Bob Jeffrey brought advertising company J Walter Thompson into the heavyweight division when he re-branded it as JWT. Steve Coomber meets the man making it a knock-out success.
Bob Jeffrey is a man who enjoys keeping fit; outside of his day job he likes to indulge in the sweet science, a spot of pugilism at one of New York City's many boxing gyms. But Jeffrey has not had much time for boxing in the last few years; he has been too busy knocking JWT – once the undisputed pound-for- pound champion of the advertising world – back into the kind of shape where it can once again take on all comers for creative bragging rights in the advertising industry.
When Jeffrey was appointed as worldwide CEO and chairman in January 2004, J Walter Thompson, as it was then, had the reputation of being something of a journeyman firm in the advertising world; technically competent, but lacking the creative spark and nimble footwork of some of its rivals.
But Jeffrey, steeped in the lore of Madison Avenue, a former executive at DDB and Chiat/Day, a man who counted advertising legends like Bill Bernbach and Jay Chiat as mentors, was well aware of J Walter Thompson’s proud tradition in advertising. He knew the agency was down, but not out; like many slightly down-at-heel brands it just needed some well thought-out updating.
It was also clear to Jeffrey when he took the job that there were some definite pluses. "On the positive side, the amazing thing about JWT was its client list; the agency had a client roster that included names like Ford, Unilever, Kellogg’s and Warner- Lambert," he says.
"Another plus was the global nature of the agency. We were global before it was popular to be global. And then there was the institutional approach to advertising. It had, at different points in time, been nicknamed "The University of Advertising" and there was something very solid and substantial about the brand."
Set against this, however, were some distinctly troubling negatives. "From the very beginning, the overarching negative in my mind was a lack of a clear commitment to the creative work," says Jeffrey. "For example, during the whole recruitment process I had been asking to look at a reel (of the agency’s work). And when I got here I was told that there was no reel, they created a different reel every time they needed one for a new business meeting.
"I grew up in cultures where there was always an agency reel, whether it was at my agency, which I ran for ten years, or at Chiat/Day, or DDB. So the lack of real passion about the work was probably one of the most striking things when I took up the job."
Another thing that struck Jeffrey was the huge focus on the traditional at this behemoth, 200-plus office agency. Jeffrey had come from working in Silicon Valley on Sun Microsystems and the internet. He had seen the future, and it was digital. At J Walter Thomson though, Jeffrey discovered that there really was no appetite, understanding or appreciation for the role of digital or non-traditional media and technology in advertising.
Many newly appointed CEOs make changes for change’s sake; marking out their territory. It might have appeared that was exactly what Jeffrey was doing when he set about shaking things up in his new role, because one of his first acts was to change the name of the agency from J Walter Thompson to JWT, no doubt at some considerable cost to the stationery budget.
On closer examination though, Jeffrey’s subtle alteration of the agency’s moniker is revealed as the canny move that it really is. "When I took over in 2004, I spent 60–70% of my time that year outside the US," says Jeffrey. "Because I was running New York and North America before that, I was very US-centric. And there was a view that, over the course of a decade, the company had become too US-centric.
So I spent a significant amount of time travelling, demonstrating my appreciation and interest, and making sure that I was attuned to the rest of the world. But also, on a more cultural level, I had come to the view that the US was no longer the epicentre of creativity, be it in advertising or in other categories of creativity, music, art, literature and film, and that a lot of interesting ideas were coming out of Latin America and Asia."
That was not the only important thing that Jeffrey learnt about the business in that first year. On his global voyage of discovery he began to glimpse some of the deep-seated issues in the agency that needed addressing. For example, he says, there was a feeling that the firm was not embracing the future.
"We are a company of 10,000 people and at that point there was a sense that there was no common theme, philosophy or vision for what JWT represented or what we were striving for," he says.
The use and representation of the agency’s name was symbolic of that incoherence and lack of direction. "The name was all over the place," says Jeffrey. "The official company name was J Walter Thompson, but in certain parts of the world we were JWT, in other parts Thompson’s, and yet others J Walter. So there was a complete breakdown in the branding, the identity and the graphics.
There wasn’t a global vision and certainly not a commitment to the creative reputation of the agency." Slightly unfortunate for a business in branding, you might think. Hence the subtle disassociation with the past and reshaping of the future as Jeffrey changed the name, creating a sense of cohesion.
"The advertising industry is one step short of the entertainment business. Our industry is obsessed with the new or the next thing. And we had become so mired in the past that I felt that I needed to radically jumpstart the view that JWT is not about the past, it's about the future," says Jeffrey.
"Yes we have a healthy regard for the past, but we’re not mired there, in the world of 30-second TV spots and print ads. We have the ambition to embrace and utilise all the new channels of communication that are available out there, particularly digital.
"So what the name change signalled, and why it was embraced as soon as we did it, was that JWT wants to be a forward-looking, contemporary brand – but at the same time we’re not walking away from our heritage." You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can certainly teach a rejuvenated advertising agency a thing or two. The challenge for Jeffrey was how to get JWT off the ropes and back into the centre of the ring. It was tough because it meant switching from traditional and safe to risky, innovative and creative. But Jeffrey found the perfect metaphor to help sell the JWT story – the billion dollar start-up.
Jeffrey has plenty of experience of the start-up ethos and culture. He tasted the go-getting mentality of the entrepreneur first-hand when starting his own agency, Goldsmith/Jeffrey, and also during his time involved in a start-up with Chiat/Day in New York. "Sometimes, when people work in a big company for a long period of time, it becomes easier to say no. It becomes easier to rationalise why you can’t do something," he says. "When you make the commitment to start a company, you never take no for an answer. You have a can-do attitude."
The start-up and entrepreneur is also a useful way to think about the kinds of people Jeffrey wants to be part of the new JWT story. "It’s not just about bringing people in to fill the rational side of a job description," he notes. "We want people who have a sense of courage, a sense of passion, a sense of curiosity. It goes back to pioneering. Pioneers go out and seek new territory and there’s not, necessarily, an agreed path on how they’re going to get there. And a lot of the people I’ve attracted here have a similar experience, the entrepreneurial start-up and that entrepreneurial passion and talent to work in a bigger environment."
And, if JWT is to succeed, Jeffrey understands that, along with the entrepreneurial zeal, there must be a flair for innovation, which is why he talks of a "dedication to innovation," and "driving for innovation and creativity in communication."
Snappy one-liners are comparatively easy to come by though. Creating a culture where innovation thrives is much tougher. You can hire talented people and stick them in an office space, but where does the magic come from? What’s the secret to creating an innovative workplace?
Fortunately for JWT, Jeffrey appears to have an innate understanding of what it takes. "It’s not an engineering-driven solution, where you go and buy some cool furniture, hire smart people and suddenly have an innovative environment," he says.
"Obviously, it starts with the people and with talent, but people need to know that it is okay to take a risk and, at times, it is okay to fail. If you are telling people to be creative and have passion, but there is no flexibility for a mistake, then it doesn’t allow you to create the right environment for people to be innovative. We have brought a lot of interesting people in and some of the more successful people, at various points, weren’t always that way. Having tolerance and coaching people to success is key."
You need more than a metaphor, boxing, entrepreneurial or otherwise, to fashion a winning billion dollar business, and Jeffrey has been hard at work implementing practical measures. As well as a new agency name there is new talent in the senior ranks, people like Guy Murphy, global planning director, and Harvey Marco, chief creative officer, JWT NY. Plus there’s a new emphasis on ideas, creativity and an embracing of new media and technology.
While it is still early days, the results are already very impressive. "We just had a great showing at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival; we won 39 Lions including a Grand Prix," says Jeffrey. "It’s our best success ever. Six or seven years ago we had very little at Cannes. So to win 39 Lions is a huge achievement. We are now ranked number four in the world."
As for the future? It may have been a long time coming, but thanks in large measure to Jeffrey, as they say in the ring - JWT is ready to rumble.