Feature

Goodbye, J Walter: 154 years of JWT creative

Staff and clients may survive unscathed after WPP completes its merger of JWT and Wunderman, but one posthumous casualty is James Walter Thompson, who, after 154 years, will lose full eponymy when his agency is renamed Wunderman Thompson. The Drum takes a look back on the creative legacy he kickstarted.

James Walter Thompson, one of the pioneers of advertising, was born in 1847 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. After serving as a marine in the Civil War, he traded life on the seas for a life on a flatplan when he began selling advertising space at broker Carlton & Smith. He later purchased the company for $500 (and its furniture for $800) and renamed it after himself – abbreviating James to J because James Thompson was too ubiquitous a name.

The agency selected an owl clutching a lamp as its talisman to represent wisdom and clarity of vision.

It was in the 1880s, when industrialization picked up pace the world over, that Thompson realized artists and writers could create ads that were better than the bland, factual announcements printed in the day’s papers. He also realized he could sell more ads if he offered to make them for clients himself, and thus the creative department was born.

By 1889, the founder was claiming that 80% of advertising in the US was placed by J Walter Thompson New York. A decade later, JWT opened up shop in London, making the network the first to expand internationally. And in 1908 it hired copywriter Helen Lansdowne, commonly considered advertising’s first female creative director. She paved the way for veterans such as the first female senior vice-president, Charlotte Beers, who was once dubbed the most powerful woman in the industry, and current global chief executive Tamara Ingram.

One of JWT’s most enduring relationships was with Prudential Insurance. In 1897, the agency introduced the Rock of Gibraltar as the symbol of Prudential Insurance. That symbol, though it has gone through many iterations over the decades, is still used by the company.

In 1902, the agency picked up Unilever as a client when it produced a range of seafaring print ads (vaguely reminiscent of Thompson’s past career) advertising Lifebuddy soap. Kraft joined the client list in 1922, followed by Nestlé in 1923. Shell was signed in 1928, the year that Thompson died and commercial TV was born.

Keeping it fresh for these long-term clients hasn't been easy, but for some accounts it's consistency that has been the key to their success.

Ever since the phrase 'Have a Break…Have a KitKat' was first uttered in 1957, the brand has carved out a niche as the chocolaty snack to have when you’re taking a break. It’s since gone global, with KitKats acting as sushi in Japan, celebrating football in the UK, and defying gravity in South Africa, making the ‘Break’ ads known by people on nearly every continent.

While KitKat has served up plenty of stunts, including one that had people – and London’s Tower Bridge – switching off their lights for an hour, one of its most subtle ‘Break’ ads came during the holidays a few years ago.

No candy was featured in a video that showed a blank screen with just a voice over stating that it was giving people a break by offering “absolutely nothing” for a change.

JWT also first got us hooked on hot dogs, with the earworm jingle, ‘I Wish I Were an Oscar Mayer Wiener’ in 1963. It was followed up in 1974 with the uber-cute Andy Lambros singing the song, ‘My Bologna Has a First Name, It's O-S-C-A-R’, which continued to run in different forms for over a decade.

Meanwhile, JWT’s work for 7-Up in the late 1960s epitomized the art direction of the era, arguably to the point of satire. The colorful ‘Uncola’ positioning continued into the '70s and '80s, headed up by Trinidadian-American actor Geoffrey Holder in a long-running TV campaign.

Other memorable moments from the time that style forgot included the creation of the ‘I'm a Toys’R’Us Kid’ jingle and Burger King’s first blow in the ring with McDonald’s. But the biggest news was internal: a former Saatchis bean counter by the name of Martin Sorrell snapped up the legacy agency for WPP in 1987.

JWT continued to expand internationally throughout the arrival of digital and the dotcom bubble, but it was arguably its above-the-line TV and poster work that kept it front-of-mind for clients as it ran into a number of reputational blunders in the 21st century.

When the 2018 World Cup kicked off in Russia, its London office created a powerful poster campaign highlighting the link between soccer matches and incidences of domestic violence, which went viral as the tournament progressed.

Another strong example of activism in the agency's final year as J Walter Thompson came out of the US for Period Equity. Model and actor Amber Rose appeared in what seemed to be a jewelry ad, but what was actually advertising a delicately designed tampon holder. It brought attention to the fact that more than half of the states across the US collect sales tax on tampons and pads, which Period Equity says makes a woman’s period a luxury, rather than a necessity.

At the turn of the 20th century, Thompson boldly announced that "Any spot on earth where goods are to be sold by advertising is inside the fence of the Thompson field."

Now, the gate has been opened for Wunderman, too.