convince their young people that

they’re fashionable.’ Others suggest the agency may only have felt more

‘creative’ because in those days most staff ‘wanted to be poets and

artists’.



Nowadays, its defenders argue, JWT is more commercial. As Sorrell puts

it: ‘It’s all about blowing your clients’ trumpets rather than your own.

I’d like to think of Thompsons as the McKinsey of the advertising

industry - making clients famous.’



When Sorrell’s WPP bought JWT in 1987, it looked carefully at the

agency’s spending. But WPP’s scrutiny was never so close in London as at

worldwide level, where there were financial problems. All the same,

expenses in London were ripe for cutting. One former staffer recalls ‘a

senior guy taking a cab from JWT to the Reader’s Digest, just round the

corner of Berkeley Square’. And Colebrook remembers how, in the old

days, ‘there were open accounts to buy clients flowers’. Colebrook had

started cost-cutting in 1986, and in six months as managing director he

had pruned costs by dollars 1 million through simple measures such as

renegotiating car contracts.



Similarly, staff have become more productive. Welch, a junior copywriter

in the early 70s, remembers JWT as a ‘big, dozy old gaff’, with 1,500

people earning a reasonable wage on billings of pounds 50 million.

Compare today’s figures: 409 people with billings of pounds 280 million.



But apart from introducing financial rigour, WPP doesn’t seem to have

interfered in running the London shop. Jeremy Bullmore calls WPP less a

parent company than a ‘grandparent’. Proctor has little formal contact

with Sorrell: ‘It’s through an accident of geography, being based in the

same town, that I see Martin more than the heads of other JWT offices.

He talks through Burt Manning and Chris Jones. JWT London is

fundamentally a strong business and we don’t feel influenced by WPP.’



Rivalry between JWT and its WPP sister agency, Ogilvy and Mather, is

fierce. When Sorrell mooted a merged media operation (Campaign, 15 March

1996) senior figures squawked loudly. But media remains a critical

issue, ripe for sorting out soon. One former staffer sneers: ‘It’s been

a media dinosaur for the past five years. Given that Dominic is from a

media background, it’s extraordinary it’s been allowed to go off the

boil.’



Apart from WPP’s takeover, the biggest shift in JWT’s structure has been

the move towards globalisation, which Colebrook and Thomas initiated in

1989. ‘Before,’ Colebrook claims, ‘we had been one of the best three

agencies in the world but behaving as a series of local agencies. Our

move towards globalisation was more determined than that of any of our

competitors.’



But how does that affect the autonomy of London managers? Billy

Mawhinney, the former joint creative director, believes London’s

creativity has been compromised in recent years: ‘London is now handling

a tremendous amount of European work, often bland lowest-common-

denominator stuff. Some brands are being used by clients and the network

as an attempt to prove that Europeanisation works. However, if anyone is

going to protect the London agency’s interests, it will be Allen

Thomas.’



Another former senior figure, who joined in the late 70s, also believes

globalisation has been detrimental: ‘The London agency was independent

when I started there, but it’s changed. You can’t drive multinational

clients as business units without weakening the individual

responsibility of agencies.’



Proctor, not surprisingly, vehemently disputes this argument. He’s alert

to global blandness but he maintains: ‘Sixty per cent of our business is

multinational. There is an awful lot of nonsense talked about global and

national accounts - creative people see no difference between the two.

But you do need to be on your guard by winning local business.’ Thomas,

too, considers London safe: ‘The UK agency is one of the jewels in the

crown.’



Colebrook believes the post-1992 Proctor administration has freshened up

the agency: ‘Dominic and Stephen [Carter, the managing director] are

more hands-on and stretch deeper into the agency world than we did.

They’re more client focused, they’ve created flatter structures.’

Proctor believes he’s made JWT ‘more open and collaborative’.



But loyalty to the company isn’t what it once was. Proctor and Carter

can’t offer staff a job for life as predecessors did. Redundancies and

altered employment contracts have damaged morale, insists a former

staffer: ‘The loyalty so important to the Thompsons culture is at risk.

Good people are saying ‘I’m not going to devote my life to you’.’



Staff quitting, Andrex leaving too, is the end nigh? Erm, hardly. Andrex

or no Andrex, JWT, on its 70th anniversary, is number one in the

billings table. It’s the first time it has been there since Saatchi and

Saatchi usurped the top spot in 1979.



But if Saatchis was the enemy in the 80s, what about AMV now? Observers

like to suggest it feels more like Thompsons, these days, than

Thompsons. Bullmore, oozing self-confidence, takes comparisons as a

compliment: ‘AMV is a wholly admirable agency. But you can’t compare a

first-generation company with a tenth-generation company.’



There they go again, talking like Burke’s Peerage. But looking ahead,

what happens next? In ten years’ time, will Kellogg’s still be there?

And what about the offices? The lease on 40 Berkeley Square runs out in

2007, and Proctor wants to find a more workable base. Whatever can he

have in mind? A shiny glass edifice, a converted warehouse? Or perhaps

something more JWT - an empty wing in Buckingham Palace.



The JWT chronology



1899 JWT New York opens a London sales office at 33 Bedford Street



1925 JWT London, now based in the newly built Bush House, become a

fully-fledged advertising agency, with 18 staff run by a US ad man, Sam

Meek



1931 Billings reach pounds 1 million. There are now 200 staff



1945 The agency moves to 40 Berkeley Square, a converted block of luxury

flats which had previously housed stars such as Frank Sinatra



1946 Doug Saunders takes over as chairman with William Hinks as his

managing director - a British team at the top for the first time



1955 Commercial television arrives on 22 September. JWT has the second

ad on TV for Kraft De Luxe Slices



1956 Tony the Tiger, Frosties’ enduring cartoon character, is born



1960 JWT conducts the first research into levels of attention viewers

give to commercials



1968 Stephen King lays the foundations of planning (at the same time as

BMP), dubbing it the T-Plan



1972 The Andrex puppy is created



1976 Jeremy Bullmore rises to become chairman



1979 Saatchi and Saatchi topples JWT from the number one slot in the

billings league



1982 Allen Thomas joins as executive creative director from Davidson

Pearce



1983 Oxo’s ‘realistic’ family of Mum (Linda Bellingham), Dad and three

mouthy kids arrives



1985 BT appoints JWT. Beattie is born



1987 WPP buys JWT



1989 Chris Jones takes over the UK helm as managing director rising to

chief executive one year later



1992 Dominic Proctor, the managing director, is promoted to chief

executive



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Major clients

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Kraft                 1926

Lever                 1927

Nestle Rowntree       1931

Kellogg’s             1938

Elida Faberge         1949

Van den Bergh         1957

Warner Wellcome       1966

De Beers              1981

Esso                  1991

Barclays Bank         1992

Telegraph             1994

Boots                 1994

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