What's in a name? The future of advertising

The rebranding of J Walter Thompson is about more than just a colourful new logo, writes Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Juniper Wheat Tabasco. It sounds more like the name of an estate agents in suburban Surrey - or a potpourri from the Body Shop - than the new signature of one of the greatest names in world advertising.

But when a 140-year-old company with a network of 315 offices and a revenue of more than $1.1bn decides that it needs rebranding, you know that it's not taking such a decision lightly.

Juniper Wheat Tabasco. JWT. The initials of James Walter Thompson, a former US marine who, at the age of 33, purchased a New York company selling advertising space in religious journals, and named the firm after himself. For more than a century, the agency has grown into an advertising behemoth, known around the globe by J Walter's blue, quill-scribed autograph.

Until today that is, when the network will be relaunched with a new name and a new philosophy. J Walter Thompson will be simply known by its initials and a logo in a range of colours (named after the above-listed tree, grain and condiment respectively), which send a clear signal of change to the company's blue-chip client list.

Today in 87 countries, JWT employees will mark their brand change in a range of bizarre rituals. In Egypt, staff have built a model "fourth Pyramid of Giza", where they will apparently "bury everything they want to take with them to JWT's new life - passion, commitment and creativity". In Paris, there will be "corporate finger-painting" in the new colours. In Mexico, the workforce will be treated to a performance by circus clowns, jesters, jugglers and elephants. Those based in London, meanwhile, will gather at the Royal Court Theatre to observe one minute's silence for the founder "Commodore" Thompson, before being given a small "christening cake". They will then sign the agency's new creative contract.

Bob Jeffrey, the CEO of JWT's global network, says: "Walking away from the blue was the right thing to do. It took a lot of courage because blue has been part of the 140-year- old history, but it reinforced the conservative, financial-institution nature of how people perceived us."

The advertising mogul Sir Martin Sorrell, whose WPP empire owns JWT, chose Jeffrey to oversee the repositioning of the agency network, which is widely perceived as having failed to move with the times. Jeffrey wants to change the whole direction of the company, and he is relying on Craig Davis, who was appointed last month as the company's worldwide chief creative officer, to reshape its philosophy.

Davis, an Australian based at JWT's modern new London offices across the road from Harrods in Knightsbridge, has chosen an unconventional method to get his message across. Hold My Skateboard While I Kiss Your Girlfriend is his lavishly produced, hard-backed bible of arresting full-page images and bold messages, such as "Time is the new currency".

"The need for change is pretty simple," he says, sitting in his fifth-floor office. "The world has changed: people's attitudes and interests are richer and more diverse. The first acknowledgement needs to be that we cannot create advertising that simply competes with other advertising. We need to compete with the reality, with other entertainment such as news and sport, and other content."

Furthermore, he says, the public are no longer prepared to be simply spectators in their relationship with media. At 42, he is of an age where he can cite the impact of computer games, such as Grand Theft Auto and The Sims. "You don't just play it but ... create an environment that at some point becomes so valuable that you can sell it on eBay," he says.

In Davis's book, there is a cut-out-and-keep advice slip. It outlines his - and, by extension, JWT's - thinking: "Our role: to ensure more people spend more time with our client's brands. Our purpose: to create ideas that people want to spend more time with. Our belief: the better the idea, the more time people will spend with it."

Davis came to advertising late. He studied law and worked variously as a fruit picker, a factory worker, a finance broker, a barman and a fashion-show producer. The last role drew him to advertising and he set up his own creative shop before joining Saatchi & Saatchi and helping it to win network of the year for work for such clients as Toyota, Procter & Gamble and Sony.

His watchword, courtesy of Helen Keller (the deaf-and-blind globetrotting author), is: "Life is a daring adventure or it's nothing." In his book, he warns his colleagues: "There are only 960 waking minutes in a day. Not nearly enough. Time is scarce. Deciding to do one thing means time can't be spent doing something else." If anything, he claims, these time pressures simplify the job of the advertiser. They mean that creative excellence is everything. "If you haven't got an idea that people want to spend time with," he says, "you are fighting a lost cause."

Ideas, he suggests, can be ranked from one to 10, according to how much time value they offer. Thus, a one is a piece of work that is "worse than a waste of time. It's damaging to both the client and us. You'd be better off staying at home." In Hold My Skateboard, Davis equates such work with the sentiment "I'd rather spend time at the dentist than with this idea". A 10, though, is work of "I'd rather spend time shagging like a rabbit than with this idea" proportions. This is work, suggests Davis, where "the audience will spend time exploring and playing with the idea. It is being talked about worldwide".

If some JWT staff find all this a little trite, they might give the concept more thought when they realise that Davis intends that all the network's work will, from now on, be regularly marked according to such a scale. "We will have metrics that will measure in precise terms how we regard the worth of that office," he says, adding that he gave colleagues score cards to mark the work. "We will be looking for the highlights, which we will put into circulation, and the lowlights, so that we can identify the problems." The result, he claims, will not be a climate of pressure and creative tension, but one of "energy, enthusiasm and inspiration", as agencies are made aware of benchmarks - the best of the work being produced by their colleagues around the globe.

Davis is on a serious mission. Hold My Skateboard will shortly arrive in the post of every one of JWT's 8,500 staff. It includes a 10-point "creative partnership contract" that each of them will be asked to sign, declaring that they are "excited by our ardent focus on the work and [I] will be a committed advocate and active practitioner of our new purpose, role and belief".

And just in case they are tempted to try to tuck the boss's tome away on a high shelf, he has produced it as a deliberately awkward, A3-sized, black hardback. "They will have to find a special place to put it," he says.

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