Wunderman Thompson – or what was J Walter Thompson (JWT) – has completed over nine decades of operations in India, having started in 1929. The global agency first set up its India office in a room at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, primarily to handle the General Motors account.
It donned a new avatar after merging with global digital agency Wunderman in 2018 to form Wunderman Thompson (WT) in India. A couple of years and a pandemic later, the agency that created iconic campaigns for Air India, Maggi, Taj Mahal tea, Pepsi, Nike, and KitKat seems to be undergoing a change in both perception and composition.
There have been high-profile exits and some internal elevations as well. Raji Ramaswamy and Joy Chauhan were recently promoted to chief growth officer and chief client officer, Wunderman Thompson South Asia. Ramaswamy continues to be CEO of Contract Advertising, a Wunderman Thompson group agency while Chauhan also holds current responsibility as managing partner, WT Delhi. In November, old hand and senior creative resource Tista Sen moved out.
Finding the balance
Storyboard18 spoke to industry executives, many of whom said the agency "lost the plot" after its merger with Wunderman, having failed to achieve a balance between its digital and traditional advertising strategies. The broad idea behind the merger was to propel JWT India into a more digitally savvy future. However, the decision seems to have created internal fissures, leading to not only the loss of key talent but also some clients.
Over the years, its heritage as a creative heavyweight has been eroded as some senior talent stepped away. Their departure led to the loss of deep knowledge and understanding on big accounts that had created a sense of trust among clients. Therefore, many clients decided to leave.
The iconic agency is undergoing a change both in perception and composition.
Last year, after the global realignment of the WPP universe, Wunderman Thompson lost Pepsi, one of its biggest clients in India, which moved to the Publicis Groupe and its creative agency Leo Burnett. WPP is the global communications giant that owns JWT and Ogilvy in India.
Pepsi’s departure was a jolt because JWT had been instrumental in building the brand with memorable and iconic campaigns such as "Yeh Dil Maange More," "Oye Bubbly" and "Yehi hai right choice baby—aha!"
Over the years, as the agency experimented with creative structures, invariably bringing in external talent through its infamous revolving doors, it also lost accounts such as Nike, Airtel, Kellogg’s, GlaxoSmithKline’s malt drink brand Horlicks and Hindustan Unilever’s shampoo brand Sunsilk.
“To get good work done you need a pipeline of good talent and look after them. If you lose your clients and people, what’s left? The challenge that big agencies are facing is regaining their relevance. It also boils down to having strong leadership and creating big brand work that clients get attracted to,” said ad veteran and former JWT South Asia CEO Colvyn Harris.
Rediffusion managed to edge out Wunderman Thompson in bidding for contracts a couple of times recently, said managing director Sandeep Goyal.
“We beat them on the BMW and Tata Power pitch in close succession in a couple of months. We obviously felt extremely good because beating Thompson was never easy. Being able to get the better of them on large accounts gave me the feeling that either we are extremely good or they are not as good as they used to be,” he said.
Goyal started his career with Hindustan Thompson Associates (which became JWT in 2002) in 1986. Back then, he handled Horlicks, one of the most prestigious accounts for the agency.
In a chat with Storyboard18, he recalled HTA being the “University of Indian Advertising” where some of the best minds in servicing, account management and creative worked. He said that somewhere, over the years, the charisma of the people leading Thompson gradually waned.
Wunderman Thompson is essentially straddling two spaces. One is the brand and legacy that JWT stood for, and the other is the digital prowess and tech that Wunderman is globally known for.
“The leadership at the agency also makes a lot of difference… It is a leadership vacuum or a leadership dilution which is hurting Wunderman's brand,” he elaborated.
Tista Sen, JWT's former regional creative director who quit in November, has been synonymous with the agency’s creative team, having spent 22 years working on accounts such as GSK, ITC, Hindustan Unilever, and Godrej.
There have been other critical exits. In 2019, Jaibeer Ahmad, senior vice president and executive business director, left. He worked on the Pepsi and Tropicana, Kurkure, JK Tourism and Delhi Daredevils accounts.
The same year, Sambit Mohanty, national creative director, moved on. However, chief creative officer Senthil Kumar, who created some of the agency's most iconic campaigns including Nike's Cricket ad, continues to be with the agency.
Digital vs legacy debate
Wunderman Thompson is essentially straddling two spaces – brand and legacy that JWT stood for and the digital prowess and tech that Wunderman is globally known for. Executives said that while Ogilvy and Leo Burnett have struck this balance of creativity and technology, Wunderman Thompson still doesn't know which side it should hang its hat on. If it were to become fully digital, the transition is yet to happen, they said.
“JWT, a much bigger agency brand in India, was taken over by a relatively lesser-known agency brand, Wunderman. This perplexed all the stakeholders,” said a senior executive, seeking anonymity. “I'm not sure whether in the quest for being tech-oriented, one must change the 90-year-old legacy of a brand as many JWT clients have stayed on because of the agency's legacy and heritage.”
The executive added that big brands that made the agency what it is are not with it anymore. Digital projects do not add up to the agency's legacy. Clients also don't have trust when they see new faces at the agency, the executive said.
“They are hiring, but it seems like they are putting together a new agency with a new culture and temperament. The legacy part has just eroded. JWT has been an institute of learning where all the greats have gone. It is heart-breaking to see its current status,” the executive said.
Stalwarts who shaped JWT India include Morris Mathias, Subhas Ghoshal, Mike Khanna, Colvyn Harris, Gerson da Cunha, Subroto Sengupta, Syeda Imam, Ivan Arthur, Ram Ray and Sumantra Ghosal. Creative minds that came out of the agency include Swati Bhattacharya (currently at FCB), Bobby Pawar (now group creative chief at Havas), Agnello Dias (former founder and chief creative officer of Taproot Dentsu) and Anuja Chauhan (author).
According to a senior leader who was associated with the agency in the past, dumping the creative legacy of JWT wasn't a sensible decision because India is still a “big idea”-driven ad market where traditional media platforms such as television still occupy a significant share of the media pie.
“I'm not saying digital is not big, but if you look at properties such as IPL (Indian Premier League), it does really well on television… Similarly, big movies, especially in the South market, still attract viewers in the theatres,” the senior leader said. “At one time, JWT did own this space of creating big ideas and impactful TV ads with clients such as Pepsi or Horlicks. Even if they wanted to pivot towards digital, they could have done it without letting go of their legacy just the way their competitor agencies like Leo Burnett or Ogilvy are doing. They are still big idea agencies with digital capabilities.”
A large FMCG company that worked with Wunderman Thompson for TV campaigns until last year is now looking for more digital-first agency partners. The company’ s objective is clear: find communication partners with ideas and formats that engage younger audiences who have a shorter attention span.
"Our focus is to find partners that are agile in their communication and help us find right solutions for more digital-first consumers. These ideas could come from both traditional or new-age digital agencies and that's why we always brainstorm with all our agency partners before starting a new campaign," an executive of the FMCG company said on condition of anonymity.
Ajay Kakar, a brand and marketing strategist, spent 14 years at Ogilvy before moving to the client side. He is proud of his partnership with JWT India from the day he became a client almost 18 years ago. He worked with the agency during his stint at Reliance Capital and at Aditya Birla Capital.
Considered a flagship office once, JWT Chennai was merged with JWT Bangalore owing to a lack of business. Now the agency operates in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata.
“The first and obvious pull towards a particular agency is the brand name and creative reputation. That’s where the top few agency networks have an edge… The next filter is whether an agency is constrained due to their existing client roster with direct competition and, therefore, a conflict of interest,” Kakar said.
Kakar said that over the years, he has come to realise that there is no ‘agency standard’ of delivery.
“Whoever the agency, or as reputed be their brand name, what you get out of that agency is totally dependent on or as good as the people who actually work on your account,” he explained.
Kakar added that it is time for a client to move on when the name of the agency becomes more of a reassurance than the team members. In recent times, the name of the agency has changed a few times, and possibly the DNA, too.
“I would like to hear more about the buzz at the agency and the people, who, in the final analysis, are entrusted with the client brands,” he added.
An email sent to CVL Srinivas, country manager of WPP India, on Wunderman Thompson India's growth and business remained unanswered.
From the horse’s mouth
Change, however, is inevitable. And it seems Wunderman Thompson's transformation continues and even accelerates. The big question is what is it transforming into?
In October 2021, Wunderman Thompson brought in Shamsuddin Jasani, Dentsu's head of creative and group MD for South Asia at Isobar, as chief executive officer to replace Tarun Rai, who moved to become executive director, strategic initiatives–APAC.
Jasani told Storyboard18 that 2022 was the year of “integration” for the group as more clients demanded a single-agency partner. In India, the group operates creative agency Wunderman Thompson, digital marketing agency Mirum, and Wunderman Commerce. It employs about 1,200 people, excluding the workforce at its Gurgaon-based commerce arm.
Jasani said he is fully aware that he helms an agency that comes with a rich heritage and legacy. However, he is not looking for Sen’s replacement because that was how the new structure was going to be.
“I have just come in as a part of Wunderman Thompson, but the legacy and the strength of the agency continues. People believe in it and the trust that the clients have will continue. There have been changes but nothing that an agency as deep-rooted as ours cannot deal with,” he noted.
His immediate focus is on upskilling the workforce on emerging tools like Web3, handling offline-to-online customer journeys, and learning how storytelling can be tailored for individual digital platforms. He is also looking to acquire capabilities that can strengthen Wunderman Thompson's offerings.
“We will be looking at acquisitions to augment our capabilities. An experience design agency (UI/UX) is something we are actively exploring,” he said.
The agency claims to have won 22 accounts last year including Skoda, Mahindra One, Kotak Mahindra Bank, Vedanta, and Barbeque Nation. Wunderman Thompson Health has won Abbott (Troponin), Dr Reddy’s Laboratories (Alfoo and Dutas T), GSK (Physiogel, Zovirax, Zimig and Zoderm), Sun Pharmaceutical Industries (Revital, Volini, Pepfizz and Abzorb) and Hindustan Unilever (Novology).
Wunderman Thompson’s target is to grow 50 percent in the next three years. Jasani says that his focus is on bringing more client wins across payments, automobile, consumer packaged goods (CPG)/ fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) business, D2C brands, pharma and health categories.
Wunderman Thompson’s target is to grow 50 percent in the next three years. Jasani said his focus is on bringing more client wins across payments, automobile, consumer packaged goods/fast-moving consumer goods, direct-to-customer brands, pharma and health categories.
Years ago, in the pre-Wunderman era, the agency's various creative chiefs used intriguing analogies to describe what it was like to implement any change at JWT. One likened it to steering the Titanic away from the iceberg. Another went out of this world to source his comparison. The creative chief said JWT is like Saturn - a planet with beautiful rings and a rigid core.