NEWSMAKER/STEPHEN CARTER: New chief bent on shaking up the JWT status quo - Harriet Green reveals how ambitious Stephen Carter plans to turn JWT around

You could hardly get two more different men: Stephen Carter, the new chief executive of J. Walter Thompson, and his predecessor, Dominic Proctor, now the chief operating officer of the agency’s global media network, MindShare (Campaign, last week).

You could hardly get two more different men: Stephen Carter, the

new chief executive of J. Walter Thompson, and his predecessor, Dominic

Proctor, now the chief operating officer of the agency’s global media

network, MindShare (Campaign, last week).

An insider explains: ’If people had been allowed to sign a book of

condolence for Dominic’s leaving, there would have been queues outside

the door.

We are in an industry of nice people who like to be liked. Stephen

manages by discomfort.’ Certainly, Carter entertains no illusions about

his popularity. ’I don’t think they were blowing up balloons in the

corridors when they heard the news,’ he says, candidly.

For while Proctor derived his authority from a combination of natural

gravitas and mateyness, Carter is reserved, even occasionally edgy. He

can be rude and abrupt: dressings down from him have become legendary.

William Eccleshare, Ammirati Puris Lintas’s chief executive, formerly a

senior executive at JWT, explains: ’He doesn’t suffer fools at all


He is good with good people but with people who needed nurturing I felt

he could lack patience.’

To be fair, the steely reputation may have been forced upon him.

’Dominic sussed out that Stephen didn’t have bonhomie,’ Kevin May, an

account handler at TBWA Simons Palmer who’s known Carter for years,

believes. ’So he used him to give bad news. At least Stephen will now

have the opportunity to be the bearer of good tidings as well.’

Perhaps good tidings will turn up soon but, for the moment, things need

sorting. Carter began his reign with the assessment: ’JWT is not at the

top of its game. We have had a quiet year in new business and the work

we are producing is not as good as it should be.’

Last year wasn’t great. The agency lost Andrex on a global basis and

Dulux across Europe. It was forced to resign its local client, Esso, to

make way for global Shell business; domestic new-business gains were

almost non-existent and the work has been solid but with few


JWT London, observers said, had lost its specialness, increasingly

typecast as a regional outpost of a global network. But the people

responsible for this state of affairs include Carter: he’s been its

managing director for three years, and was the deputy managing director

for two years before that. What was he doing?

Carter outlines some excuses for JWT’s lacklustre showing: ’We

concentrated on building our international business over the past five

years, which sapped a lot of energy. Internally, we have encouraged

people to move from advertising solutions to communications solutions.

The media thing has taken a lot of energy. Put all those things together

with competition from strong local and international agencies and you

can see how it happened. But we haven’t been completely asleep,

otherwise we’d be the tenth agency in London, not the second.’

Fresh from a three-month course at Harvard Business School, Carter plans

a shake-up. ’It’s not my intention to be manager of the status quo. Our

agency is in a position of change. If we want to be at the top of the

game, quoting our dead ancestors isn’t going to make us a compelling

option.’ Martin Sorrell, chief executive of JWT’s parent company, WPP,

approves of Carter’s no-nonsense approach: ’Restless discontent is what

every company needs. Not being satisfied with the status quo is to be

complimented,’ he says.

Martin Jones, formerly JWT’s head of new business, now the managing

director of the Advertising Agency Register, takes up that theme:

’Stephen’s exceptional at getting people to be better, he hates the

status quo. You always knew when he was in the agency. He makes a

palpable difference.’ Similarly, Jones’s successor at JWT, Mark

Robinson, respects Carter’s focus: ’Work moves at a pace when he’s


For ten years Carter has been loyal to JWT. It was clear he’d reach the

top. However, he’s said to have been on the brink of leaving for Lowes

before becoming deputy managing director in 1993. Harry MacAuslan, JWT’s

deputy chairman, elaborates: ’The most remarkable thing was he was given

a job that didn’t exist. He wrestled to acquire responsibilities that

weren’t there. He managed to create a role.’

Openly ambitious, Carter attracts the sort of ribbing usually given to a

head boy at school. May, who lived with Carter in the early years at

JWT, characterises him as a control freak. ’He is incredibly fastidious

and tidy. In the middle of conversations he’d start hoovering or

emptying ashtrays when you were in the middle of a cigarette,’ he

laughs. Throughout his meteoric rise, Carter has been the butt of jokes

(in the in-house satirical magazine, he was known as ’the Chosen


Nick Welch, formerly JWT’s creative director, now APL’s executive

creative director, pinpointed Carter’s rise when he was still a junior

account man. ’Some people hide their ambition. Stephen’s is very clear,’

he explains. Similarly, May describes Carter as ’a man unfamiliar with

self-doubt. He has the capacity to seem authoritative even when he might

be out of his depth.’

Yet Carter is self-conscious about being elevated to chief executive at

just 33; in photographs he tends to compensate for this by adopting an

awkward appearance of maturity. And there are other signs of


Carter claims he is far from being the typical JWT man: he’s not English

(he’s Scottish) and he didn’t attend a public school or Oxbridge (he

read law in Aberdeen).

Thankfully, he is by no means without appeal. He chats warmly and openly

about his plans for the agency, drinking a can of Diet Coke with his

feet sprawled on the table. It’s easy to see how he can be ’blisteringly

charming’, as MacAuslan says. Jones has seen Carter cajole initially

hostile clients into eating from his hand: ’He’s transformed pitch

disasters,’ he confirms. And colleagues say he’s lightened up since the

birth last year of his son, Max. (His wife is Anna Gorman, APL’s

managing partner.)

Controversially, Carter has decided not to appoint a managing director,

despite claims that the agency now looks worryingly lightweight. JWT’s

senior - and most famous - talents, including Miles Colebrook and Allen

Thomas, have been promoted away from the London agency into JWT Europe

and Worldwide. But if you invite Carter to consider the heavyweight

management of similar-sized rivals, such as M&C Saatchi and Abbott Mead

Vickers BBDO, he laughs, saying: ’I wonder what on earth they all


In one respect, Carter may find the agency more manageable than it has

been thus far. With the media side hived off, staff numbers have dropped

from 450 to 350. JWT, however, still has more creative teams than any

other agency in London, an astonishing 35 (AMV, the UK’s number-one

agency and one of the finest creatively, has only 16 teams). Quantity,

of course, is not the same as quality. Jaspar Shelbourne, the executive

creative director, has trumpeted improvements but Carter remains aware

of a problem.

One-off ads like Tussaud’s are OK, he says, but JWT isn’t coming up with

the big long-runners for which it was once famous: ’When I’m in the pub

with my mates, they don’t say often enough ’I love that campaign’.’ His

solutions, however, sound a little flat: ’Concentrate on it. Make sure

everybody knows it’s a priority. Build time into the system. Seek to

attract and keep the best talent in the market.’

A former colleague gives this advice: ’If I were Stephen I’d appoint

some really famous names in all disciplines. Otherwise people will say:

’You haven’t worked anywhere else - in another market or outside JWT.

When you talk about communication how can you have any idea what you are

talking about?’’

Jones is more generous. ’If I still worked at the agency I’d feel

excited by its potential. It has survived so long on its values. Stephen

can give it the step change it needs.’


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