What’s In A Name? Quite A Lot When That Name Is J. Walter Thompson…

There was a little bit of agency news this week that made me very, very happy.  Nine years after they dropped it, JWT is reinstating the name J. Walter Thompson.

It’s been announced to mark the agency’s 150 year anniversary – the perfect time to celebrate the uniqueness of this once amazing agency.

To those saying ‘so what? It’s just a name’, please let me enlighten you.  Mr (later Commodore) James Walter Thompson was the founder of modern advertising – turning a media sales department into a creative agency, and recognizing the importance of the female consumer (back in the late 1800s).  In 1911, long before Peggy Olsen (or her real life 60s counterparts), he hired the first-ever female creative director.

It went on to innovate and create for the next 80 or 90 years.  The quality of their graduate scheme (I know, I was lucky enough to be one) established their reputation as the ‘University of Advertising’. Those of us that worked there back in the late 80s/early 90s were very aware – and very proud – of its tradition and heritage.  I still remember how great it felt walking to work through Berkeley Square and seeing the blue ‘signature’ flags fluttering outside – letting everyone know that we’d won a major pitch.

40 Berkeley Square was a London landmark.  It was always fun getting into a taxi after a long and boozy lunch (well, it was the 80s) to hear the cab driver say ‘oh, do you work at J.Walter Thompson?’ and having (semi-sober) conversations about the KitKat pandas, Beattie (Maureen Lipman’s ‘You got an Ology!’ BT grandma) and the Oxo mum.  Famous for the building, famous for the work.

When they left Berkeley Square (and Hay’s Mews) in early 2002, it was like the ravens leaving The Tower of London.  Ditching the full name 3 years later would, I’m sure, have finally made Commodore Thompson turn in his grave.

(A few years ago, I had a meeting at the new Knightsbridge office, and it just broke my heart to see important bits of their heritage – including the bust of The Commodore, which once proudly sat in the eponymous bar – lying about on the floor in a back corridor).

J. Walter Thompson had that unique element that many clients would kill for – it was a true heritage brand.  It was the agency that INVENTED advertising as we know it.

If you think this is an irrelevant or retrograde step as “agencies aren’t named after founders anymore, the world’s moved on”, I’d suggest that names above the door will always matter when they’re synonymous with the pioneering values of the founder.  David Ogilvy and the Saatchi’s were probably the last to really embody this.  But who’s really been ‘properly famous’ or innovative enough since?

The move to agency names that are not name-related, whether they’re re-brands (like Stack) or new launches (like Seven Dials) are often because the previous trend was more about the founder’s (current) reputation than real brand values.  Over time, these names were inevitably shortened anyway (TMW, BMB, CHI, even the once mighty BBH), which arguably erodes any value those names once had.  Notably, Saatchi & Saatchi was never shortened to S&S…

I never saw the logic behind getting rid of the full name in the first place.  J. Walter Thompson was always known by both names, as Global Chair & CEO Bob Jeffrey admits – so why ditch the mother brand?  Another example of pointless ‘global branding’ perhaps?  Discarding years of heritage in the name of modern corporate efficiency.

So if you ever find yourself in the lofty position of being able to make a decision like this, please ask yourself these simple questions; Does the current brand really stand for something?  Has it been there longer than you?  Will it still be there long after you’ve gone?  If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, PLEASE LEAVE WELL ALONE.

At the annual JWT reunion in November, I’m sure there will be many of us who will happily raise a glass of champagne and say ‘welcome back, Commodore’.

Right.  Now we just need to persuade them to move back to Berkeley Square…

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