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Lessons behind a massive agency upheaval

Lessons behind a massive agency upheaval Lori Luechtefeld

The bigger the ship, the harder it is to turn. That's a truism that Ty Montague, chief creative officer and co-president of JWT North America, can certainly attest to. After all, four and half years ago, he was hired to turn one of Madison Avenue's biggest -- and oldest -- ships.

Ty Montague is chief creative officer and co-president of JWT North America.

Since joining JWT (which, prior to the firm's 2005 "relaunch," went by its more-traditional moniker, J. Walter Thompson), Montague -- in conjunction with co-president Rosemarie Ryan -- has led the agency through a creative transformation. The goal: to rebuild an advertising powerhouse with the singular objective of creating and telling brand stories that audiences seek out rather than shut out. That's no small task, no matter how you slice it. And Montague won't lie -- it hasn't been easy.

The transformation of JWT hasn't just been a creative revolution -- it's been a digital one as well.

"Our goal has been to bring people in who bring a different perspective to what is a great and storied agency," Montague says. "Our observation four and a half years ago -- and this is not news to anybody today -- was that digital is not a department. And yet in most big agencies, it's treated as a department. But our philosophy was that everything is digital -- everything is just a string of ones and zeros. And because of that, everybody at JWT has to be digital."

Together, Montague and Ryan set about introducing a new generation of digital talent to an agency steeped in traditional marketing mindsets. They wove these new hires into the fabric of the agency. They plopped digitally minded creatives right alongside those versed solely in traditional media. They did the same in the planning department. And the same in account management.

"That was really, really hard -- and bumpy at first," Montague recalls. "A lot of them got here, looked around, and said, 'Wow, this is like an alien landscape.' Some of them left. But we kept at it because we believed that it was the right idea. And it's now become really quite successful -- it's become part of the culture. We have people with really strong digital interactive backgrounds partnered day-to-day with people with more-traditional storytelling backgrounds."

One of the major challenges in executing JWT's digital infusion was convincing the new digital marketing talent that they would have as much authority as their traditional counterparts, Montague says. "One of the old problems was that the people with the 'traditional' backgrounds would crack 'the big idea' and then throw it over the fence to people with digital backgrounds and say, 'Now figure out how it works on the web,'" he says. "That's a process that is wrong for today, and it kept a lot of people with digital backgrounds feeling like they had to be in a completely separate and specialized environment to get the respect they were due."

Montague notes that part of giving due respect to digital talent meant ensuring that no glass ceiling was imposed on new interactive hires. In that regard, he notes that people with both digital and traditional backgrounds hold executive creative director titles at JWT. And no work goes out the door without approvals from both sides.

Gradually, Montague says, what started as a somewhat forced alliance has evolved into something more akin to an exchange program -- with digital marketers infusing their traditional counterparts with a higher level of interactive skills, in exchange for greater insights into the traditional art of storytelling.

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The fruits of integration
Of course, it's easy for an agency leader to tell you that his grand vision for transforming his organization is coming to fruition -- that despite bumps and bruises along the way, things have all worked out in the end. But the real proof is in the product. And Montague has some impressive case studies to back up his story.

Take, for instance, the "Unbreakable Kiss" campaign that JWT spearheaded for De Beers -- a quintessential example of world-meets-web. "We created an installation, so people had to come and physically interact with it," Montague says. "And then it also had a very strong online expression. I'm proud of that interplay, as well as the craft level of that piece."

While Montague notes that the agency has produced many stellar integrated campaigns during his time there, he says the "Unbreakable Kiss" is the one he presents to prospective new hires -- of all backgrounds, digital and traditional -- to demonstrate the level of integrated work that the new incarnation of JWT is capable of.

The campaign started with a tangible, real-world event -- a giant Christmas installation in Madison Square Park where couples could come to kiss beneath a giant diamond-shaped, LED-infused mistletoe. Every kiss was captured by 60 still cameras and then strung together to create a Matrix-esque moving video of a kiss frozen in time.

Following their real-world lip-locks, people could go online, download their unbreakable kisses, and disseminate them to friends and family via their favorite social networks, photo-share sites, or video portals. And share them they did, with some unbreakable kisses even turning up on YouTube. In the end, De Beers scored an estimated $4.6 million worth of free publicity through the campaign, not to mention a significant jump in website traffic during the ever-important holiday season.

Big but nimble
While the De Beers "Unbreakable Kiss" campaign speaks to the artistry and innovation that can result from a true collaboration of digital and traditional media minds, it stands to reason that the melding of two previously distinct cultures -- and the mandate that they come to agreement on all elements of a campaign -- could add yet another level of bureaucracy to an already complex ecosystem. Not so, says Montague. "When people think of agencies like JWT, we get tarred with the 'big and slow' brush," he says. "Honestly, the culture we've created here is one that is really nimble and able to take up challenges quickly and respond in real time."

As an example, he points to the agency's recent work -- helmed by JWT New York chief creative officer Harvey Marco -- on the JetBlue "Bigwigs" campaign, which was developed in response to the backlash against executive perks that arose earlier this year when three auto industry CEOs flew private jets to Washington, D.C., to beg for public funds.

"We took an issue -- the issue of CEOs no longer being able to fly in private jets -- and turned it into an advantage for one of our clients, JetBlue, in a way that really caught fire," Montague says. The agency was busily producing work on the campaign within hours of the breaking news -- print ads, radio spots, viral online videos. The timeliness and playfulness of the campaign, positioned as a tongue-in-cheek introduction to commercial air travel for CEOs only, caught the attention of media outlets and spread across the airwaves and internet like wildfire.

Storytelling gone digital
These recent integrated campaign hits, as well as others for companies including Microsoft and Stride gum, serve as vindication that the long, hard process of turning JWT inside-out is paying off. But after all the shaking up and shaking out, Montague notes that the mission of the agency remains the same as it ever was -- to develop compelling narratives on behalf of a brand. It's how those stories are being delivered that has forever changed.

"It's obvious that technology is changing and is going to continue to change for the foreseeable future," he says. "But it's equally clear to us that people are not changing all that much. People are still pretty much the same today that they were 100 years ago, and our belief is that people always have and always will respond to powerful storytelling. So technology enables new forms of storytelling, and it enables them to react and respond and share stories in new ways. But ultimately, if you want to get someone's attention and get them really excited about something, tell them a great story."

When it comes to the evolution of technology and its effects on advertisers, the turbulent transformation undertaken at JWT could easily be viewed as a microcosm of the broader digital marketing revolution.

"From 1777 -- which I believe was the year that the Bass Ale logo was trademarked, so we'll call that the birth of marketing -- to 1995, things were relatively simple and straightforward from a storytelling standpoint," Montague says. That is, storytelling was a one-way affair between marketers and consumers. Although consumers still had opinions and shared them with each other, these opinions rarely, if ever, made it all the way back to the brands themselves. And they certainly didn't make it back to the brands in real-time.

Then the internet happened.

Seemingly overnight, the voices of consumers were amplified. "All of a sudden marketers could hear that for the first time, in real-time," Montague says. "Hearing them for the first time was kind of jarring. It was a very novel experience and ultimately a very healthy thing for the conversation to become two-way -- literally a conversation."

As that conversation continues to grow louder, Montague notes that brands continue to find new ways to get their feelings hurt. "Twitter is just another way of knowing faster what everybody is thinking about," he says. "That's potentially painful and difficult if you're doing something that folks on Twitter think is dumb or wrong or negative in some way. But it also allows you to course correct -- what a great blessing to know what people think in real-time."

Of course, Montague notes, being prepared to participate as needed in these real-time conversations presents quite a challenge, as the infrastructures of both agencies and their clients haven't evolved at the same pace as the communications. But the potential for enhanced consumer engagement is massive -- for those marketers who know how to seize the opportunity.

"Companies need to understand that it's going to take more than just signing up for Twitter," he says. "They have to actually make a commitment structurally and from a staffing standpoint to really take advantage of the medium."

In the end, though, Montague notes that Twitter represents just the beginning of something much bigger, more persistent, and more pervasive. "I mean, who knows if Twitter will be here five years from now? But Twitter-like behavior, I'm certain, is here to stay," he says. "People are constantly going to be broadcasting their thoughts and feelings and observations about the world and brands and their friends and products. I think that phenomenon is incredibly exciting -- and incredibly exhausting. But it holds a huge amount of potential for brands that get it right."

Lori Luechtefeld is editor of iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Lori Luechtefeld is principal of strategic content firm Wookit Media and an associate at WIT Strategy. In both roles, she works with a network of media and marketing professionals to devise and fulfill on content strategies that connect...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: masn masn

2009, August 21

I applaud the Ty and JWT's efforts in this area. Can't really call it foresight but remarkably they are out ahead of a lot of their competitive set after this bleedingly obvious approach has been on the radar.

Not surprisingly, the operational aspects of bringing all of this together are not addressed as far as the role of Integrated Project Managers & Producers in making sure that all the wonderful thinking and messaging actually sees the light of day - not to mention on time & on budget. I'm sure many can relate to panic-driven scenario where an agency has to break the news to a client that something like Unbreakable Kiss can no longer be a holiday effort, but it goes real nice with Valentine's Day too.

For more on the critical role of PM's and Producers in an agency environment. Please check out what I, guys like Dustin Hoffman, in his role as Producer Stanley Motts, in Wag the Dog and Ted Royer, Droga5's Executive Creative Director have to say:

Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog - Project Management Success - Where's the Evidence?!

Ted Royer, Droga5's Executive Creative Director - Project Management Recognition - Getting the Love (and more) that PM's Deserve