William Eccleshare on the magic of JWT and the end of an era

Former JWT London boss puts merger with Wunderman in historical perspective.

I absolutely don’t want to read the last rites when there’s no corpse to bury and when a bright future awaits Wunderman Thompson, which has been created by the merger of J Walter Thompson and Wunderman.

But such has been the noise on JWT’s informal alumni network this week, I find it impossible to resist Campaign’s invitation to wallow in a bit of unabashed nostalgia for one of the greatest agency brands.

For me – and many others – life really did begin at 40.

40 Berkeley Square. Home to JWT London for more than half-a-century.

During its heyday – which lasted far longer than those 50-plus years – the J Walter Thompson Company, as it styled itself, had a unique and enviable brand positioning.

When I joined in the late 1970s, it was not just the biggest agency in town, it was also unarguably the best.

Saatchi & Saatchi was coming up fast behind, other start-ups always threatened, but the University of Advertising (a tag we never used ourselves, but never discouraged others from using) was undoubtedly special. Why?

Like any great brand, it was distinctive.

We had Stephen King, who almost single-handedly invented account planning.

We had Jeremy Bullmore, who as creative director and then chairman, presided over a uniquely popular and intelligent style of advertising that both respected and entertained its audience. Think of Guinness, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Oxo, Black Magic, Persil, Andrex…

We had history and heritage dating back to James Webb Young, who wrote How to Become an Advertising Man. 

We had account groups where creatives, planners, media planners and reps ('account representatives' was a uniquely JWT name for account execs) worked as real teams to grow our clients’ businesses.

We also had culture.

Cultured and intellectually curious

JWT’s culture was, well, cultured. I remember, fresh from Cambridge, being overwhelmed by the sense that I was working with intellectually curious people who thought and cared about their world.

Jeremy would say that good ad people were those who read and enjoyed every section of The Sunday Times and that remark seemed to me to reflect the tone of the place. 

We weren’t David Ogilvy’s "Gentlemen with Brains". We immodestly believed we were smarter than that. 

That, in turn, gave the agency the skill and confidence to build even better and more enduring brands and businesses for its clients.

JWT was no ad factory; brands such as After Eight, Mr Kipling and many others were created by the agency after deep analysis of clients’ commercial needs. This was true full service with lasting relationships that left little room for consultants or other advisors.   

But there was more than that. JWT London’s culture was, I was once told, based on the military. Rank and title mattered. There were wonderfully arcane traditions whereby associate directors had one star in the phone book, senior associates got two and board members were full, three-star generals. 

When you got promoted, you’d receive hand-written notes of congratulations from people you’d never met. The nameplate on your door would miraculously change from brown plastic to satin aluminium. A well-stocked drinks cabinet would arrive in your office.

There was a bar reserved for directors only. We had the best catering in all of adland – first in Hill Street, then Hays Mews, where clients and prospects never left hungry or sober.

Myths and legends

And, of course, we had wonderful myths and legends.

One of my favourites was the story of how a departing director had been asked what he wanted for a leaving present.

A fabulous modern art collection with Hockneys, Bawdens and Caulfields covered our walls. The retiree nonchalantly suggested the picture of his office wall might be "a nice memento".

The agency felt if prudent to have Sotheby’s put a price on it. "Oh," the valuer said, "we don’t need to look at the picture, Mr X brought it in last week for a valuation."  

You could pretty much guarantee stories like that emerging over the third glass of port late into a client dinner.

I loved all my years at JWT. I once tried to leave – lured by a Golf GTI and a wad of cash (this was the 1980s). I was summoned to the managing director’s office. "I can’t offer you a motor car," he purred. "I can’t offer you more money.  But I can offer you the magic of J Walter Thompson." I stayed another 12 years.

Staying relevant

Enough of the affectionate memories! All of that misses the real point, which was how JWT, exhibiting another characteristic of the best brands, evolved and kept pace with the changing world of advertising.

For most of its 150 years, JWT consistently changed to remain current and relevant.

In my first week, I remember receiving an all-staff memo announcing the arrival of the company’s second fax machine.

More seriously, the agency was rightly proud of innovations such as having the first TV department explore the opportunities of ITV’s launch in 1955. Or its "home economics" kitchen to develop new products for its many food clients. 

It wasn’t afraid of technology, either. In the 1980s, there was a main-frame computer that took up almost a whole floor. 

The agency built a strong direct marketing business, embraced "total communications" and, more recently, fully embraced the brave new world of digital communications and data-based marketing. 

Perhaps this last shift was just one step too far?

Long after I left JWT, I was chairman of Young & Rubicam and Wunderman Europe.

Y&R has of course also recently been subsumed in a new string of initials, but there’s no doubt that Wunderman is another truly distinctive agency brand and that Lester Wunderman, its founder, was a true innovator in direct marketing.

How these two great brands will work together is anyone’s guess. History would tell us that one has to prevail but there’s surely no reason why JWT’s core values can’t continue to flourish.

The power of storytelling

I fully understand the imperative to drive efficiency and I’ve attended far too many conferences addressing the challenges of the broken "agency model".

Of course, data is at the heart of everything marketers do today and, as a former McKinsey partner, I know why WPP says its new merged shop will be a "provider of end-to-end solutions through creative, data commerce and consulting partners".

But JWT taught us the importance of great storytelling and the power of the idea.

So the challenge will be how you deliver on merging a genuinely great creative and planning legacy with class-leading expertise in data and technology. I’ve no doubt it can be done. The new agency has some of the best talent in the business and I would absolutely bet on its success.

But, for me, and I know for many other former JWTers, do please forgive us if, this week, we shed a tiny tear for the end of an era and for somewhere that has a special place in our hearts and our histories.   

William Eccleshare is chairman and chief executive of Clear Channel International. He is a former managing director of JWT London and former chairman and chief executive of Y&R/Wunderman EMEA.

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