WPP announced today that it is merging ad agencies J. Walter Thompson and Wunderman to create Wunderman Thompson, a new agency that will have 20,000 employees in about 90 different markets around the world. The news comes about two months since the holding company merged Y&R with VML to create VMLY&R.
It’s the company’s latest major move to streamline business amid volatile times in the advertising industry and, as I pointed out in October, likely won’t be the last. Back in August, a Forrester industry report said WPP should look to “dissolve its agency brands to meet the CMO’s need for simplicity, accountability, and scale,” restructuring nearly 400 companies into just dozens. It specifically called for WPP to consolidate its 100 creative agencies within the seven global networks of AKQA, Grey, JWT, Ogilvy, VML, Wunderman, and Y&R. Those networks are now down to five.
Wunderman Thompson will be run by global CEO Mel Edwards (former Wunderman CEO), with JWT global CEO Tamara Ingram becoming chairman of the new combined agency.
VMLY&R’s new CEO Jon Cook told me last month, “We may be at the first point I can remember in a decade where the labels of agencies don’t really matter.” The Wunderman Thompson merger will certainly test that theory, given the legacy of JWT in particular, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2014. It was the first agency to make a TV commercial. According to Tim Wu’s excellent book The Attention Merchants, at the turn of the century JWT was one of the first proponents of behavioral science in advertising and was the first to target ads directly at women. (Those ads were written in the agency’s Women’s Editorial Department, staffed by what the agency called “Lady Persuaders”.)
However, JWT has had a rough few years of self-inflicted PR wounds. Most recently, a number of straight, white, male former employees in the U.K. threatened legal action after being let go after they asked JWT London’s HR department what agency creative director Jo Wallace meant when she said at an industry conference that she wanted to “obliterate” the agency’s reputation as a haven for straight, white males. But the agency was hardest hit by its overall response to a sexual harassment lawsuit that the former head of communications, Erin Johnson, filed in 2016 against ex-global JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez, which alleged racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic comments. The suit was settled in April, but the agency still employed Martinez until he resigned in June 2018.