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J. Walter Thompson — As ‘Brand Custodian’ For Packaged Goods, A Once-Ailing Agency Cleans Up By Cathy Taylo

At the flagship New York office of J. Walter Thompson, the events of 1987 still resonate throughout the

Although it marked a low point for the agency (billings dropped to $330 million from a mid-’80s high of $525 million), the year also marked a turning point. Suddenly forced to think m new ways, JWT/New York got a head start on other big shops and the arduous changes they would later endure as the recession-racked industry downsized.
The biggest decision was to improve relationships with some long-term packagedgoods clients, whose strengths lay in products that would be marketed to an increasingly fragmented society.
This allowed JWT/New York to remake itself as a shop with “brand custodianship”—in the words of executive vp/U.S. director of strategic planning Peter Kim–over a wide portfolio of products. While Cool Mint Listerine and Mott’s apple sauce may not have the mass appeal of the Whopper, such assignments have given the agency steady growth.
In 1992, the roster of brands signing up with JWT/New York continued apace. All but one of its wins–new client Mott’s–came from current clients who had plenty of other shops to choose on rosters.
The list of additions includes Kodak cameras, the Pepsi/Lipton Tea Partnership, Clairol’s Loving Care, the agency-of-record spot buying assignment for Unilever and the $35-million Kellogg’s account from JWT’s Chicago office.
The leaders of the New York office trace its rebirth to the stewardship of JWT ceo Burr Manning, the industry’s foremost prodigal son, who returned at the behest of WPP ceo Sorrell in 1987. Says New York executive vp/ general manager Jim Heekin, “Bun brought back with him this sense of never being satisfied.”
Manning put New York in the hands of an unlikely grouping, including current JWT/North America chairman Jim Patterson, a copywriter by training with a flourishing fiction career on the side, former New York University professor Kim, and Heekin, a clean-shaven account manager right out of central casting.
“Initially, I don’t think any of us were drawn to one another at all,” recalls Patterson, who like Manning has been a commanding force at JWT since before the WPP takeover.
Upon entering 1988, JWT/New York developed a disciplined set of principles designed to produce great advertising. “We thought we needed them to give us momentum,” explains Kim.
So while the Wieden & Kennedys of the world were spouting such breezy axioms as “fun is good,” the already seriousminded people at JWT became even more serious.
The result was a series of interdisciplinary review boards designed to function as a son of quality control for each client. Strategy review boards–presided over by the perpetually demanding Patterson, Kim, Heekin and media director Emily Swartzentruber–became a requirement before the start of each client project.
Creative review boards, ruled by the same crew, became the norm for those about to show creative work to the client. And a business review board met periodically to examine the long-term possibilities of each client’s business.
Before the system was created, Warner-Lambert chairman/ceo Melvin R. Goodes said JWT was turning in one of the worst performances of any shop on its roster. He expressed this, and his concern about how the shop would operate under WPP ownership, to Sorrell. “We want (JWT) to be very responsive to our business and not be financially restricted,” Goodes said then.
Today, Goodes is pleased. JWT/New York has contributed to a number of Warner-Lambert successes, including the agency’s 1992 campaign for e.p.t, which featured real couples on camera as they received the results of a pregnancy test. The ads helped increase sales of the product by 30% in a category that grew only 13% last year.
Such achievememts underscore the claims by JWT executives that WPP’s woes aren’t much of a factor in the agency’s operations. As long as JWT/New York can meet its revenue numbers, the agency has much more leeway than it would if it were struggling. As a result, says one former JWT executive, those who do well at the shop continue to be handsomely compensated for their efforts.
Still, despite JWT/New York’s strong identification and success in packaged goods, there’s a certain wistfulness in Heekin’s voice when he talks about how he’d like the shop’s client list to look in the future. “Obviously I’d love to get a beer, I’d love to get a soda pop,” he says. For an agency that once handled Miller High Life, that thought suggests the time is ripe to apply its post-1987 principles to its pre-1987 client list.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)