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Kit Kats as postcards? This is not the work of Mad Men

JWT’s world chief Bob Jeffrey tells Ian Burrell the secrets of global advertising

Bob Jeffrey has an expression: “idea racism”. He uses it to describe the mind-set that says the only environments in which creative work can flourish are the island of Manhattan – the Madison Avenue of television’s Mad Men – or Zone One of the London Tube map.

But the global chairman and CEO of JWT says he is allowing the “hunger and ambition” of staff in outposts such as Malaysia and Argentina to reinvigorate one of the world’s leading advertising agencies. “I would define idea racism as this very narrow-minded view that creative ideas have to emanate from New York and London. What we are demonstrating is that great ideas can happen anywhere.”

Ironically, the ethos of Jeffrey’s worldwide operation is best summed up by the work produced by JWT (formerly known as J Walter Thompson) in London for HSBC: the famous “world’s local bank” campaign, showing how customs change from one country to another. You can’t pass through an airport without seeing it. Accordingly Jeffrey likes to think of JWT, with its 200 offices in 90 countries, as the world’s local ad agency.

That local insight is exemplified by a recent campaign to sell Kit Kat chocolate bars to the Japanese. In Tokyo, the term “Kitto Katso” translates as “surely win”, so JWT capitalised on the Japanese tradition of sending students a good luck wish ahead of their exams, persuading the Japanese postal service to accept Kit Kats as edible postcards. “The Kit Kat became a mailable bar of chocolate that you could send to your class friends to wish them well in their exams,” Jeffrey says, proudly. “It has become a new ‘wishing you well’ device in Japan and it illustrates what we are doing around the world.”

Less obviously, JWT’s new pan-Asian work for Unilever’s Lux soap products features the Swansea-born Catherine Zeta-Jones tossing her auburn locks. “For a certain section of the population, Western glamour and Hollywood is very appealing to Asian women,” Jeffrey says, describing how the Lux campaign was carefully researched. The approach seems to be working. The Kit Kat campaign won a prestigious Media Grand Prix at last month’s Cannes advertising festival, where JWT also picked up five golds, nine silvers and 11 bronze awards.

JWT’s India office took home three golds and the agency’s Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou offices all picked up trophies. Jeffrey’s policy of countering “idea racism” is borne out by JWT’s global campaign for Kleenex, which was created by the Malaysia office, the Nestlé ice cream work from Argentina and campaigns for Nokia that were made in Brazil and China. Appropriately, he is talking in the restaurant of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, in London’s Knightsbridge, across the road from JWT’s London office – the fifth-largest agency in the UK and one with a chequered history.

Last September, its chief executive, Alison Burns, was recalled to the US after two years of battling to turn it around. Jeffrey thinks she and the executive chairman, Toby Hoare, have done a good job in improving the shop’s output, though he concedes that “two years ago, we really had some major issues in London”.

JWT is part of Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP media empire, within which it is the best performing agency, recently securing new business from Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson. “We are now winning business that four or five years ago we wouldn’t have even been in a consideration list for.”

But WPP is having to shed|thousands of jobs in the face of the economic downturn, and Jeffrey agrees with those of JWT’s clients who do not foresee recovery until the latter part of 2010. He is restructuring his 10,000-strong workforce to include more young people who have grown up with digital technology, describing them as “digital natives versus digital immigrants”. “I am really putting more focus on skill sets and disciplines which are of the future, digital being the number one,” he says.

Large agencies such as JWT are often criticised by smaller rivals who claim to provide a more bespoke service, but Jeffrey points out that he spent 10 years running his own boutique Goldsmith/Jeffrey agency and makes a point of hiring people with a similar background. By combining that outlook with an appreciation that ideas can come from any culture, “I have put confidence back into being a global network,” he says.

“I’ve actually used talent in a disruptive way, to change a culture that had become conservative and stodgy.”