This story appears in the December/January 2015 issue of strategy.
Ten years after rebranding as JWT, the agency is returning to its classic J. Walter Thompson moniker in January 2015 as part of the worldwide celebration of its 150th anniversary.
For 85 of those years, JWT has been in Canada.
Aside from the nod to the agency’s celebrated history, there will be no looking back for the current leadership of JWT Canada. Susan Kim-Kirkland and her team have their eyes firmly fixed on the future, with a vision of pioneering world-changing ideas.
Two years into her new role, Kim-Kirkland, president and CEO at JWT Canada, says, “We’ve spent the last couple of years under new leadership building our teams out, building our philosophy, working with our existing clients, building new clients and it’s all starting to come together.
“There are a couple of things critical to our strategic plan. The first is leveraging our deep roots and understanding of traditional packaged goods communications. We’re very strategic. We have deep roots in planning and we’ve been able to marry that with the pace and the innovation of retail. That has really started to show itself as a defining characteristic of how JWT works.”
She says one of the biggest challenges is that, with the proliferation of communications channels and so many options for brands, marketers want to do everything. “As a legacy agency famous for storytelling, we sometimes also have to talk about being digital – when it’s really about being fully integrated. We have to think about the artful communication of the story and, with all of this data and insight that exists right now, we have to use it to do the right thing, not everything.”
Kim-Kirkland had already been at the agency for almost nine years as VP and then EVP, managing director when her predecessor Tony Pigott, a 34-year JWT veteran, handed over the reins in 2012 after 12 years as agency president and CEO. He left a pretty solid foundation for her to build on, having helped the agency triple in size and create successful campaigns for brands such as Listerine, Philadelphia and Kraft Dinner.
The agency has been pretty high-profile over the last two years, winning awards and new business and making some impressive hires. It won nearly 90 creative awards in 2014 alone, and in September 2013 was awarded the hotly-contested Air Canada account after a no-holds-barred pitch, adding to its list of big clients including Walmart, Mazda, Tim Hortons and Nestlé.
A major hire was made in January 2013 when, as he prepared to retire from the agency, Martin Shewchuk brought in Brent Choi to replace him.
Kim-Kirkland says, “Having Brent Choi as chief integration and creative officer is a clear signal that we are bringing in people that think in a fully-integrated fashion. They have to understand that what might have worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. That way of thinking and the ability to adapt pretty much on the fly has to be fundamental.”
The challenge for Choi when it comes to hiring creative talent is to find people who are skilled in all those areas or have the aptitude to learn to do everything. He says, “That’s something we do day-to-day now in our work. We don’t have a separate P&L for digital. The creative group is one group. As we move forward, I think that makes us well positioned to work in an integrated way with clients. The creative team or the strategic people that clients are talking to are the same ones who will be executing on everything.”
Over the years, Choi has developed a reputation for being a builder of award-winning creative departments. One of the first things he did in his new post was hire Ryan Spelliscy as SVP/ECD, and Carolyn Bingham for a new position, SVP, creative operations. This past September he brought in Matt Syberg-Olsen as VP/CD.
“We’re not here to increase share point by 1%; it’s really about changing the game completely for our clients,” Choi says.
Over the past year, JWT has launched memorable work such as the “Get into the Dark” campaign that introduced Tim Hortons’ Dark Roast coffee, and Mazda’s “The Long Drive Home” that plotted the course of a road trip via 60 Instagram image and video posts over a period of four months.
In November, a new campaign for SickKids was launched, featuring 45 different TV spots over 45 days, one a day until Dec. 21. Each commercial, made like a mini-documentary, profiles a moment in a child’s life at the hospital.
Choi says, “It was the right thing to do to depict the amazing things that happen at the hospital every single day. The easy thing to do was one or two TV spots and a couple of print ads – but that’s not changing anything. That’s not brave. That’s not connecting to consumers in a new way. Those [new ideas] really excite us as an agency.”