Advertising giant, WPP Group, has recently merged 154-year-old ad agency JWT with digital ad agency Wunderman to create Wunderman Thompson
This is big news because of how revolutionary JWT has been in the past. It invented the modern creative department model. It hired the first female copywriter. It was the first American advertising agency to work internationally, working with US household names like Kraft and GM.
It created iconic ads like the 1973 Oscar Meyer commercial (when I polled our US team, they could all sing it!):
An Icon Falls
JWT was an industry icon, but some say its approaches were outdated, and it was in desperate need of modernising. It was also reported that it has had cultural problems that have tarnished its hard-won reputation.
Search the opinions of people who have worked for JWT, and you’ll find unsettling reports of a company culture in decline.
The importance of a great company culture
There’s a lot of nostalgia about the agency at the moment, and harking back to its glory years. A former MD of JWT London, for example, published an article about how much he loved working at JWT. When he tried to leave back in the ‘80s:
“ I was summoned to the managing director’s office. “I can’t offer you a motor car,” he purred. “I can’t offer you more money. But I can offer you the magic of J Walter Thompson.” I stayed another 12 years.”
These days, though, if you want to attract, and retain, those with the best skills, you need more than magic. You need to create a cohesive global company culture. Feedback from JWT employees shows that experiences were often quite different depending on the office you worked. The agency clearly recognised that this was an issue, as it tried to overhaul its company culture back in May.
Merging a big name traditional ad agency with an innovative, data-driven powerhouse to create Wunderman Thompson was a no-brainer. But what will happen when the company cultures collide?
Culture issues don’t just go away because of a change in ownership. If anything, a clash of company cultures creates more problems in a newly-merged business. A new culture must be created from the two companies.
However, the first priority for management is usually the development of a strategic market approach, over its company culture.
WPP needs to work hard to develop and set a new company culture. It’s not easy after a big change, but it is vital to retain talent and clients. It will mean a lot of travel for senior management, high-quality face-to-face time, and the creation of a truly inspirational and visionary executive team.
What makes a great culture?
The culture of a business is hard-won. It takes commitment right from the top, and needs nurturing. We don’t claim to always get it right, but it’s something we work on constantly. It means different things to different people, but here are three areas that I believe help to create a strong company culture:
1. Create values you can live by
The culture of your business might be managed from the top, but it is maintained by the everyday actions of every single employee. So the whole team should be involved in setting those values – after all, they will be the ones who live by them. We constantly ask ourselves: how are we living our values? For example, one of our values is ‘do the right thing’. That informs every decision we make, and it’s empowering for teams to know that if they do the right thing, the business is behind them.
2. Communicate with respect
Open communication is so important to maintaining a positive culture. We use DISC profiling, which is a great psychometric assessment tool that helps us communicate better with each other, by understanding and respecting our differences. The more you understand what is driving someone to behave in a certain way, the better you can respond to them to achieve a positive outcome.
3. Make the time to invest in culture
Prioritize culture, and make it an agenda item at every management meeting (this will be particularly true in the early days of the Wunderman Thompson merger). Make time to meet team leaders, to foster inclusion and positivity throughout the business.
And finally, remember three basic rules of human decency. Be kind, be open to difference, be respectful.