J. Walter Suicide
“A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.” — Man Hunt, Fritz Lang, 1941
This is the very short story of how the smartest advertising agency in the world became so dumb so quickly that it didn’t even have time to remember which part of its name stood for the business it invented.
But except to the fools who believe that loyalty to a corporate entity will be reciprocated on the day of reckoning, the Tolkienesque disappearance of JWT in a puff of puffery is the least interesting part of the tale. Agencies die all the time, some in magnificent acts of hubris, some of Lear-like arrogance, but most of them simply by the plotting of thieves and scoundrels. JWT is unique among them for dying of self-doubt: a Coriolanus who could accept neither praise nor pity; a Hamlet who could not bear the lightness of his being.
The announcement was befittingly brief. J. Walter Thompson and Wunderman had merged to become Wunderman Thompson. No excuses were forthcoming because there were none to be had. No explanations were necessary because no one cared to hear them.
In some distant corners of the old empire the clocks will have been stopped, the telephones cut off, and the dogs prevented from barking with a juicy bone. Stories of battles won and lost in the glory years would have circulated briefly between Buenos Aires, Budapest and Bogota before the servers detected a pattern of sententious self-pity and shut them down. And even then, if all the sighs of nostalgia breathed on the day of J. Walter’s demise were collected into a single articulated sentiment, they would have amounted to no more and no less than Kurt Vonnegut’s refrain in Slaughterhouse Five: “So it goes.”
By the time you read this, the column inches devoted to the news of J. Walter’s passing will have been filled by stories of more topical interest to the readers of the trade press. We learned today, for example, that AI had been employed to make a car commercial even more predictable than the average car commercial made by humans. So it goes.
No doubt some kind words will have been written on J. Walter’s behalf, some of them sincerely in sorrow. Sentiment is the strangest of all our reflexes. It clings to the most trivial acts of kindness, praise or affection, as if to a clutch of daisies in the the deserts of Namaqualand, without reflecting on the bitter months of nature’s cruel indifference to our thirst and longing.
But I imagine the official eulogies at Claridges or the Dorchester would have spoken not of the end of an era but of a great new beginning: the marriage of approximately infinite data with a legacy of infinite wisdom; aka, the long-awaited consummation of Hitler’s daughter with J. Walter’s genie, resuscitated for the occasion by a platoon of prestidigitators wearing discreet earpieces and white gloves.
To be absolutely clear, the Hitler I refer to here had, apart from the unfortunate coincidence of his name, absolutely nothing to do with the well-known Pan-German revolutionary demagogue with a distinctive black moustache.
The Hitler I met at Grey Advertising and Marketing in Johannesburg in 1981 was an immaculately groomed American in a grey suit with matching grey shoes chosen, perhaps, to impress upon the natives the harmony so effortlessly achievable between corporate style and corporate substance. Like Mr Smoketoomuch in the Monty Python sketch that was circulating at the time, Mr Hitler appeared largely oblivious to the implications of his name. So he wasn’t in the least put out when his arrival in the boardroom was met by a rousing Sieg Heil from the audience, their left arms in horizontal salute, their right hand forefingers pressed horizontally to their upper-lips. He simply smiled his evidently well-practiced riposte: “Isn’t it wonderful how we can laugh about it now.”
Cue the sound of throats being cleared and uncomfortably shuffling feet.
But Hitler hadn’t been sent halfway across the world to exchange pleasantries. He was here to bring us great tidings of joy and goodwill in the form of a three hour lecture on DM.
When the senior members of the assembly discovered that DM stood for Direct Marketing they made an undignified dash for the door. Those of us on the lower pay-grades looked around in consternation, noticed that the formidable Lee Johnson was taking names, and opted to pay attention.
In the silence that followed the departure of the last of the skeptics, Mr Hitler uttered these immortal words: “The future, my friends, will be determined not by percentage points but by the percentage points of the percentage points of percentage points.”
The gist of it went something like this. If you were selling an electrically-powered orange juice squeezer to Mrs X it would be helpful to know if Mrs X liked to consume orange juice more frequently than not. You could knock on her door and ask her the question, but that would be time-consuming and expensive. You could advertise your orange juice squeezer on radio or TV, but that would be even more expensive, and wasteful too, because most people were very happy to buy their orange juice from the local store.
But, as Hitler informed us, research had identified two very specific types of orange juice squeezer purchasers, the first who liked squeezing oranges because they believed the resulting juice was fresher and therefore more natural than the stuff you bought in cartons, and a second type who derived a feeling of pride and accomplishment, both personal and social, in being able to show their friends and families the neat gingham-topped bottles of orange juice that lined the top shelves of their capacious frigidaires.
He paused, lifted his right forefinger in the air, and said, “Psychographics.”
There were some oohs and aahs. Someone at the back of the room mimicked the eeek! eeek! eeek! of the shower scene at the Bates Motel.
“Now,” said Hitler, “We shall choose for our experiment an ordinary suburban block in an ordinary suburban town and designate it with the letter A. Then we shall choose of suburban block of similar demographics, size, income and general interests and call it B. A carefully composed letter emphasizing the fresh, natural taste of freshly squeezed orange juice is sent to every household in suburb A. A second letter, equally carefully composed, is then sent to suburb B highlighting the feeling of pride and accomplishment to be gained from squeezing your own fresh orange juice. All respondents are offered a one week trial, free and gratis, no questions asked, etc, etc, simply by returning the squeezer with a prepaid postcard telling us what they liked or didn’t like about the machine. Was it it too noisy, too messy, too difficult to clean? And so on and so forth, all of which is priceless information for R&D going forward in due course, all things being equal, at the end of the day and so on. But…” and here he paused for maximum theatrical effect, “…the fiendishly clever part of the exercise is this: every letter ends with a postscript that encapsulates the claim of the alternative script! ”
I woke up in time to hear that more housewives in suburb B liked the idea of the real homemade taste of freshly squeezed orange juice than the number of housewives in suburb A who responded well to the pride and achievement narrative. Hitler was far too excited to have noticed my momentary lapse in concentration. “For the price of a few pennies,” he declaimed, his fist now banging on the flimsy wooden lectern to emphasise each new point, “We now know the names, the addresses, the motivations, the projected sales, the cost per individual mailing as a function of the likelihood of a return, and a scientifically accurate analysis of short, medium and long-term profitability!”
And then, with a gleam of maniacal frenzy in his eye, “Now show me an ad that can do that!”
I have described Mr Hitler’s visit to Grey Advertising and Marketing in some detail for two reasons. The first is to pay a humble homage to David Foster Wallace whom I discovered too late in life to appreciate the existential significance of boredom. The second, rather more mundanely, is to make the point that a class chasm of infinite dimension separated the ideals and aspirations of above-the-line advertising from the mercenary ambitions of below-the-line activities.
Above-the-line was advertising proper, that is, ideas on TV in print or on radio that were recompensed by the client as a percentage of the total cost of the media bought on behalf of the given idea. In this sense it was regarded by agency and client alike as the purest form of creative exchange — a finite amount of dollars paid for a clearly defined creative idea. Below-the-line advertising was, by contrast, a messy-go-round of transactions involving the cost of t-shirts, shelf-wobblers, salesmen’s uniforms, shopping mall sampling and the provision of more or less salubrious forms of entertainment for client CEOs visiting from Botswana or Bophuthatswana. Proper creatives, by which I mean fully-certified art directors and copywriters, worked above-the-line. Trainees, tyros and wannabes worked below-the-line.
BTL lived in the downstairs twilight of the kitchens and quartering of Downton Abbey. ATL breakfasted with silver spoons and illustrious guests attended by BTL maids and butlers.
This arrangement was as resilient as the divide between officers and NCOs that lasted from the 18th century at least until the end of the First World War when it dawned on the military aristocracy that trench warfare was having the unanticipated effect of sacrificing legions of stouthearted infantrymen at the expense of sparing the upper-class twits who sent them over the top . It was a faultline of British origin, but it permeated the worlds of labour, social interactions and advertising from Saigon to Singapore.
It worked as long as the commission system lasted. It fell apart the first time a lowly IT worker was promoted to the role of digital expert.
JWT wasn’t alone in believing that the natural home of “digital”, as it was called for several years before the inverted commas became redundant, was below-the-line. It looked like BTL, it smelled like BTL, the dress code of its practitioners was decidedly BTL and it was remunerated like BTL, that is, by the hit or the like or the share or the mention it generated according to its own inscrutable logic.
Just as Hitler had predicted, digital was DM by another name. Digital earns its keep in percentages of percentages; advertising earns its keep in popularity, watchability and memorability. Digital thinks in seconds and nanoseconds; advertising thinks in eons. A Campaign reporter once remarked to Jeremy Bullmore that the eighties had been less than spectacular by JWT’s own high standards. “Ah, my boy,” said Jeremy. “But take a look at the century.”
The official story is that JWT died of old age, gracefully and peacefully, like H.G. Wells. The few functioning body parts that remained were donated to a manufacturer of shopping trolleys which had recently diversified into the more lucrative business of assembling the limbs and organs of moribund agencies and media companies into cybernetic marketing vehicles that operated without the need for expensive human supervision.
And like those written to mark the death of H.G. Wells, the obituaries made much of the agency’s early work, consigning by omission the great accomplishments of its later years to the scrapheap of insignificance. It is travesty enough that JWT should have been given the Wellsian hagiographic treatment. It is a double travesty, however, to discover that the true circumstances of its death were erased from the record.
The unashamed fact of the matter is that JWT killed itself. It committed suicide. It chose the honourable path of harakiri rather than live another day longer with the knowledge of what it had become. The shame of it is only that it didn’t die instantly. Disemboweling by seppuku is dramatic but not always reliable.
They kept JWT on life-support for another fifteen years. They said it was recuperating from a mysterious illness it had picked up in Mexico City or Hong Kong. They said it was being attended to by the finest physicians in New York and London, that it was getting stronger every day, and that when it rose from its sick bed to take its rightful place once again on the world stage it would be a visionary, a Titan, a god among men. Well-wishers wished it well. Those who knew it intimately hoped its death would be quick and painless.
I want to get this out of the way first: Martin Sorrell didn’t kill JWT. He may have provided the tantō and the coffin but he had no reason to see it dead. He despised JWT no more than he despised Ogilvy, Grey and the other agencies in his collection. They were his vintage cars, relics from another era, beautiful in their day, of course, but temperamental, untrustworthy on the modern superhighways, and their spare parts impossible to come by. The other brands were American, or German-engineered. Some were Japanese. JWT was his Aston Martin. A dinosaur, just like the others, but an Aston Martin nevertheless.
JWT was known for being smart. Being smart mattered a lot more than being creative because any fool could get lucky now and then, and long ago we had decided that we’d rather be consistently smart than occasionally brilliant.
Our philosophy could be reduced to this: as long as we were consistently smart, the work we turned out would be consistently good. And as long as our clients trusted our work to be strategically sound and consistently good, sooner or later they would trust us to do something that was both strategically sound and creatively brilliant.
The agency’s legendary achievements from its inception in 1864 to the present are a matter of public record, most of it meticulously archived at Duke University, Northern Carolina. But Duke is silent on the events of 2001.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from what follows it is simply this: it is quite possible for perfectly reasonable people with perfectly good intentions to make perfectly sensible decisions that lead to utterly catastrophic results.
The year was never going to be propitious. We had survived Y2K, Bush was in the White House, and 9/11 was on the near horizon. But the question on everybody’s mind during that brief interregnum of innocence had nothing to do with computer code or geopolitics. It was as naive and as simple as this:
What were we going to do about below-the-line?
The question meant different things in different parts of the world. If you worked in Latin America, Asia Pacific or Africa it meant what it had always meant, which was how to sell a whole bunch of collateral material like t-shirts, egg-warmers, replica AK-47s and everything else we could think of that had a more or less tenuous connection with the campaign idea you were trying to sell to your client. This was by no means unique to JWT. The managers of agencies outside the media capitals of the world used BTL to put a gloss on their paltry media commissions. The creative directors working in Manila, Beirut, Lagos and Shanghai used it to win awards on the cheap. And at just about the time that “ambient media” was establishing itself as an awards category in its own right, the very first proto-digital ideas began to appear among them. The combination of ambient, digital and left-of centre collateral thinking soon became as cool, or maybe even cooler, than big-budget TV. It was inventive, it was limitless in application, and, best of all, it didn’t need a Millward Brown Link Test to verify its potential effectiveness because it came out of the BTL budget. It was a free hit.
At about this time an entire cohort of creative luminaries returned from Cannes to their offices in Knightsbridge, Soho and 47th street scratching their heads. TV was still king but, well, it just wasn’t quite as cool as it had been in 1999. And now even the best of it was emerging from the Millward Brown meat-grinder with more gristle than gravy.
So the creative directors in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and Jakarta urged their teams to think outside of the TV box. The geeks who populated the IT department in the basement were invited into brainstorming sessions with paper engineers and sociologists. The account directors were furious. The planners were enraged. The media planners and buyers demanded to know where the fuck their fees were going to come from. But the awards started rolling in.
A few years later London, New York and Farm Street began to pay attention. Paying attention at JWT meant having a big meeting in an exotic location. So we went to a Tuscan Villa, a Greenwich hotel and a Greek island. We didn’t bring any digital people because they had all been fired after the dot.com crash. We didn’t invite any creatives because Martin Sorrell said they were too TV-centric. We didn’t invite any of our PR, design, CRM, media or BTL agencies because they knew nothing about advertising. So we ended up with several planners and a legion of suits. I was one of the three creative directors thrown into the mix as a nod to the nominal role of creativity in the great war between the avowed Luddites and the wavering Luddites.
I won’t name names. All I will say is that an opportunity existed in the early 2000s to update JWT’s legendary planning tools to capitalise on the diversity of channels and creative artifacts that were changing the nature of the industry, blurring the lines between all the old acronyms and party politics of the business, questioning the remuneration model and playing fast and loose with the established definitions of paid-for and unpaid-for media.
The first few sessions were as absurd as they were unproductive. The agency that had created some of the most loved and enduring TV advertising campaigns in the world — from Oxo, to De Beers, to BT, to Kit Kat, to After Eight Mints, to Mr Kipling’s Exceedingly Fine Cakes, to Jaguar and to Kellogg’s was suddenly ashamed to be producing TV commercials at all. Creatives scrambled to find bits and pieces of creative that qualified as CRM, DM, digital, ambient or other specifically non-TV related work. My creative director from Nairobi was given a standing ovation for having produced a coupon for a free test drive of the new Ford Mondeo on the back of a milk carton. The enthusiasm diminished somewhat when he confessed that in terms of reach, exposure and cost effectiveness, milk cartons were Kenya’s media equivalent of TV.
In the absence of a coherent planning model, the stream of memos that emerged from the office of our reclusive CEO began to read like Polonius’s speech to Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Senior account executives wandered through the neon-lit corridors of the Knightsbridge office repeating Hamlet’s soliloquy. I heard the head of traffic declaiming, “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason!”
But the drama of it was less Shakespeare than Oscar Wilde. If the agency hadn’t been overcome by this inexplicable millennial seizure of silliness it would have turned to Stephen King, the author of the planning disciplines that had distinguished the agency from its competition so successfully for the past five decades. But Stephen had retired, and the agency’s new breed of planners had put him firmly out to pasture. As we have documented at length in Skip Ad in 5, Stephen had anticipated this precise scenario in the late nineties. The internet, in his opinion, would oblige all products to become services, and all services to become products. In this analysis, all distinctions between ATL, BTL, CRM and every other possible means of customer engagement become instantly irrelevant.
It was that simple, and that brilliant.
That was the lifeline that would have saved JWT from oblivion. Instead, the agency devised a plan that became known as Thompson Total Branding, or TTB for short. Millions of pounds were spent on marketing it across the agency’s 140 offices. The effect was disastrous. By privileging the means of an idea’s delivery over the quality of the idea it scared every self-respecting creative into looking for jobs elsewhere. And it conveyed a very clear message to the agency’s existing clients that we had no idea what we were talking about.
There is nothing to mourn in JWT’s departure. But if one day in the distant future a society of advertising historians decides it would be appropriate to erect one of those blue commemorative plaques on the exterior wall of 60 Berkeley Square to inform future generations that it was once the home of one of the world’s greatest advertising agencies, they might want to add this line as a postscript:
Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.