JWT’s ‘Inmates’ Take Over

The January night before Eric Steinhauser and Nat Whitten were named to lead J. Walter Thompson’s creative department, the team crafted a print ad touting their philosophy. True to their respective personalities, “Towards a Utopian Agency” is a mix of the uplifting (Eric) and irreverent (Nat).

Promoting Steinhauser to ecd and Whitten to deputy ecd was putting “a couple of inmates in charge of the asylum,” the red and black copy read. “Which, when you think about it, is absolutely nuts. Crazy. Crackers. And just what this 140-year-old agency needs. A jolt of the unexpected.”

Two months later, the pair explains their thinking. JWT must become “more provocative” to compete creatively, says Whitten, a freelance cd at the shop since 1998. Admits Steinhauser, a group head who joined in 2000: “We can help the creative work, and we will.” Both acknowledge that changing the culture at a shop that has been account-management driven will be a difficult challenge.

Last fall, worldwide CEO Bob Jeffrey signaled that the $1.4 billion shop needed to become more nimble and entrepreneurial when he reached outside to a smaller, scrappier agency to recruit Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners’ Rosemarie Ryan as president. But when it came to replacing Mike Campbell, chief creative officer since February 2001, Jeffrey and Ryan opted for insiders familiar with the 125-person department.

They were looking for more consistent creative and better new-business performance. Campbell helped grow the agency with wins such as Domino’s $100 million account in 2002 and turned out irreverent, quirky work for Trident and Ragú. But for Jeffrey, it wasn’t quite enough—and it was Ryan’s prerogative to chose her creative partners.

“We’re kind of optimist-pessimist, humanitarian-existentialist—and somehow it works, because it creates something in the middle,” says Whitten of his partnership with Steinhauser, whom he met at JWT while working on Merrill Lynch. Whitten identifies himself as the pessimist-existentialist of the pair.

In their first days as creative leaders, Steinhauser, 46, and Whitten, 43, hosted two agencywide meetings, riffing from their manifesto. Steinhauser, a polished and energetic speaker, stirred up the troops while Whitten cracked a few jokes. In an effort to stimulate creativity, the two have since started monthly rap sessions where creatives talk about how their passions shape their work. For his part, Whitten likes to paint, write plays and novels, and listen to music with his 3-year-old son. Steinhauser, the son of renowned DDB art director Bert Steinhauser, spends his down time with his kids, ages 9 and 12, often while skiing or snowboarding.

Besides his dad, Steinhauser’s mentors included Bob Lenz, Bob Muri, Bill Backer and Bob Giraldi at Backer & Spielvogel. He worked as an art director and then a cd at the shop from 1980-93, taking a hand in Miller Lite’s long-running “All-Stars” campaign. After a year-long stint as a director at Limelight USA, Steinhauser joined Y&R, working under Gordon Bowen on AT&T and crafting spots such as 1997’s Emmy-nominated “College Freshman.”

Whitten spent his early years as a copywriter at Chiat/Day in New York, where he worked under Bill Hamilton, who would later recruit him to JWT. At Weiss, Whitten, the now-defunct shop he co-founded, Whitten worked on ads such as 1996’s “Senses” spot for Guinness, showing an anxious bar patron awaiting his beer, and Bass Ale’s 1997 “Bootlicker” print ad.

After his promotion, Whitten invited staffers to check out his book—not to show off but to get to know his team better. Partner, acd Garth Horn describes it as, “You’re working with me. You have every right to know what I’m about.”

The meetings are a part of Whitten and Steinhauser’s attempt to create more give-and-take within the department. “They talk to you; they want your opinion,” says partner, acd Howard Lenn, hired by Steinhauser in 2002. “It’s very much a collaborative creative process.”

Whitten says he has great confidence in the team. “There are a lot of adults here, and a lot of them have worked at very good places,” he notes. “These are not people who’ve been sheltered. These are people who have client contact and are able to go and do it.”

Recently, Whitten has been focusing on new business and Steinhauser on Novell, Domino’s and Lipton Cup-a-Soup, for which JWT created the first TV ads in more than 20 years. Steinhauser points to the spots, directed by Bryan Buckley, and Smirnoff’s “Life is calling. Where are you?” campaign as evidence the shop does better work than it’s given credit for.

The goal now, says Whitten, is to compete creatively with shops “you can rely on,” such as Wieden + Kennedy and Goodby, Silverstein. To get to that point, Steinhauser says he wants to see “a free flow of passionate ideas.” His ideal is a culture that urges creatives to “stand up and scream out what they believe in.”

“Which means you have to have things you believe in,” interjects Whitten. “This business is about bringing culture to clients and translating it. I think [Goodby’s Rich] Silverstein said, ‘Get your nose out of a One Show book and go ride a bicycle.’ We want to get people riding bicycles more here.”