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VMLY&R Wunderman Thompson Agency Culture

VML boss on how the network is shaping up 100 days into its mega-merger


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

April 10, 2024 | 10 min read

There’s no such thing as a seamless agency merger, right? Well, global chief exec Jon Cook begs to differ.

VML CEO Jon Cook on stage in front of VML employees in the NYC office

Jon Cook, who's been at WPP for nearly three decades, says he feels like he's just 'at the beginning' of his work at VML / VML

It’s been 100 days since VMLY&R merged with Wunderman Thompson – a major undertaking by WPP, the world’s largest advertising holding company, that brought nearly 30,000 employees across 64 markets together under the unified banner of VML.

The idea? To unify talent and resources into a powerhouse entity dedicated to delivering best-in-class creative, customer experience and commerce to the world’s biggest brands.

And while M&A activity so often gives way to fraught cultural shifts, operational redundancies and layoffs, by the account of VML’s global chief exec Jon Cook, the transition has been relatively smooth.

“It’s been fantastic. People are really rallying,” he says. “Everybody just loves the simplicity of it and the energy – the energy is great. It’s been really lucky that people are in a very good, positive frame of mind.”

One of the unofficial markers of the merger’s success, he jokes, is the prevalence of VML-branded apparel he sees employees sporting. “It’s those little things that [help you] see the pride of it and remember that it's not just a management exercise, but a full-on agency.”

The transition into VML has been so streamlined, Cook says, in large part because there was a significant amount of overlap of knowledge, experience – and even clientele – across VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson already. Both agencies, for example, handled work for Coca-Cola, Dell, Ford, Colgate-Palmolive, Microsoft and Nestlé.

Plus, both organizations had previously undergone mergers of their own – experiences that Cook believes helped prepare the two entities for their marriage, which was announced last October and made official on January 1. In 2018, WPP brought together digital advertising firm VML with creative agency Young & Rubicam to establish VMLY&R. In the same year, digital-focused Wunderman linked up with legacy agency J. Walter Thompson to form Wunderman Thompson.

Now, he says, the organization is largely “settled.” Leadership roles have been solidified at this point, and Cook is especially proud of how key decision-makers have worked in unison thus far. “I’m really pleased with the leaders of VML for making [their work so] collaborative. That has set a good tone.”

But it’s not just VML’s workforce embracing the change.

In the six months since the merger was announced, the agency has won a handful of new work. Krispy Kreme appointed VML as its agency of record in early December. Less than two weeks later, the agency snagged the strategy and creative business for Unilever-owned ice-cream brand Breyers. And in January, VML expanded its relationship with telecom business Telefónica across Latin America.

Of course, it’s not smooth sailing all the time. The most challenging adjustment, in Cook’s telling, has been managing operational integrations between teams.

“There are some different systems at VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson,” he explains. “[Unifying and optimizing those systems] will take longer, but I’ve always [stressed the idea] that if you’re going to have challenges, have them be things that have to do with operations or mechanics.”

His strategy? “Put the premium on people knowing one another first, on caring about each other, having awareness of each other, being empathetic. Then, figuring out all the stuff that is going to be challenging, like systems, is just that much easier.”

Looking ahead, Cook sees a number of valuable opportunities for growth. He’s keeping pace with changes happening in AI and emerging tech. And he’s got his eye on election cycles around the globe that, in his estimation, will reverberate in many untold ways across adland.

He also flags the healthcare category as an especially promising space for VML. “Healthcare marketing, which is such a big part of our industry, is also a huge part of VML. Now, because both [VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson] had a lot of health experience, we’ve had just an amazing amount of success in winning and growing in health right off the bat. It is definitely an area where being together has been better and having more weaponry has translated into growth right from the beginning.”

At the heart of Cook’s vision for the future of VML, however, remains the original driver for the merger – the unification of three distinct practices: advertising and brand storytelling, or what the agency calls “brand experience”; customer experience; and commerce. In Cook’s conception, this three-pronged approach expands the definition of creativity by pushing it into new realms.

“There are a lot of agencies that think creative is just in the brand experience part of the agency, and everything else is technology,” he says. “Our feeling is that creativity goes across brand experience, customer experience and commerce. That’s why we built the company. And that’s where we’ve seen a lot of success. It’s expanding the notion of creativity.”

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Cook points to VML’s evolving relationship with Wendy’s as an example of the successful application of these unified principles. The fast food giant awarded its full creative account to VML in 2016, before the agency merged with Young & Rubicam, and has been with the company through its two subsequent mergers.

Over the years, the agency evolved the Wendy’s brand and produced award-winning creative to boot. But it wasn’t until the last two years or so, according to Cook, that the team at VMLY&R began to dig deeper into how it could expand “in a more connected way.” Since then, the team has invested more in customer experience as well as in retail and commerce – how customers actually shop and transact at Wendy’s. “It’s a good example of a longtime ‘advertising’ account that has grown not by shrinking the advertising portion or the brand experience portion, but by adding capability,” Cook says.

Ultimately, he believes that this idea – expanding creativity beyond traditional advertising and into the areas of customer experience and commerce – “might be proxy for the need of a lot of CMOs and marketing organizations who are being asked to put their product or their customer experience closer to their marketing and closer to the way they sell.”

Cook says deploying this framework across the newly unified VML and integrating it into client accounts will be “a good indicator” of the merger's success when he looks back in January 2025.

But his aspirations for VML, currently ranked the #2 network in the World Creative Rankings, go much further. “I really want VML to be respected … for being a company that has a very notable history and legacy … but also to be a beacon for where advertising and where our industry is going,” he says. “We have a chance to be that redefiner of creativity and redefiner of what an agency is. And we have a chance to do that at scale around the world.”

As far as his own personal story at VML goes, Cook looks ahead with exuberance.

“I feel like a young person, but I've been at VML for 28 years, so I’m probably one of the longest-tenured WPP people, and certainly one of the longest VML people. But I can truthfully say that I’ve never been more excited about being here than right now. People think that somebody who’s been somewhere a long time must be tired or must be at the end of [forward-looking] thinking. I truly feel like I’m at the beginning. It’s all pretty new and exciting.”

He attributes much of his optimism about the future of VML to a gratitude for what it has been to him over his nearly three decades at the company. “[This company] is made up of people that are some of my closest friends in life,” he says. And Cook’s closest friends are not just old colleagues from VMLY&R, he says, but also many Wunderman Thompson employees and new friends he’s making in the wake of the merger.

“Corporate America can get away from that – especially big agencies. And holding companies can look like big supertankers,” he says. “But the secret is, strong agencies that live in holding companies … are made up of great people. None of us would be here if we didn’t love working together.”

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