JWT proves that edgy isn't always the right approach

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It's nearly ten years since J Walter Thompson became JWT and tried to reinvent itself through the pages of an in-house book called Hold My Skateboard While I Kiss Your Girlfriend.

I don’t remember this bit but, apparently, the agency also declared that it was no longer in the advertising business but was plying cultural anthropology. It fits. Anyway, HMSWIKYG was designed to "put creativity at the centre of everything" the agency did. A very fine ambition, but not very JWT – at least in its execution.

It was an embarrassing midlife crisis – an ache for danger in the face of comfortable conformity. And it demeaned one of the world’s advertising titans. The search for a cool creative culture to rival newly emerging micro-networks such as Wieden & Kennedy, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Mother was perhaps understandable at an emotional level, but rang hollow and desperately inauthentic. The industry sniggered.

Like any good midlife crisis, it passed soon enough, leaving behind some naughty memories, a surer sense of self and some stronger-for-being-tested relationships. And JWT went back to doing what it did best: being a big, efficient global machine helping big global clients get bigger. With 10,000 employees across 200 offices in 90 countries, the room for any significant manoeuvring was always going to be limited; local nuances remain the real challenge, as they do for most global ad businesses.

A decade on and JWT is now preparing to remind us all where it came from and how that necessarily shapes where it’s going. Bob Jeffrey’s essay on page 32 does a fair job of emphasising that people (70 per cent of them now "digital natives") and relationships are the backbone of the agency’s past and its future – the legacy of its founder. And the network will officially revert to its proud J Walter Thompson moniker on 5 December, 150 years after the agency first opened its doors, though we’ll all continue to call it JWT, as we always did.

So HMSWIKYG didn’t revolutionise the agency’s creative output. Or make it cool. Or even make it better. But it did remind everyone why, after all these years, JWT still mattered in the industry mix: exactly because it wasn’t one of those cool creative micro-networks.

claire.beale@haymarket.com      @clairebeale

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