8 J. Walter Thompson Innovations That Helped Shape the Ad Industry

By Erik Oster 

The Commodore has finally retired.

While WPP’s merger of J. Walter Thompson and Wunderman isn’t exactly the end for JWT, it does spell goodbye to a name that has helped define the advertising industry for well over a century.


JWT’s innovations began early and have been so instrumental that it’s hard to imagine the industry as we know it without them.

-In the 1880s, J. Walter Thompson pioneered the concept of a creative department employing writers and artists to create advertising content for clients, thereby replacing in-house departments. The development has defined advertising agencies ever since—even if some clients are now starting to see benefits in developing in-house creative teams.

-In 1899, JWT expanded to the U.K. with the founding of JWT London, becoming the first U.S. advertising agency to expand internationally en route to establishing a global footprint. While this was likely an inevitability of expanding markets, the agency deserves credit for its role in establishing a blueprint for international expansion.

-In the early 20th century, JWT was a pioneer when it comes to women in advertising. The agency hired Helen Lansdowne Resor, the industry’s first female copywriter, in 1908. She went on to become a vice president at the agency and her “A skin you love to touch” campaign for Woodbury’s Facial Soap is widely regarded as the first to employ sex appeal, opening the floodgates that led to the (now-disputed) maxim that “sex sells.”

She also married then-president Stanley B. Resor in 1917. Both are now in the Advertising Hall of Fame.

-A 1919 print ad for Libby was the first to include a recipe, and in 1922 JWT introduced ruler markings on the packaging of Swift & Co. lard, which became an industry standard for all butter, margarine and lard products.

-The same year, JWT introduced the celebrity testimonial in an ad for Ponds. Three years later, the agency pioneered the use of photography (rather than illustrations) in advertising with a campaign for the same brand.

-You can thank JWT for the grilled cheese as well … allegedly.

The agency claims to have invented the American comfort food staple in a campaign for Kraft and at the very least popularized it to the point of creating it as a cultural mainstay. JWT produced one of television’s first hour-long dramatic series, “Kraft Television Theater,” for the brand in 1947. In 1953, the agency again made broadcast history for Kraft, creating the first-ever commercials for foods filmed in color.

-In 1968, JWT once again revolutionized how agencies worked with clients, introducing the first planning department under the leadership of Stephen King.

-JWT also introduced comparative advertising, and struck the first blow in the burger wars, with a 1982 print ad for Burger King. Here’s a later example of the same practice from the following year.

While not the industry-shaping revelations of the agency’s past, recent innovations include a 2013 campaign making Kit Kat the first candy bar sent to space, a Cannes Grand Prix-winning campaign for ING that involved AI painting like Rembrandt, and a 2017 campaign in which JWT helped Northwell Health develop an amphibious prosthetic leg.

Now let’s see what Wunderman Thompson will do over the next 154 years.