Wunderman Thompson: Pinning the tail on the donkey

25 Oct,2021



By Prabhakar Mundkur


Prabhakar MundkurSir Martin Sorrell when asked what he thought of the Wunderman-JWT merger had once used a euphemism in his characteristic style when he said: “So in a way, and I will probably be chastised for saying that, but Wunderman would be like pinning the tail on the donkey here.” Of course his comment was on the Indian market, where JWT was a giant and Wunderman a little, fledging marketing services agency. Unfortunately, many other markets faced the same situation.


Thompsonites, which normally refers to JWT employees and alummi who are still very much in love with the agency, shed a few silent tears to mourn the merger three years ago. After all, JWT left a huge impression on the world – in fact often known as the University of Advertising.


First established in 1864, no doubt old Commodore J Walter Thompson must have done a few backward flips in pain in his grave. It was not just the merger but the ignominy of it. I have always wondered if the Thompson employees in the merger felt like losers?


Everyone knows that there are possibly only three alternatives to a post-merger branding situation.


:: Adopt the name of the stronger brand for the merger. When US Airways merged with America West, its executives decided to retire America West. Made sense since US Airways was the stronger brand. Or when DHL acquired Airborne Express. Incidentally, I think JWT was the stronger brand in this particular case.

:: Using the best of both brands. Wunderman Thompson falls in this category. But the first name of the double barrelled name, normally means that the first name is the horse they are backing. Considering the relative fame of JWT and Wunderman and their relative sizes it was a bit of a surprise to the Thompsonite. While using both the names is a good strategy, usually which names comes first also signifies that there is a winner and a loser. In the Wunderman Thompson case clearly JWT was the loser.

:: The merger creates a new brand name and identity for the merged companies. Bell Atlantic’s merger with Nynex 2000 created Verizon for example.


I think what irked most Thompsonites was the backbench given to their favourite agency.


The redeeming feature of course was that given the relative sizes of JWT and Wunderman in India, the man incharge of the combined entity was Tarun Rai, earlier CEO of JWT, a deviation actually from the global formula where the merger was largely headed by the Wunderman chief. Thompsonites in India took some solace from that. But this fate has affected all the other great brand names in the WPP group as well. Y&R, Grey unfortunately have also had the short end of the stick. As a global rule, Mark Reed of WPP seems to have made the digital head the CEO of the merger. Has this preference or bias to do with the fact that Mark Reed himself was a Wunderman chief? Maybe.


A number of marketers do claim that while digital is growing by leaps and bounds, it is having a detrimental impact on creativity. A study by Simzek in 2018 which surveyed more than 500 marketers around the world suggests that the industry is still struggling to nail the marriage of digital advertising and powerful creative work. I can’t help feeling that the Wunderman-JWT merger is likely to have impacted the overall creative quality of the new agency. In the larger quest for digital to deliver on measurability, the quality of creative has often been suspect.


I have often also wondered how clients have reacted to the change over the last few years. My favourite clients Unilever, Kelloggs, to name a few, have always put good strategy and creative quality in the front. As an industry outsider now, I wonder how they are adjusting to the change.


With Tarun Rai taking up another assignment within the network, the last vestiges of a Thompson company in India blur into the distance. I of course wish Wunderman Thompson and its new leader the very best for the future. But clearly all the remnants of my Thompson memory have been as brutally deleted as when you reformat a hard disk. And all the wonderful JWT memorabilia of yesteryears that I carried with me perhaps now has no real heir.


I will give them a decent burial in my memory.


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