If the BBC had replied to Chris Jones’ job application then he could have been director general instead of John Birt. But 40-year-old Jones is off to New York at the beginning of next year to become the first British chief executive officer of one of advertising’s legendary agencies, J Walter Thompson.
Jones applied to the BBC in 1977 for a graduate trainee post after leaving Cambridge. When the BBC failed to write back he applied to, and was immediately accepted by Saatchi & Saatchi. He was attracted, he says, by the opportunity advertising presented to learn about a variety of businesses, though he admits he didn’t have a burning desire to enter the industry.
He was at Saatchi until 1984 when he joined JWT, rising to become managing director in 1988 and moving on to his present role in 1992. He is in charge of JWT’s multinational accounts with responsibility for Kellogg’s and all non-US based multinationals including Unilever and Nestlé. It’s a career path that is likely to be the pattern for future worldwide agency chiefs: big accounts, then local agency head, then head of multinational accounts, then worldwide ceo.
In his new role he will not look after Ford (handled in the UK by sister agency Ogilvy & Mather). Instead, that will remain with Peter Schweitzer, the existing JWT president, who becomes co-president alongside Jones prior to Jones’ promotion in place of JWT worldwide chief executive Burt Manning in January next year.
Schweitzer was expected to succeed Manning, but as Jones says: “He did not want the job; he wanted the job he’s got. We have no more important client than Ford.”
He adds tactfully: “It will be great to have him there; he’ll be a great source of wisdom.”
Jones will need that wisdom since about half of JWT’s business is in the US. He has, however, been drawn to the larger scale since the start of his career. Jones says Saatchi’s rapid growth – “I think between 1978-1982, the agency lost about three new business pitches” – meant promotion came fast.
He was soon working on big accounts, including Procter & Gamble and the then Rowntree Mackintosh. And he is credited with bridging the gap between Saatchi and P&G – welding creative flair onto the client’s demand for a clear sales result – at a time when Saatchi was having problems adjusting to the notoriously restrictive approach taken by the US giant.
Part of the reason for his success was an early appreciation of the broader aspects of advertising. One of his former colleagues at Saatchi notes that Jones quickly grasped that success in advertising meant developing an aware ness of the whole of a client’s business.
“I think he realised very early on that there was a business side to advertising. You have to know the profit and loss, the balance sheet as well as persuading them to take your logo or whatever. If you don’t, you’re wasting effort and the client will pretty quickly come to the same conclusion. It takes a lot of people some time to realise that,” he says.
Jones has been closely associated with Kellogg’s – a notoriously demanding account – since his arrival at JWT. Indeed, some observers say the key point in his career was turning round the Kellogg’s business in the UK despite being in the throes of a traumatic divorce.
The business was deemed to be at a delicate stage and if JWT had lost it in London then it would have lost the account worldwide. The agency’s success in winning a further $30m of Kellogg’s business last week in the US and Canada augurs well for his arrival there next year.
Jones, called “the best account man in London” by one agency head, has made a career out of dealing with the most demanding clients in advertising. “He would only need to work on Mars to complete the set,” says one source.
Jones says: “You don’t need an MBA to be a good account man, you just need three skills. You have to be able to listen; you have to want to bother, which doesn’t just mean working hard, it means that nasty feeling that there’s always something else to do; and it means you need ‘cue sense’.”
Using a snooker analogy, “cue sense” means the ability to touch the ball in just the right way so that all the other balls end up where they should. It means knowing when to tell the client that “you’re not going round the block again” on a particular exercise or when to tell the creatives “to stop throwing the crayons around and get on with it”.
He also describes himself as “very decisive” while others note he’s difficult to budge when he has made his mind up.
This quality, says one London agency chief, was precisely what was needed when Jones became managing director following the agency’s acrimonious acquisition by WPP in 1988.
“JWT was full of pseudo-intellectuals who thought clients were a distraction. He made them concentrate rigorously on clients’ needs and assured clients that their needs were understood and being dealt with. It sounds simple but it’s amazing how few people can do it,” says one agency source.
No one who has worked with Jones doubts his determination to succeed and, when asked about outside interests, Jones cites “winning”.
“He’s got long-term vision and immediate energy. He never takes his foot off the accelerator, which can be quite wearing for the people who work around him,” says former colleague Andrew Robertson, managing director of Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO.
Some detect an element of obsession in his working life, a charge to which Jones is happy to plead guilty if it refers to looking after clients.
“When I first joined JWT, Michael Cooper-Evans was agency head and he said the agency was like a swan: serene on the surface and paddling furiously underneath. I said we should be seen to be paddling furiously,” he says.
However, former colleagues say he doesn’t live and breathe advertising away from the agency. “He’s a rounded personality, if a little brittle sometimes,” says one colleague. Jones says his outside interests are confined to cooking, watching rugby and horse-racing but he also has a wide circle of friends outside the industry.
In September, JWT will reveal its plans for the next century, which, says Jones, “involves an enormous amount of constructive change in relation to how JWT operates as a worldwide company”.
Jones admits to “big-match nerves” about his move to New York, but says he’s looking forward to the job where he can make the most difference. When he says that however the agency changes, its main focus will remain the same – “clients, clients, clients” – it sounds less like the usual adman flannel. Instead, his track record makes him sound convincing.