The Reckitt Benckiser loss. The Merill Lynch loss. The Kingsmill loss. The Vodafone loss. In all, about £150 million in billings quit the London agency. The something serious that had to give turned out to be Nick Bell, JWT's creative director. When I heard that Bell was leaving, I thought "fair enough". Bell is a strong creative director (and will no doubt find himself inundated with offers now he's on the market), but there's no way that JWT feels like an exciting creative agency.
Is that Bell's fault? When was JWT ever an exciting creative agency? But at a time of fundamental industry change, JWT has seemed off the pace. If the agency is at the forefront of digital, of integrated thinking, of comms strategy, then it's hiding its light under a pretty big bushel. And Bell himself is not quite the full embodiment of the digitally-savvy, media-literate creative director that is imperative to future-proof an agency's creative credentials.
Whatever, the creative department did have some triumphs last year. Four silvers at Cannes for Vodafone films and the Vodafone "stop the clocks" ad was the ninth most-awarded commercial globally according to the Gunn Report (though much of the Vodafone work falls squarely into the "stinker" category). And the Golden Wonder work came third in Gunn's print league. All of which helped put JWT London at number seven in the Gunn league of creative agencies, its first appearance in the table.
Bell should, rightly, take credit for this turn around, though the global creative director, Craig Davis, has been systematically trying to boost creative standards in key markets around the world and has been closely involved in London's output. Perhaps that was part of the problem - exactly who was in charge in London.
Anyway, when was the last time an ad from JWT got your blood pumping? The Gunn Report, for all the hot air and business bench-marking it generates, inevitably embraces a minuscule proportion of the world's global ad activity. Agency creative directors are frequently charged with improving their standing in the report, but what difference does that really make to the bulk of the agency's output?
More pertinently, though, will a change in creative director really change JWT's fortunes? It might, but like so many other big agencies JWT feels like it is run by administrators and the problems go well beyond the creative department. The chief executive, Alison Burns, now needs to come out fighting big time with a fresh vision for the agency.
Whatever your view, the Bell affair raises some interesting questions about the role of the creative director in this new world. What exactly do agency chief executives want from their creative director in the digital age, and are they vocalising that brief adequately? And what are the consequences?
JWT itself doesn't seem entirely sure yet. It's working on a blueprint for its new creative chief, and recognises that it needs a creative figurehead. But at heart, it seems that the old model of the all-powerful creative director is a dying one and that leaner, multi-disciplined client- oriented teams with greater creative authority embedded within them could be a better route.
In many respects, this approach makes real sense. But agencies must proceed with caution. No-one should underestimate the creative director's role in creating a department of eclectic creative talent and then inspiring that department to seek out new, innovative ideas, to push at the boundaries. The creative director's role as creative mentor might not be easily enshrined in the new blueprint, but it's what makes the difference between a middle-of-the-road creative agency and a brilliant one.