A few weeks ago, WPP announced the merger of their ad agency J Walter Thompson and digital agency Wunderman. It’s the latest in a sequence of similar mergers. WPP themselves had earlier brought together its other agency networks Y&R and Ogilvy with their respective near-partners in recent years.
According to Wikipedia, J. Walter Thompson was incorporated in 1864 and is the world’s best known advertising agency. I doubt that, but somehow, to admen of my, ahem, generation there’s something poignant about the passing (and, let’s face it, that is what it is) of the venerable old JWT.
At very least, it inspires me to a bit of quasi-nostalgia. In the 1980s, as a young aspiring advertising person, I hoped beyond hope to get a chance to work at the famous J. Walter Thompson. They were, to my mind, the best agency in the land. They had a wonderful (see what I did there) portfolio of the best, most thoughtful, most effective, most popular and most iconic campaigns in the industry.
There was The Oxo Family – a first for showing the ‘warts and all’ dis-harmony of real family life. But executed with charm and a crucial ‘smile of recognition’.
There was The Andrex Puppy – Britain’s most popular campaign according to poll after poll in the trade and consumer press. And winner of the IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix, for those of you who like that sort of thing.
There was Persil – the epitome of a brand that had understood and segmented its audience. If you were analytical about the science of laundry products you identified with P&G’s Ariel but if you cared deeply about being a Mum, you were a Persil person. The advertising wasn’t about how a detergent worked, nor even about clean clothes. It was about how it feels to care for your kids.
There were The Philadelphia Girls – a campaign featuring two up and coming comediennes, which spawned a sit-com for goodness sake. Not a very good one, admittedly, but there you are.
Even the giant Kellogg’s business had its iconic elements, with kids’ properties like Tony the Tiger for Frosties, Snap, Crackle and Pop for Rice Krispies. Even mainstream ‘staple’ like Corn Flakes and Bran Flakes had campaigns which you’d remember twenty later.
Some of our best loved actors cut their teeth in JWT’s campaigns. Lynda Bellingham, as Oxo Mum, Maureen Lipman as Beattie in the BT ads. I even recall casting a young James Nesbitt in a Corn Flakes ad sometime around 1993.
Al of this was underpinned by a history which boasted the ‘co-inventor’ of Account Planning, Stephen King (not that one) and the avuncular Jeremy Bullmore (pictured above outside the iconic Berkeley Square offices), whose brilliant writing originally inspired me to want to work in the business in the first place. His book Behind the Scenes in Advertising is still the best I have read on the subject.
Hence it’s no surprise to learn that Thompson’s was the biggest, most successful agency in the UK around the late 80s and through the 90s. They vied with Saatchi & Saatchi for top spot through those years. The two agencies also represented diametrically opposing cultures. JWT was ‘The University of Advertising’ which boasted a system and a rigor behind everything it did. ‘Grand Strategy’ was how King described its school of Planning (not to be confused with ‘ad-tweaking’ which was what other agencies did under that title). Saatchi on the other hand espoused the ‘Nothing is Impossible’ mantra, which perfectly summarized their pragmatic ‘make it up as you go along’ approach. Saatchis also believed creativity came ahead of everything, whereas JWT put great store by the marketing and strategic integrity of their brands before creativity ever entered the equation.
The prevailing internal culture was unique too. JWT, as recently as the 90s, was all pin stripe suits, Oxbridge and posh accents. The impression created was of gents who owned large swathes of land accompanied by ladies who had graduated from the exclusive secretarial colleges and a Swiss finishing school. People referred to popular expressions drawn from the Thompson’s folklore such as “can you afford to send your daughter to JWT?”
So all in all, JWT was a big part of the history and a major driving force in the ad business over the late twentieth century. And a significant contributor to British culture of the day. I was lucky enough to work there for most of the 1990s. My time included stints on all of the brands described earlier, except Oxo. I say ‘lucky’ because I earnestly believed I was part of the best team in the industry, but in truth, it was a horrible place to work, full of high-level office politics and backstabbing. I was hired by one Head of Department and in the month it took to work my notice before joining, he had been replaced by a ‘new star’ imported from a trendier agency. The new guy interviewed me all over again and happily I still had a job. He rejoiced in the observation that JWT was an environment free from politics. A year later he had been ousted in a battle for a senior role which he wanted but had been awarded to a more effective Machiavellian player. Nice place.
In recent years its reputation had been tarnished by a very public sexism scandal (L’Affaire Martinez) and some politically incorect staffing ratios.
On the other hand, the output was always top notch in those days. This was what advertising should be – ideas to spawn campaigns that endured for decades.
Here are a few more favourites from the Golden Age, for good measure: