Finally, J Walter put to rest!

27 Nov,2018


By Prabhakar Mundkur


J Walter Thompson the agency which was first established in 1864, and celebrated its 150th anniversary with aplomb in 2014 is finally putting James Walter Thompson the founder to rest. In 2005, the agency tried to rid itself of any connection with its founder by rechristening the agency to its initials JWT, which involved a logo change from the earlier famous signature of its founder.  That seemed like an effort to tear away from its past.  In the process it might have lost some of its charm.  But on its 150th anniversary good sense prevailed and Sir Martin Sorrell decided to rechristen the agency as J Walter Thompson because he thought the name was immensely powerful.


Now finally with the merger announced yesterday by WPP with Wunderman to make it Wunderman Thompson, the ad agency finally puts the first two names of its founder to rest.  In some ways, the merger and the double-barreled name reflect changing times for the ad agency business.  It is no coincidence that the merged entity has been named Wunderman Thompson rather than Thompson Wunderman.  Neither is it a surprise that Mel Edwards earlier CEO of Wunderman is the global CEO of the merged entity and will have operational control of the merged entity. And Tamara Ingram the global CEO of JWT has been relegated to the position of Chairman of the combined entity, always a less active and more ceremonial role.   It is a clear signal to the marketing industry that the ad agency is now playing second fiddle in the communication business.


WPP earlier did the same with Y & R when it merged it with VML a digital marketing agency in the WPP group.  By calling the new entity VMLY&R it reiterated that the ad agency was probably no longer as important as it earlier was.


But with this new merger and name change, we lose over 150 years of the J Walter Thompson heritage.  Its culture, its many innovative firsts in the advertising business, its prominent place as the University of Advertising and last but not least its status as the inventor of strategic planning thanks to the famous Stephen King.


So, what does the future hold?


Certainly, it does seem that Wunderman will lead the merger.  Wunderman was founded in 1958 by the Wunderman brothers and has over the years transformed itself from a direct marketing shop to a modern digital agency. Mike Reed now CEO of WPP, is known to have steered Wunderman to its current position of ‘creative driven, data inspired’ in his earlier stint as CEO of Wunderman.  His affection for Wunderman is therefore quite natural given his earlier acquaintance.   He once defended the onslaught of the consulting businesses into the communication arena by differentiating Wunderman as, “We are different from Accenture. We are creative”.


In many ways, the new merger in theory at least would be a very powerful entity with both digital and traditional marketing skills.  But the advertising business has yet to prove beyond doubt that integrating balance sheets necessarily lead to integration of diversity in communication skills. Sir Martin’s famous coinage of “horizontality “has remained more or less an admirable mission rather than transformed into regular practice.


One can’t therefore help but wonder if JWT and Wunderman continue to operate as two different silos under one merged name.  It would certainly be a pity if it did.  What is intriguing is that if this is the model of the future for communication businesses, will the other large groups like Publicis, Denstu Aegis, Omnicom and Interpublic follow?  That’s a million-dollar question.


We will need to wait and see!



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