Another week, another King of Madison Avenue. Only this one’s a bit
different. Chris Jones, the chief executive of J. Walter Thompson
Worldwide, is 43, younger than all the previous interviewees in this
series to date. He’s also head of a network rather than a holding
company. Having cut his teeth in the market for everybody who wants to
work hard and have fun in advertising, he’s now working in a culture
famous for its puritanical work ethic, where you cannot smoke anywhere
and drinking anything stronger than a spritzer is socially verboten. In
short, he’s an Englishman in New York.
It is this which leads us to the two very different views of the
Cambridge graduate with a penchant for military history, who started his
career at Saatchi & Saatchi before joining JWT in 1984.
The first - expressed by the chairman of a rival network as ’Aren’t
there grave doubts about that chap Jones surviving?’ - is based largely
on the recent appointment of Charlotte Beers as the worldwide chairman
of JWT. Until she arrived, Jones was chairman and chief executive. Add
the losses of Sprint and Dell in the US, mutterings about Jones getting
the top job at JWT too young, bitching about his legendary client
handling skills not translating well across the Atlantic, plus whispers
of lack of support from WPP’s chief executive, Martin Sorrell, and you
have what could easily look like a promising career on the skids.
The second view is very different. It says that Jones is one of the best
examples of the archetypal client’s adman: tough, sharp, erudite,
resilient and financially astute. It says that he is in the middle of an
ambitious cultural overhaul of the JWT network which has 253 offices in
It says that he has signalled his intent to sort out the US by changing
the top management in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. It says that
JWT has stood up for its rights in its current court case against Dell
and won business from Merrill Lynch, Nabisco, Kimberly-Clark, Quest, the
Bermuda Tourist Board and Shell during Jones’s reign. It says that
hiring Charlotte Beers was his idea, a brilliant coup.
Anyway, we start with Beers’ surprise appointment. Surprise because
Beers was the successful chief executive of the fellow and rival WPP
network, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, from 1992 until 1996 when she became
chairman emeritus and Shelly Lazarus took over. It’s known that Beers
came out of effective retirement to work with Jones.
So whose idea was it to lure back to JWT (where she worked earlier in
her career) the famous 63-year-old ’Texan belle’, complete with her
famously well-endowed client Rolodex?
’You mean, was it my idea or Martin’s?’ Jones asks. ’I know this is the
great debate but it’s genuinely not an issue. I’ve been looking for
someone since I went to New York in 1996.
I knew Charlotte and I first talked to her in autumn 1997.’
So, all his own idea then? ’Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not Martin’s
desire also. Think about it; you’re a Brit running a worldwide agency
and you have to make a load of management changes in North America. From
day one it was clear I was going to be looking for an amigo.
’But once I’d hired some good people - Bob Geffrey in New York, Dennis
Ryan in Chicago, Larry Tolpin in San Francisco - it became clear that it
would be disruptive to hire someone else as, say, president of North
America. Partly because it would be inappropriate to ask Peter
Schweitzer to report to someone else, and also because the people I
hired joined partly to work with me. Charlotte doesn’t represent a layer
between me and anyone.’ (Schweitzer is the president of JWT and its
account baron on the Ford business, based in Detroit. He declined the
offer of the top job at the network leading to Jones being named heir
apparent to Burt Manning in 1995.)
And so to the topic of his priorities for the network. ’I have three,’
he says, adding swiftly, ’and before you ask it’s possible to have
The first is about what he calls ’total communications’, a rallying cry
used to promote media-neutral thinking.
’I am convinced that the old model of an advertising agency is
irredeemably broken, so priority number one is becoming a brand
communications company,’ Jones says. ’This has many implications. I’d
love to be able to tell you that we’ll be the first agency to refuse to
be paid on a commission basis and I’m working towards it. Also, the
total communications approach is going to require huge changes in our
creative work, how we see it and what we do for our clients.’ What has
he done so far towards this? ’I’ve changed some people and introduced
new planning tools. It’s an evolving thing,’ he says.
New models of integration sound great in theory, but JWT doesn’t have a
strong branded below-the-line operation while most of its competitors
are way down that road. At JWT London, there is a team which offers
clients integrated solutions operating from within the Berkeley Square
agency but nobody talks about it as a brand.
So Jones’s big idea is to create a branded network. ’I’ve hired a guy
called Mike Graham whose job is solely to buy individual companies on a
country-by-country basis which we will link together as a network. We’re
trying to build a new model of integration,’ he says.
Priority number two, and the one on which he is least convincing,
concerns improving the network’s creative output. ’Chris quickly conveys
a sense of ’you are not interesting me at all’ when the conversation
turns to creative work,’ says a former colleague, who adds, ’it’s
business and success that drive him.’ The message here is: must try
harder. ’I don’t believe JWT as a worldwide entity is producing enough
great work. That’s not something heads of agencies are supposed to say
and it’s ironic considering my predecessor was a creative. But the
achievements of the agency in the last decade were all about financial
performance and network strength,’ Jones says.
So the successor to Allen Thomas, JWT’s worldwide creative director who
retires this year, will be a key appointment: ’Yes,’ he says, adding
that the search for the right candidate continues.
Priority number three is new business, particularly in North
This is where Beers, who will have no general management duties, should
score. As the person who introduced ’brand stewardship’ to O&M, she is
also supposed to play a part in JWT’s cultural transformation into a
provider of total communications solutions. ’Charlotte and I are soul
mates,’ Jones says.
Everyone is very interested in Beers’ role, although few details are
forthcoming. Beers was not available to be interviewed for this piece -
or at least her PR people did not help it happen, which may have more to
do with protecting Jones’s profile in his home market than with any wish
for privacy on Beers’ part.
However, a little delving reveals that, for tax reasons, Beers is
unlikely to spend more than 100 days a year working in New York where
the JWT network is headquartered. Further delving suggests that her
contract runs for two years. In other words, she has a part-time,
short-term contract and Jones is still unquestionably in charge. So,
apart from the intoxicating smell of money, what will be her
The answer probably lies in her rather brutal departure from O&M.
Observers suggest that Lazarus was itching to take over the top job and
that she may have received an offer to run a rival network, leaving
Sorrell with little choice but to move Beers into the chairman emeritus
role and promote Lazarus. (Manning has the chairman emeritus title at
JWT.) Jones refuses to comment on any of this tittle-tattle, but it
certainly offers an insight into Beers’ motivation: namely, stick it to
Shelley and stick it, for good measure, to O&M.
It is just as interesting to speculate on Jones’s relationship with WPP,
for the holding company is unquestionably the advocate, if not always
the enabler, of the kind of change that he is trying to effect within
JWT. How are things between Sorrell and him?
He is talking earnestly now, choosing his words very carefully. ’My
relationship with Martin is absolutely fine,’ he says. ’Martin is not
like most other people. He is an extraordinary person and there is a
reason he’s achieved what he’s achieved. He’s not an easy person to work
with and he doesn’t particularly want to be. He’s an impatient, restless
worrier and he thrives on bad news. I’ve known Martin for a long time,
since he was at Saatchis, and I genuinely feel that you don’t really
have a relationship with him, you have a series of encounters. We can
have a row about something and 20 minutes later he’ll be back on the
phone and we’ll have a lovely exchange.’
Did people underestimate the difficulties of being relatively young,
very British and running a giant New York-based network? ’Yes,’ he
’But I don’t think it’s got anything to do with my age or with being a
Brit. The fact is that we are trying to give a racing car a service
while it’s running round the track. And we’re running at a good margin
with a good series of wins.’
Merrill Lynch, Nabisco, Kimberly- Clark, Quest, Shell. When listed, the
wins do look impressive, even if rivals mutter about Kimberly-Clark
arriving at a measly 4 per cent commission. But Jones’s early tenure in
the job was unquestionably tainted by the losses of Sprint and Dell.
Both are worth examining here.
The Sprint consumer account, worth dollars 150 million, left JWT’s San
Francisco office without a pitch for McCann-Erickson New York last
September. JWT had the account for 20 years, making it by some ten years
the longest telecoms relationship in the business. JWT continues to
handle broadcast media buying but there were, inevitably, more than 50
job losses. It was a blow, not only to JWT San Francisco where Sprint
accounted for more than half of the office’s billings, but to the West
Coast ad industry as a whole.
In fact, Jones had been fighting speculation that the account was in
danger, and as part of his rescue plan he had suggested moving it to New
York. He was responding to the fact that earlier in 1998, Sprint had
hired Grey Field as its marketing director, and Field had once worked
for AT&T where his agency was ... McCann. It seems therefore that JWT
fell victim to ’new client syndrome’, an inordinately common reason to
review in any case - and in this case sufficient justification to switch
the business without a pitch.
What, if anything, did Jones learn from the experience?
’I’m not sure there was any single thing I could have done differently,’
he replies. ’It just reconfirmed fundamental truths about the
For all its size and our talk of strategy, if your champions in a
company lose out you’re vulnerable. One of the strengths of
multinational agencies is that they can play host to relationships
between agencies and clients which transcend personal ones.’
The Interpublic-owned Martin Agency in Virginia picked up some Kellogg
business in November last year. This is bad news for the Kellogg
incumbents, JWT and Leo Burnett - particularly the latter which handles
the cereal maker’s flagship brands.
Could the Sprint scenario arise on Kellogg, which is the business on
which Jones proved his ability in London in the mid-80s? ’I’m no more
worried about our relationship with Kellogg than I should be,’ he says.
’They are going through profound change too.’
And so to the PC marketer, Dell. The account was handed to BBDO New York
last September by the vice-president of corporate branding, Scott
Like Field at Sprint, he inherited the JWT relationship but had worked
with BBDO as an executive at Pizza Hut before joining Dell in 1997.
Mirroring a dollars 9 million breach of contract suit filed in June 1998
by DMB&B against its former client, Gateway 2000, JWT and Dell are suing
each other over their short and aborted relationship, which hit the
rocks three months after the first work was launched and nine months
after a one-year contract was signed.
Dell has made allegations which look very ugly in print: it has accused
the agency of ’wilful and malicious misconduct’ and making slanderous
comments. JWT denies the charges and asserts it is owed millions of
dollars in media money. ’We feel we have no choice but to stand up for
our rights,’ Jones says.
Whether you believe the ’on the skids’ version of Jones’s career, or
whether you think he’s merely going through the inevitable pain that is
part of his masterplan for the network, one thing is certain: Jones
gives good interview. He spouts literary references till the cows come
home and, when not quoting from Anna Karenina or the writings of F.
Scott Fitzgerald, distinguishes himself with answers that are fluent and
Even questions that are mildly outside the etiquette book - ’Did you
mind losing half your title to a 63-year-old woman?’ - still get a
straight and telling answer: ’Not at all. I have a huge personal stake,
both emotional and financial, in JWT’s success. I’m amazed at how many
people would rather fail on their own than succeed as part of a team.’