Rich history, future riches

The date is Feb. 28, 2005 and Tony Pigott, president and CEO of one of Canada's most influential agencies, JWT, is hacking into the

The date is Feb. 28, 2005 and Tony Pigott, president and CEO of one of Canada’s most influential agencies, JWT, is hacking into the

wall of his company’s downtown Toronto office with an axe.

The entire staff is watching. The year marks the agency’s 75th in Canada and Pigott has just finished a speech on how its global headquarters has just announced a landmark rebranding initiative to fundamentally change how the 140-year-old multinational conducts business.

Staffer worries about Pigott’s stability abate as he pulls a wooden box from the wall where a plaque had made reference to something installed in 1985. That something is a time capsule. He opens it ceremoniously to reveal an historical reel, some memos and magazine clippings and other paraphernalia from the era.

As Pigott explains, the time capsule and the theatrical moment are meant to drive home a point. In the face of this new global repositioning, JWT Canada is at a crossroads. ‘What of JWT do we want to keep and what do we want to leave behind?’ he asks no one in particular.

That is a question that hangs over the company in 2005, as it simultaneously honours

the milestone anniversary

and sets its course for the foreseeable future.

JWT has perhaps the most freighted heritage in the history of advertising, not only in Canada but also around the world (see sidebar.) Ironically, the 20 years in which the time capsule sat hidden in the wall have been the most challenging and formative in the company’s history.

Today, after five years under Pigott’s guidance, JWT Canada is on a roll. Through a combination of organic growth and expansion into customer relationship management, the company is three times bigger than it was five years ago. It has won numerous awards, including Cassies at home and Lions at Cannes, many on the rebranding and re-launching of commodity status products such as brands for Kellogg, Kraft and Nestlé.

One of the most lauded turnaround stories has been for Listerine. Wes Pringle, the senior director of marketing and professional sales for Toronto-based Pfizer Consumer Healthcare Canada, explains how the Action Hero was born.

‘If you go back a large number of years, the brand had a little bit too authoritative an image. So we had to find a way of serving up the brand that was true to its character – strength and whatnot – but also made it more approachable.’ The hero concept, he continues, ‘allowed us to introduce some fun into the campaign, but at the same time be true to a big, strong iconic brand. We’ve been

on-air now for about five years, and the brand has experienced double-digit growth throughout that entire time period.’

It was a path that the pharmaceutical firm was initially reticent to follow but has since strongly embraced, Pringle says. ‘When we first went in this direction, we were a little concerned about how much fun we could have with the brand character without appearing silly,’ he points out. Now, ‘we find that…it really resonates with people.’

Pringle adds that as a result of the success, his company recently awarded JWT its tobacco dependence business, for the brands Nicorette and Nicoderm. Now, all the consumer healthcare group’s brands are consolidated with JWT, including Listerine mouthwash and Pocketpaks, Reactine, Benylin, Visine, Lubriderm, Polysporin and Rolaids. Pringle says the anti-tobacco products are the company’s biggest category, with Canadian annual sales in excess of $100 million.

Similar to the Action Hero story, it is JWT’s ability to strike a chord with common consumers that has underpinned its solid relationship with Nestlé, based in Toronto. Bob Leonidas, the president of Nestlé Canada Confectionery (JWT also handles its ice cream business), credits that strength to the remarkably egoless creative team, led by Martin Shewchuk since 2002, that has helped achieve ‘double-digit’ sales growth. ‘Some creative departments…are a bunch of prima donnas. These guys and ladies [at JWT] are just everyday people trying to create everyday ads that sell lots of product.’

In fact, the Aero campaign is one of several that JWT has seen exported to serve the foreign markets of its multinational clients. The mumbling ‘bubbles’ women spot is on the air in the U.S., the U.K.

and, ‘oddly enough,’ the Ukraine, says Shewchuk.

It isn’t the only one. Nestlé’s Kit Kat campaign – starring a bored-with-everything male model – runs in Paris; Pfizer’s Listerine Pocketpaks runs in the U.S., Greece and Australia; and Kellogg’s Special K’s ‘Keep it simple’ has been adopted as the brand’s global platform, Pigott says. Other export hits, first coined before Shewchuk’s arrival, include the Halls lozenge ‘fore’ golf bit – it ran in approximately 10 countries – and

the Philly Angel ‘A little taste of heaven’ for Kraft’s Philadelphia

cream cheese.

Pigott adds ‘Angel’ is now

10 years old, and appears in more than 30 countries. ‘It is the second most widespread campaign in the Philip Morris company after the Marlboro Man,’ Pigott says,

referring to Kraft being owned by

the cigarette maker.

The president and CEO says the shop has a knack for getting ‘a true understanding of the DNA of a brand,’ and deciphering ‘what makes it unique and distinctive and special from a consumer’s point of view.’

The Philly Angel – developed in 1995 – was a major achievement for JWT in a period when a breakout hit was sorely needed. A vibrant period in the 1980s saw JWT create the Pepsi Challenge and the Labatt Blue Balloon (which would appear in the background in outdoor scenes in TV spots.) It also imported edgy British humour in the form of John Cleese bumbling his way through a Diet Pepsi Free ad, and Spitting Image puppets satirizing Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent over the taste of Chiclets. But then the agency suffered major setbacks.

The recession of the early to mid-1990s was a particularly tough period for Canadian agencies, including JWT, observes Marlene Hore. Hore, who was with the company from 1971 until 1993 – she was EVP and national CD when she left – recalls in particular the high-profile loss of 20-year client Labatt in the late 1980s. In 1996, the agency would also lose Pepsi after 30 years.

Both episodes, she recalls, ‘shocked the ego of the company.’

And at the same time the industry was consolidating – JWT Worldwide was acquired by WPP in 1987. ‘It got really rocky,’ says Hore. Mergers swallowed agencies, and clients were bought out, and with that leaner business climate came a new ethos, with the early 1990s standing as a turning point in marketing, she says. Gone was the collegiality that had marked the profession. ‘It got very competitive and you had to start proving your mettle in a different way.’

Rick Kemp recollects that JWT was having a difficult time regaining its competitive traction when he joined the company in 1998 as the head of creative. ‘The agency had kind of fallen off the map and our job, creatively, was to put it back on,’ he says, referring to the leadership shown by John Clinton, who was at the helm then (and is now president and CEO of Grey Advertising in Toronto where Kemp is ECD.)

The two were instrumental in building the momentum that still carries the company today. Their achievements included relaunching Kraft Dinner with the ‘Got to be KD’ tag, they got the ball rolling on the renewed push for Listerine, and put together the Halls ‘Fore’ campaign, as well as the Philly Angel.

Today neither Pigott nor Shewchuk dwell on the company’s past victories. Despite the unmistakable pride at seeing the fruits of JWT’s labour exported to other markets, both men clearly have their focus on the future. Their two main concerns now are Canadianizing the corporation-wide repositioning touted by worldwide CEO Bob Jeffrey in late January, and their push into social marketing.

Pigott elaborates on the philosophy behind the JWT rebranding, which includes formally changing the name from J. Walter Thompson to the shorthand by which it has been informally known for years.

The new global JWT push centres on really engaging consumers. ‘We have reached a stage in our business where consumers are so smart, so able to tune things out, so cynical and media savvy that the age of interruption to advertise is over, and now we’re entering an age of participation.’

But more than just continuing to bring new life to staple goods, the agency is entering the realm of social marketing, says Pigott. Thompson Social was kicked off three years ago in Toronto, but its mandate is global. Its maiden pitch was also among the more unusual presentations ever conducted by an ad agency: The team spoke at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

So far its clients in this realm include the energy company Shell, bank HSBC, Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and the not-for-profit Concerned Children’s Advertisers. As well, JWT has begun working with the United Nations

‘to attempt to develop communications strategies which would help people understand the idea of sustainable development,’ says Pigott, who travelled throughout Australia and Asia before going into marketing. Ideas put forth by Thompson Social include a Web site that could be used as a clearinghouse for reusable eco-friendly marketing campaigns from around the world. As Pigott explains, issues like environmental degradation touch a variety of organizations, be they major corporations, not-for-profits, or non-governmental agencies.

‘We believe that corporate reputation, the social consciousness

of consumers, the continuing emergence of environmental issues and sustainability, all of those things have significant implications for the way that companies market their brands [today.]‘ That blend of private concern and corporate priorities can be leveraged to yield newfound attention for its clients, Pigott believes.

‘We think the skills and expertise that we have here, combined with new…[insights into] these societal issues can really enhance how we as companies help people as well as help move social change forward,’ he says.

Business is always moving forward, and good advertising agencies are able to consistently capture the eternal nature of a brand and tie it into the transient here and now of pop culture. It is a balance that JWT Canada has been able to strike consistently since it opened for business 75 years ago. Its messages seamlessly fit the media landscape as they also stand out from it. Like a CEO standing in the middle of his office – with an axe in his hands.