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Keeping JWT alive one drink at a time! Agency alums open up on why the loss of JWT feels personal

In September 2023, WPP merged J. Walter Thompson, now Wunderman Thompson, with VMLY&R to make VML. In response to what felt like a loss of 'home' for many, JWT alums decided to reunite for one final celebration of the remaining legacy agency, reliving their JWT days

Amidst the hustling bustling lives of most on a Saturday in Delhi, a group of 60 odd people coming from different worlds decided to meet at ‘Nowhere’ after they heard of how a place what they called home for years or a place where they created some of the most kickass ads the world had ever seen was coming to an end.

Call it a coincidence, but the name of the place did go along perfectly with the occasion, a reunion of the people who once joined, worked and groomed themselves at a home called JWT or so to say the JWT school of advertising, the walls of which came crashing down, once again, when WPP announced the merger of Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R to VML starting next year.

Earlier, it was in 2018 that WPP had decided to merge two of its agencies, J Walter Thompson and Wunderman to form a digitally strong front- Wunderman Thompson. But starting January 1, 2024, both the agencies along with Y&R will cease to exist, which has left quite a good number of advertising professionals disheartened.

Speaking on the reunion of the good-old JWT family, Anuja Chauhan, an ad professional turned author and screenwriter, who had been associated with JWT as the Executive Creative Director and Vice-President from February 1993 to September 2010, pointed out that even though it's a cliche, JWT is actually the “University of Advertising” that was the biggest agency in India for 70 years straight.

“Every decade, there were new challengers and people said that JWT was finished but the agency would come back only stronger. We had huge brands ranging from Horlicks to Lux to the Colas and the cell phone companies with us for years which is why it was really the University of Advertising. And the fact of the matter is that the smartest people used to come to JWT clamouring to get a job for the longest time and anybody you meet today in the ad world would have spent time or worked at JWT at some point of time,” she said.

She then went on to add that most of the people who are in the top leadership positions at various agencies today had not only worked at JWT but were bonded with the agency in such a way that they actually decided to be present at the reunion to express their emotions about how the legacy JWT brand name was coming to an end.

As per Rohit Ohri, FCB Global Partner, who was serving the role of Managing Partner at JWT from March 1990 to August 2011, as well, JWT may not exist as a brand anymore, but it will exist as a 'bond' forever. A bond between all those who have had the “good fortune” of experiencing the magic that was JWT. 

“I headed the Delhi Office for 7 years, and I must say those years were fantastic. As a team, we built on the strengths of the Delhi office and very soon became the largest office of a network agency in India. It was an exhilarating, heady feeling. We had the best team and the best brands in the market,” he said.

With this he also went on to add that even though JWT may not have won awards, but what it did win was hearts and great market success for it produced the most loved work in the country. 

To this, Soumitra Karnik, an Independent Consultant, who served the role of Executive Creative Director at JWT India from June 2000 to November 2011, echoed that the feeling of the same is like that of an old jingle of a commercial which sticks in your head- ‘School Khatam Ho Raha Hai, Dosti Nahi!” And therefore the reunion did feel like that of the ones which happen in schools, to him, but only with less hair and more stories.

Karnik then pointed out that he and many others like him don’t see JWT or HTA just as names, but as the only names that were there because they stood the test of time and their grounds for fifteen decades.

“It was in the JWT Bombay office that we had brands like Lux and Unilever, and in JWT Delhi we had the GSK and Hero Honda amongst many others. In fact, the JWT Delhi Office in itself was the third largest advertising office in the world and we were creating popular culture on a daily basis where even the smallest of brands were the large brands,” the two recalled.

Furthermore, Karnik also mentioned that the best thing about JWT was that when working at the agency, both the energy and the work that happened never felt like work because everyone had so much fun in the process and actually created the best advertising.

“We all had managed to have a decent life because we had a culture of giving a work-life balance to people because even our bosses were very understanding at that point in time. Understanding enough to even give people time-offs if one was having a burnout,” Chauhan added.

That being said, Karnik also recalled that even the brands that JWT worked with, which in today’s common lingo are referred to as clients were never actually addressed as ‘clients’ but by their names in the good-old JWT world and that even they would acknowledge it openly that the JWT team knew more about their business than the brand team itself.

Furthermore, Swati Bhattacharya, Chief Creative Officer, FCB India, who is often referred to as the lone ranger of JWT and was associated with the agency for over two decades from 1993 to 2014, also acknowledged that since an entire chunk of her life was JWT, it almost feels like JWT, for her, was an address where she lived for 22 long years and a place where all the big things in her life happened and now that it's no more, the loss just feels personal.

Sharing a similar viewpoint to Chauhan and Karnik, Anupama Ramaswamy, Chief Creative Officer, Havas Worldwide India, who was the Senior Creative Director and Associate Vice-President at JWT from December 2007 to April 2013, also stated that JWT for her is home, leaving it creates a void, and there's no other place in the world that she can truly call home.

“I have learned everything I know because of JWT and because of the people who were there like Anuja and Swati amongst others. For me, everything is about the people and that place never made you feel like we were doing a job. Instead, we always thought we would meet people we love and somebody or the other always had our back. In fact, my fondest memory of my JWT is that I had my baby during my stint there and the way they took care of me whether it was during my three months off or when I came back, they not only gave me flexible work hours but also allowed my nanny to come along with me for a shoot amongst all other things, which is why for me, it was the most awesome time,” she highlighted.

Having said that she also emphasised that JWT was indeed a people's organisation or what we call a people's agency and a lot of credit for the same goes to the people like Rohit Ohri, Sanjeev Bhargava, Swati Bhattacharya and Anuja Chauhan amongst others.

Hari Krishnan, Managing Director, Publicis Content, Publicis Groupe, who was also associated with JWT as Executive Business Director from April 2007 to January 2011, also shared that he was aware of JWT from the time it was HTA and hence when he was still in college, he was very keen to go and take a copy test at what was called HTA and while that may have not happened, what happened many years later was that he joined JWT at a fairly senior position.

“I joined JWT in 2007 and my inclination to appear for a copy test at HTA was somewhere in the 90s, so to me, it didn't really matter whether it was JWT or HTA because it was the great work that had come out of that office was what concerned to me,” he stated.

He then went on to add that during his six years of association with JWT, he not only thought of the agency as a great organisation which had a lot of systems, ethos and great culture but also as one which had a very strategic bent, for him as he and the team at that point in time handled some of the biggest brands in India.

“I personally was heading up Pepsi at one point in time and then JWT gave me an opportunity to be deputed at WPP for the Ford business and I started the Global team of Ford business in India which was the entire integrated setup. So I'll always have very fond memories of JWT because of the culture I grew up in, the people I worked with and who all I am meeting today,” he added.

He then went on to state that while he doesn’t really have an opinion on the merger, what he does feel is sadness for people like him and many others who spent a large chunk of 20-30 years of their careers at JWT which makes it all the more emotional and sentimental.

“I view it as more of a corporate decision which is why I'm a little numb to this, but I do feel that while the name or the stationery may have gone, the energy still exists and that is visible in all the people who have been bonding ever since they entered the place. JWT is home to several great people like Rohit Ohri, Sanjeev Bhargava, Anuja Chauhan, etc. who are changing the industry today,” he opined.

Walking down memory lane, Iraj Fraz Batla, Creative Head, DDB Tribal (DDB Mudra Group), also shared that when he was working as the Creative Director at JWT Delhi (from June 2008 to January 2013) and worked on brands such as Iodex and Horlicks amongst others, what changed the way he actually worked was a startling fact that both the brands had been with the agency from a point in time when India wasn’t even independent, i.e- 1938.

“And that made me a more responsible creative person because it was like a brand with a huge legacy and I wanted to do some good work on it and do work that actually would continue to matter because that kind of legacy can’t be recreated,” he said.

With this, he mentioned with a heavy heart that he personally, purely from an advertising POV, doesn’t see any reason why a brand with a legacy like JWT was actually folded and kept in the cupboard forever. To add gravitas to his point here, he mentioned that some of the legacy consultancy firms such as McKinsey have stayed for over 100 years now and it doesn’t mean that they can’t do modern things.

“In Delhi and in India, JWT has been an institution for so many people who have spent some good time creating really good work. In fact, there are many people who have benefited from being in JWT and have even contributed to JWT becoming awesome. So, we all have our lessons and memories, the things we take back but even though it's a stupid reason for us all to have met actually, i,e.- JWT is dead, it gave a reason for 50-odd people to connect perhaps still and that’s fair,” he said.

Abhik Santara, Founder, ^atom Network, who was associated with the agency as a Associate Vice-President from January 2006 to October 2008, also admitted that joining the agency was frankly the most ambitious career move he ever wanted post entering the advertising world because he always wanted to work in JWT.

“I always wanted to work on a brand like Pepsi, and I was lucky enough to get that role. My fondest memory of JWT is of course of it being an institution and JWT Delhi, per se, being a great place to be under Rohit Ohri's leadership. It was truly a thriving superpower of advertising and even when I quit, it was still that. But I hope with the new management coming with the new philosophy which is going to get into the blood of JWT, given the changing dynamics of advertising, I'm sure it will do well because the fundamentals of advertising are very sound with all those who have been a part of JWT,” he said.

While there are still speculations about who would lead the new VML, there are many hearts grieving for the tragic nail that WPP hammered into the coffins of J Walter Thompson, Wunderman and Young and Rubicam for the three of them cumulatively would cease to exist in the name of the newly rechristened agency.

But what shall prevail is the legacy that each of these agencies shared and the fond memories that the people who worked at JWT made at one point in time forever etched in their hearts. To the grit, energy and spirit of JWT and the folks it nurtured and groomed!

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