A succession of account losses and changes to the management at JWT over the past three years have left the agency looking damaged. It appears to be adrift in the UK market, where clients have favoured hiring independents rather than networks and the number of big domestic pitches has dwindled.
But the appointment of Russell Ramsey, deputy executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, to replace Nick Bell, who was ousted at the start of the year, is seen as the boost that the agency’s confidence badly needs.
Ramsey, who will start at the agency in September after 17 years at BBH, is described as a creative with “proper craft skills”, and an observer adds: “He doesn’t waste words”. He is a former creative director on the Levi’s account, and more recently, he had headed the Audi business, which is praised for its multi-channel approach.
Ramsey’s arrival at JWT will reunite him with Guy Murphy, JWT global planning director and former deputy chairman at BBH, and Alison Burns, now JWT chief executive and also ex-BBH. “It is the beginning of a tight team,” says one senior advertising industry observer. “In its heyday, JWT was a tight team, so it is going in the right direction.”
This echoes the sentiments of Toby Hoare, JWT executive chairman, who says he is “more optimistic” than he was a year ago. He acknowledges that there has been a lot of criticism about Burns’ low profile, Bell’s departure and the lack of new business wins or even the odd appearance on a shortlist.
He adds: “JWT has been through a rough time. There have been problems with the management, but they have gone now. JWT is in a much better place, as Alison has established herself and her team, and she has got to grips with clients.”
But many in the industry question if Burns has had the autonomy she expected since her arrival in February last year. One ex-JWT source says: “There has been a lack of clarity about who runs London and who is accountable for it.”
This was further confused when it became clear that Hoare and JWT global creative director Craig Davis were behind the decision to remove Bell rather than Burns. Another ad industry source adds: “The reason that Alison has not been leading is that she hasn’t been allowed to. She made an error in judgement backing Nick, but it is worth giving her another year.”
He adds that the senior management team has been poor at its own marketing, but he points out that the agency is still the second largest in the UK, with a portfolio of global clients such as HSBC and Diageo, and is the seventh most awarded agency in the Gunn Report cataloguing creativity.
It is understood that JWT put in a strong performance on the global Nokia pitch, for both the creative work and network distribution accounts, and despite losing out on the creative work to Wieden & Kennedy, it remains in the running for the distribution business. It is also pitching for pan-European accounts for Monster.co.uk and Numico, although it has yet to show up on a domestic pitch.
Hoare hopes that JWT will now have a period of calm, so that the agency can start to develop into non-traditional areas. He explains: “In a year and a half, the agency will look different to today. Our heritage could be a hindrance, as we haven’t always been successful and we do not have a blank piece of paper, but we have to turn our reputation to our advantage.”
The challenges faced by JWT are those faced by all network agencies that have a long heritage, but need to be relevant to clients in 2007. An industry source close to JWT says: “I don’t think its problems are that different to any other agency of that size. They all have slow and outmoded processes. The problem for JWT is that it is seen as an agency for gentlemen and copywriters. It needs to be more visionary.”