ON A ROLLER-COASTER RIDE: J. WALTER THOMPSON USA -- AGENCY RATING: 1-1/2 STARS

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J. Walter Thompson USA had an up-and-down year, but the downs were steeper than ups. The agency scored the $90 million Merrill Lynch & Co. global account, $20 million Nabisco cracker account and Blockbuster Entertainment's retail advertising. But it also lost Sprint Corp.'s $150 million account-a devastating blow to its San Francisco office-and Dell Computer Corp.'s $100 million corporate account. At yearend, Kraft Foods cut spending for a branding campaign, and JWT and Dell went to court over financial details of their rocky, nine-month relationship

On the plus side, worldwide CEO Chris Jones managed to shore up the New York office, which was rocked by the resignations of top execs in late 1997.

LOOKING AHEAD

WPP Group Chairman-Chief Executive Martin Sorrell is said to be anxious to see stronger JWT results. A year ago, he initiated a search for a top executive to boost the North American team. Some said the new executive would come in over Mr. Jones, but others insist the open spot is for a top lieutenant. The launch

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