'Turn safety into sexy': JWT reorg confronts changing ad realities

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Facing up to the diminished relevance of advertising agencies' geographic reach, one of the biggest global players, J. Walter Thompson, is undergoing a makeover to emphasize its creative and strategic thinking rather than its size and account management skills.

JWT North America CEO Bob Jeffrey, now one year into his tenure, and a handful of other top managers, will unveil their new vision for a 21st century JWT later this week at a meeting of around 100 of the agency's top executives in Miami.

The need is pressing: Global networks like JWT, which operate hundreds of offices worldwide, are grappling with the threat of irrelevance. Shifting media-consumption habits have made their huge TV-centric structures look increasingly unwieldy and placed a premium on consumer insight and engaging creative. Simultaneously, unbundled media planning and buying networks are reducing marketers' dependence on a single global ad agency for distribution.

a greater range

While global ad agencies are still valued by many major marketers, others are using a greater range of creative shops, knitted together by a global media agency. Early last year, for example, Burger King dropped JWT sibling Y&R for MDC Partners-backed Crispin Porter & Bogusky. WPP's MindShare, however, kept the media buying.

The heart of Mr. Jeffrey's plan is a shift in the agency's focus from account management-its historical strength-to strategy and award-worthy work. "We need to make ourselves more dynamic, turn safety into sexy, but stay rooted in our intellectual strengths," he said.

a year of prep work

Mr. Jeffrey has spent the last year readying the agency for a transformation. He introduced a plan tying bonuses to creative performance, with criteria including key awards such as Cannes and performance against local rivals. Also in 2004, he changed 65% of global executive management, hiring Exec VP-Chief Creative Officer and Co-President Ty Montague in New York and Craig Davis as regional executive creative director for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Rosemarie Ryan was brought in as co-president, New York, and Patrick Pitcher is now regional chairman, India and Southeast Asia.

In the months to come, Mr. Jeffrey faces the difficult task of execution. He must first explain JWT's new place and communicate how it will become real in every market in which the agency operates, issues that will be discussed by the JWT executives at the Miami gathering.

Introducing a new logo and inculcating a new mission in the organization may not be Mr. Jeffrey's greatest hurdle. His toughest task may be convincing current clients that a new JWT and new crop of creative talent will deliver what's best for their brands. Clients are often suspicious of an agency chasing awards if they don't see it benefiting their sales.

"There's a major grown-up conversation that has to be had with these clients so they can really get to some common understanding of why a creative piece of advertising is better than an uncreative one," said an agency executive familiar with JWT.

contributing: emma hall, normandy madden

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