THE KINGS OF MADISON AVENUE: Chris Jones - Client losses, management rejigs and the US market to crack. Caroline Marshall interviews JWT's chief executive

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 London, 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 scholar, 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. 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, 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 completely 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 really

have a strong branded below-the-line operation in the manner of O&M with

OgilvyOne. 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 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, Shell. Listed here, 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 was

unquestionably tainted by the losses of Sprint and Dell. Both are worth


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 JWT 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 accused the agency of 'wilful and malicious misconduct' and

making slanderous comments. JWT denies the charges and asserts it is

owed millions in media money. '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, and

most don't, or whether you think he's merely going through the 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

earnest. 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


- This interview was published in April 1999 and Chris Jones stepped

down in February 2001 for health reasons. Peter Schweitzer now runs JWT



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