JWT's Once-Vibrant Chicago Office Now a Shadow of Its Former Self

Agency That Handled Likes of Kraft, Miller Clings to Just 4 Clients

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Only five years ago, storied JWT, Chicago -- once the largest office in the largest global agency network -- boasted 800 employees and well over $100 million in billings anchored by top-tier clients such as Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing. Today it's a 50-person, four-client operation run out of New York that's gambling on the likes of the Illinois Lottery for survival.

Tough two years
The losses of Kraft and Federated Stores have transformed JWT, Chicago, from a major agency office to one on the brink in less than two years.
ACCOUNTS in EARLY 2007
  • Oscar Mayer
  • Kraft Singles
  • Wheat Thins
  • Grey Poupon
  • Nabisco
  • Ritz
  • Triscuit
  • Philadelphia
  • Wheat Thins
  • Lunchables
  • Miracle Whip
  • Macy's
  • Dreyer's Edy's
  • Dibs
  • Skinny Cow
  • Illinois Bureau of Tourism
  • HSBC (digital)
  • Kotex
  • Poise

ACCOUNTS in LATE 2008
  • Kotex
  • Poise
  • Dreyer's Edy's
  • Skinny Cow
  • Dibs
  • HSBC (digital)
  • Illinois Department of Tourism*
*Goes into review in 2009
Amid a steady drumbeat of rumors in the local press, around the city and even in its own halls that it may close, the agency last week won a business-to-business assignment for the American Bar Association and reached the final round of a pitch for the Illinois Lottery's $18 million general advertising account. JWT also declared its intention to defend one of its last remaining accounts -- the Illinois Bureau of Tourism -- in a review scheduled for early next year.

"We've done beautiful work for them and ... we're going to defend [the account]," said a spokeswoman. She added that the pitch was not a "matter of life or death" at the agency.

But the few smallish accounts upon which the agency's future may hinge would have amounted to little more than rounding errors in the shop's financials a few years ago.

Barely half a decade ago, the office was the primary agency for Kraft, handling Nabisco, Philadelphia, Kraft Singles and other brands, and also was one of Miller's busiest agencies. Today it is down to four accounts: Kimberly-Clark's feminine-care business; Nestle's ice-cream brands; a small HSBC digital assignment; and the soon-to-be up-for-grabs tourism business.

Shift in leadership
The office has been run by JWT's New York management since June 2007, when office president Ros King and creative chief Graham Woodall departed in the wake of the agency's losses of the Kraft and Federated Stores accounts.

The network briefly searched for local replacements, but it found no takers and ultimately settled on out-of-town management, spurring concerns that maintaining a Chicago office wasn't in the network's plans. An agency spokeswoman vehemently denied that was the case then and continues to do so now.

JWT alumni all over Chicago routinely express sadness about the comedown of an agency that once rivaled Leo Burnett; DDB; and Foote, Cone & Belding for supremacy within the local ad market. "It's like hearing about an old friend dying," said Dennis Ryan, a former chief creative officer there who today holds that title at Omnicom's Element 79.

"It was 800 people, a big, vibrant agency with unlimited potential," said Dana Anderson, who led Kraft's global planning at JWT for 10 years before going on to stints atop the city's FCB and DDB outposts. "It's sad."

And scary, given how swiftly JWT fell from the ranks of the city's behemoths. The shop's decline began in 2003, when it split with Miller Brewing after 19 years in the wake of a dustup over an oversexed campaign for Miller Genuine Draft. (WPP sibling Ogilvy & Mather replaced it on Miller's roster.) In early 2007, the Macy's account shifted to JWT's New York office, and then, only a few months later, Kraft lowered the boom, taking virtually all of the business out of what had been its busiest office.

That news was interpreted in some circles as a massive blow to Chicago advertising, but many of the Kraft accounts landed in Chicago offices, as DraftFCB and DDB won business in the immediate aftermath, and EuroRSCG eventually picked up below-the-line work as well.

"Just a couple years ago we had a lot of exposure to [JWT, Chicago], and there seemed to be a lot of energy there," said one Midwestern search consultant. "Now I couldn't tell you anything about them if you put a gun to my head, except that there's a lot of chatter they might not stay in business."

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