The story behind the collapse of advertising's oldest agency, J. Walter Thompson

Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty ImagesFormer J. Walter Thompson CEO Gustavo Martinez.
  • J. Walter Thompson became the biggest name in advertising over 155 years, making classic campaigns for brands like Ford, Kraft, Unilever, and the US Marines.
  • Parent company WPP merged JWT with digital agency network Wunderman in 2018 and the J. Walter Thompson name was dropped the following year.
  • 21 insiders say the agency struggled to deal with the rise of digital and the aftermath of a legal scandal that grabbed headlines around the world.

J. Walter Thompson rose from a brokerage selling ads in New York City newspapers to become the world’s most successful and longstanding ad agency on the strength of classic campaigns for brands like Ford, Kraft, Kellogg’s, Unilever, and the US Marines.

But the name that defined advertising collapsed due to the same forces that turned most of the industry upside-down in the 21st century. In late 2018, JWT merged with digital firm Wunderman to create Wunderman Thompson. For many, J. Walter Thompson is now synonymous with the bygone golden age of advertising.

Business Insider spoke to 21 current and former executives at J. Walter Thompson, Wunderman Thompson, and WPP for an in-depth look at what happened to the oldest name in the business. Some key takeaways:

  • JWT began to struggle with the 2010 departures of key executives and major accounts including Microsoft, JetBlue, and Royal Caribbean while WPP’s financial constraints hampered its turnaround.
  • The company tried to mimic the success of younger rivals like Crispin Porter Bogusky by acquiring digital agencies, but ran into integration problems, leading to internal rivalries and confusion for clients.
  • A lawsuit accusing then-JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez of harassment and discrimination grabbed headlines around the world and made J. Walter Thompson’s name toxic to would-be clients and hires alike.

Read the rest of the story here: The rise and fall of J. Walter Thompson, the world’s oldest advertising agency

Read more of Business Insider’s coverage of WPP here:

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.