JWT’s ‘Fast Company’ story full of surprises

How come we were the last to know that JWT is in the midst of a great comeback? And that New York co-president Rosemarie Ryan looks so frightening in construction garb and pumps that we might avoid a certain stretch of Lexington Avenue in future, lest we run into her? (See picture from the story at left.) In a current cover story in Fast Company (click here for a PDF) chock full of surprises, JWT—in particular, the New York office—is positioned as the unheralded turnaround champion of Madison Avenue. We were pretty surprised, too, to see Ryan and office co-president Ty Montague touted as "Shakeup Artists: Dragging Madison Ave. into the 21st Century," considering that in the last few months, sources we trust didn’t exactly give the shop a shout-out. (Not that we fault Montague or Ryan for trying.) In fact, the linchpins of the Fast Company story seem to be a couple of sledgehammers used to knock down the office walls and one nifty campaign for JetBlue, which, while one of our faves, does hardly a J. Walter Turnaround make. Having gotten that off our chests, let’s explore some details that the piece gets if not dead wrong, then not quite right. At a Feb. 28, 2005, staff meeting, Ryan and Montague may have used the phrase "billion-dollar startup" to describe the shop’s attempt at embracing entrepreneurialism, but it wasn’t originally theirs. We traced it to a story nearly two years earlier, when it was uttered by Bob Jeffrey, then president of North America, before Ryan and Montague were even hired. (Sorry, it’s in the Adweek subscription archive if you want to access it.) To hear this piece tell it, Jeffrey, though now JWT chairman/CEO, sounds lucky to even have an office. Not only is he (peculiarly) not quoted in the piece, but when Montague and Ryan are depicted literally tearing the walls down, it’s explained that the duo was "stripping everyone but Jeffrey and the payroll department of their private offices."  Um, who’s the boss here? Another shocker: that BBDO is "the other behemoth Madison Avenue shop that’s on a mission to reinvent itself." Strange. We thought that most big, traditional agencies were trying to reinvent themselves. There’s also a claim that JWT New York didn’t win any accounts in 2002 and 2003. No one will look back on those as the New York office’s best years, but it did win the $30 million Novell business in September 2002. But what’s perhaps oddest about the story is that in the end, it apologizes for its enthusiasm, as if the magazine, too, weren’t quite sure of what kind of story it had. It describes "mounting frustration … that the outside world hasn’t witnessed the transformation." Then, following a derisive quote from an unidentified search consultant, who says, "I don’t see it happening," the story contends that "the primary reason she hasn’t seen it is that, apart from the JetBlue campaign, most of the work done under Montague won’t appear until the second half of the year." We’d like to believe that’s why we’re just not getting it. And, curmudgeons though we are, we still like to see agencies try to change, even when it seems all they might be doing is channeling Jay Chiat by tearing down walls. But Montague joined JWT in January 2005. Which, if the above is true, means it’s taken him a year and a half to crank out a couple of ads. UPDATE: It’s only fair to point out that moments after we posted this item, JWT won $200 million in additional assignments from Kimberly-Clark which will be handled by the New York and London offices.

—Posted by Catharine P. Taylor