JWT may have been magic, but only if you moved in the right circle

JWT may have been magic, but only if you moved in the right circle

William Eccleshare says he will miss the 'magic' of JWT - which, while good in its day, was a product of its time.

In the unlikely event that anyone thought Mark Read’s decision to scrap J Walter Thompson and merge it with Wunderman was a sad one, they should read the shrewd William Eccleshare’s historical perspective piece on the agency.

The state school-educated former managing director of JWT London writes wistfully of how, fresh from Cambridge, he discovered that the agency’s culture was based on the military. "Rank and title mattered," he says, recalling how directors received stars in the phone book based on their importance (much like generals). He fondly recollects how the quality of the nameplate on your door and the drinks in your cabinet reflected your status. The walls, meanwhile, were covered with works of art and the directors had their own bar.

To contemporary eyes, all this stuff looks frankly ridiculous; a snobby world of public-school privilege, private wealth, elitism and, most notably, an overblown sense of self-importance. And surely at the time, it must have looked the same to many who were not part of this boys' club (as Peter Mead found out, to their loss and his gain).

But some blue-chip clients wanted a blue-chip agency and that’s what JWT gave them – to great success. The agency also kept hold of and nurtured some real talent, most notably pioneering planner Stephen King and the thoughtful and kind advertising giant Jeremy Bullmore.

How much JWT has changed since Eccleshare’s trip down nostalgia street to Berkeley Square is open to question. It has never shaken its reputation for snobbery (its car park contains Rolls-Royces while the motor of choice of Toby Hoare, its European chief executive, is the Jaguar E-Type formerly driven by Stephen Ward of Profumo scandal fame). All those pinkie rings and fucking red trousers have never really completely disappeared. Such japes, such fun, such profligacy – but in danger of looking so out of touch. Eccleshare describes its reputation as "magical"; other epithets are available, of course.

Mel Edwards, the straight-talking, hard-grafting, no-nonsense new global chief executive of JWT's successor, Wunderman Thompson, is unlikely to have much truck with all this baggage and traditions. The venerated picture of James Walter Thompson in the bar (I mean "Comm", named after his tenure as commodore in charge of New York Yacht Club) could be an early victim, as could the name of the bar itself. 

As for the people working at JWT’s London office in Knightsbridge (and who, in this day and age, needs an office in Knightsbridge?), they will be awaiting their fate as Edwards delivers on her promise of "understanding" its business before selecting its management team. Sadly, there’s always a human cost and I’m sure it won’t take long for Edwards to suss it out.

Eccleshare says there is no need to read the rites for JWT because there is "no corpse" to bury. He’s probably right. The relevance of the JWT brand seems to have died years ago. Its merger with Wunderman could be its reincarnation – the ultimate magic trick.

Jeremy Lee is contributing editor at Campaign

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