Can Wunderman Thompson forge a new industry model?

Can a newborn Wunderman Thompson evolve towards personalisation, without losing sight of the timeless principles underpinning long-term brand building? Former JWT staffer Tom Doctoroff explores the possibilities.

Let us quickly shed a tear for the demise of one of Madison Avenue’s most storied brand names: J. Walter Thompson.

Although the agency’s end was abruptly announced, WPP chief executive officer Mark Read deserves kudos for a tough, clear-eyed decision. Clients are demanding elimination of silos between agencies that offer creative and strategic ideas, and digital services of all stripes.

Could this sad turn of events have been avoided? Yes. Unfortunately, JWT – a noble company I worked with for almost half my life – could have harnessed management savvy and principles to evolve with the times.

But then allegations against the conduct of its former CEO Gustavo Martinez brought a lot of negative publicity in its wake for J. Walter Thompson. L’affaire Martinez was unnecessarily protracted – transaction trumped principle – until Sir Martin Sorrell left the scene. The brand, after two years of innuendo and factionalism, was tarnished, frozen in amber.

So kudos to WPP for launching an effort to provide ‘total solutions’ – a term coined by JWT, by the way – to clients demanding that it bulldoze the walls between ideas and science.

We must first find out what clients are truly asking for, even if they themselves are often unable to articulate their desires. Clients are driven by growth. And this is fuelled by the fusion of brand purpose expressed with breakthrough creative, plus the power of data-fuelled technology which personalises — and deepens — relationships with brand.

Technology and belief in the power of brands were not, are not and never will be incompatible. In fact, in today’s world, one cannot exist without the other. Now the hard part begins: enlightened integration. What will this look like?

First, the executive committee must consist of a united team of warriors, albeit one boasting different skill sets. JWT must contribute leaders who truly believe in the timeless power of brands and their ability to make a difference in the lives of consumers and the world at large.

A new era of consumer empowerment, unleashed by the connectivity of the internet and the ubiquity of mobile phones, has forced agencies to abandon their traditional ‘tell and sell’ model. Today, there are opportunities across an exploding range of touch points. But our goal has always been to broaden the meaning of brands in people’s lives. It is a timeless goal.

Given its data-centricity, Wunderman’s position as captain of this new ship must not militate against this imperative. Consistency of brand purpose must become a mantra at the highest level of the organisation, shared and proselytised by all members.

Second, Wunderman Thompson must avoid a corporate mash-up and unnecessary power plays. All account teams – not just ones serving huge clients such as Johnson & Johnson or HSBC — should be integrated in a way that reflects a clear Wunderman Thompson mission of deepening brand value across time and place.

Each team should be led by genuine brand stewards as well as copywriters, art directors, user experience designers, ‘conventional’ strategic planners who uncover fundamental motivations of behaviour and preference, data scientists, digital ‘makers’ of experiences that expand the role of the brand across touch points, business strategists who know how to extract growth from personalisation. And, yes, media planners – experts in mapping out user journeys.

Third, the term ‘data and analytics’ should be relegated to the ash heap of history. Why? Because it means everything and nothing.

Clients are as confused as agency folk when it comes to harnessing the power of data. There are two approaches to optimisation of ever-expanding data sources. The first is big data mining. In my experience, this helps media buyers optimise targeting and generate bargain-basement e-commerce transactions. Big data uncovers observations, not genuine insights. This data is usually derived from third parties, sometimes unreliable.

The second is hypothesis-led data generation in which a company designs and owns its data platforms. For example, Starbucks’ loyalty card or KFC in China – with artificial intelligence-generated information that provides incremental revenue through insight into individual meal preferences. The goal: Personalising offers to consumers that deepen loyalty.

Fourth, Wunderman Thompson has an opportunity to guide companies to digital maturity. The company must recruit digital transformation experts, who recognise the peril of boiling the corporate ocean. Digital transformation is gradual.

The companies must:

  • Think ‘digital first’ with primary products and services digitally delivered, as opposed to clinging to obsolete analogue models.
  • Cordon off the traditional businesses if they represents long-term risk of revenue erosion.
  • Incentivise people who are preparing for the future by expanding their skill sets, both on- and offline.
  • Flatten structures to facilitate cross-functional collaboration. Radical transparency, not hierarchical regimentation, is required for a truly customer-centric approach to long-term relationship building.
  • Accept the inevitability of an iterative – that is, test and learn – pathway to digital maturity and reward risk-taking to eliminate fear of failure as a career hindrance.

In conclusion, Read has taken a bold first step in deconstructing silos. Proof, however, will be in the pudding. Can a newborn Wunderman Thompson evolve towards personalisation – or, at least, enhanced personal relevance – through digital technology?

And do so without losing sight of the timeless principles underpinning long-term brand building and loyalty generation? Time will tell. Best of luck to both organisations as they strive to forge a united, purpose-driven entity. They will certainly need it.

Tom Doctoroff is chief cultural insights officer at marketing consultancy Prophet.


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