Wunderman Thompson's longest employee Ginny Bahr recalls her storied 69-year career
The Mad Men-era days. The rise of Wire and Plastic Products as an agency holding conglomerate now known as WPP. The proliferation of data and technology in creative. And a myriad of other changes in between. Ginny Bahr has been through it all from her New York post at J. Walter Thompson (now Wunderman Thompson following a 2018 merger).
And now, at age 93, Bahr is retiring from Wunderman Thompson after 69 years.
She first joined the agency as a receptionist in 1951, 36 years before WPP acquired it for $566 million in 1987. A valued and loyal employee who served as secretary to many past VPs and CEOs, the shop credits her as the behind-the-scenes force that has kept the agency going over the years.
Bahr, most recently an expense reports processor, has worked on various accounts during her seven decades with the agency including Ford, PanAm, Shell and Rolex, and also ran the agency's office blood drives.
Ad Age caught up with her as she departs and prepares for retirement, something she says will be a big adjustment having worked her entire life. "All of a sudden it’s hitting; the days are all free. I don't have to run for the train anymore. It's going to be different," Bahr says.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you get into advertising?
After high school, I took a one-year course at Berkeley, where I learned shorthand and did that for a year. Following that, I worked for three years for a publishing company out of a small office across from Grand Central Terminal. We were in a small office and my boss was a chain smoker, a typical newspaper writer back then. We were very close to each other. I had that smoke in my face for three years. To this day, I liked that company, but where I was working didn’t work out and I was fortunate to go back to Berkeley. The head of the [school] there was very friendly with J. Walter Thompson’s personnel director. We went to lunch and they suggested the [secretary] job at Thompson. Three or four months later I ended up at Thompson.
What was it like joining JWT and the ad industry back then as a female professional?
When I first joined Thompson, I guess I was naive still. I wasn’t really aware of [any discrimination]. I was just sort of learning the business. I had been there several years, worked for a couple of different bosses and connected with various different clients. The bosses had to travel to Chicago and so forth. Apparently things went on that I wasn’t aware of. My bosses never told me about it. I never went on any of the trips where things happened. I never felt it.
You were there through the acquisition by WPP. What was that like? Were there any concerns?
It was just a regular job. I had a couple of bosses. We went through quite a bit. I worked on good accounts. In the type of work I did, I didn’t really enter into anything where I would see any of the problems going on at the time. I would say we were fortunate in always having good leadership in our company. So I didn’t have any fear in the leadership in our company. You hear little things occasionally of things that might have gone on, but I thought it was great. I had confidence in the company.
As you leave, what do you think of Wunderman Thompson as an agency today? JWT has certainly had its challenges and has been through vast change over the years.
I think it’s a very good, jointly-held company. I’ll try to keep up with the company after I leave. The future should be excellent.
The industry has been through so much change with consolidation, in-housing, the new ways people are working with technology and data and now remotely in the pandemic. What is the most monumental change you feel you witnessed?
You know, I didn’t see major changes at least in the work I did. My job was always about contacting people and doing reports for people. I always had a good relationship with the people so I only saw it from the one angle. Maybe the machines were different; much more efficient than what we had [when she started]. The dress code and things like that may have changed. It was different in the old days. The women were dressed in skirts and stockings and heels. And the woman copywriters always wore hats so they could distinguish themselves. It’s definitely become more casual.
What was your biggest accomplishment?
Working on the blood drives. A lot of people don’t give much thought to it, but you have to have blood; it has to come from someplace. It gave me a lot of satisfaction. It’s very important and it’s something I hope they’ll continue long after I leave.
So what kept you at the agency all these years? It's definitely rare for someone to stay in one place for so long these days.
The people. There’s no doubt about it. I worked with very wonderful people—[New York Finance Director] Ellen Rubin, [Chief Research Officer] Mark Truss, [Former JWT CEO] Burt Manning. Ellen has been handling the finance department for the last several years and she pulled me out of being a regular secretary. She plucked me out and put me in her department and she was tremendous at staying with me and giving me a chance to do the expense reports. Mark is a peach. All the people I’ve worked for are wonderful.
Even running the blood drives and things like that; those were the good parts. Working with the people has always been pleasant. From the reports, I got to learn little bits about people and the accounts, not that I would share anything, but it made things more interesting.
Do you have any advice for ad professionals starting out their careers today?
You have to speak up if you have any questions. If you have questions you should be allowed to ask them, especially in this type of work. It’s a people industry. If you don’t ask, you can make worse judgments.