Agency Profile: digital@jwt

The world’s first ad agency went online in ’96; its new president has made new media a major commitment. The world’s first ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, has been selling its brand-building philosophy to clients and stoking consumer desire for 136 years. Like most old-timers, it took a while for the firm to enter the digital age. Online activities were initiated in the Detroit office in 1996 at the behest of client Ford. But it wasn’t until the arrival of Bob Jeffrey, who assumed the presidency of the New York agency in 1998, that old J. Walter made a major commitment to new media.

A Silicon Valley refugee, Jeffrey was running Lowe & Partners’ San Francisco office and spearheading the Sun Microsystems account when he was tapped for the J. Walter spot. According to Wired, “He took the job and immediately began to stamp ‘digital’ all over the shop —in its new-business presentations, on brochures, in conversations. Meanwhile, to make sure there was something behind the repackaging, he scrambled to put together a digital team.” But it hasn’t been easy.

With a slim portfolio to start and clients eager to partner with hip, young, techno-savvy Internet agencies, J. Walter got off to a slow start. Perhaps the bitterest disappointment came when Lipton, the client that had been with the agency longest, since 1906, turned over its Lipton Brisk digital account to early in 1998.

But a year later, Lipton was back. Staffed up and terabytes more tech-wise, digital@jwt re-pitched the account and was awarded the business. JWT gave Lipton budgets, timelines, and clearly articulated ideas.

“When it comes to actual brand-building, we’ve got a head start of a hundred years,” Jeffrey boasts. “The premise of our business model for digital@jwt is providing digital solutions, redefining our old business, and delivering communications based on the premise of converging content and commerce.”

Today digital@jwt, which has jumped from No. 63 on Ad Age’s list of “Top 100 Interactive Agencies” to No. 39, has 130 staffers in J. Walter’s Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York offices and $110 billion in nationwide billings.

Unlike some large agencies that ghettoize their digital divisions or farm out interactive assignments, J. Walter’s group has become an integral part of all new-business pitches. Members of the digital team, led by Senior Partner/ Director Digital Kevin Wassong, sit in on planning meetings next to their traditional peers, make presentations, and are core to client/agency teams that devise media-neutral strategies to promote the agency’s roster of brands.

“We think big-picture communications across all media and offer integrated digital marketing solutions,” says Partner/Director Communications Samantha diGennaro. Website development and rebranding, Internet marketing, e-business solutions, as well as online media planning, buying, and management are on the list of services. Projects “can be as simple as banner ads and interstitials,” she adds, “or as complex as co-sponsored, co-hosted sites, online promotions, and games.”

This full-service approach has resulted in a client list of more than 40 brands from 20 clients. Digital accounts include Merrill Lynch, Warner-Lambert, Unilever, Qwest, Pfizer, iPlanet, Miller, Kellogg’s, and the U.S. Marines. Most recently digital@jwt launched the e-commerce site for Elizabeth Arden.

De Beers, another longtime JWT client, was patient with the agency, and that patience has been rewarded. The first version of, essentially shovelware, launched in November 1996, frontier days in Internet marketing. Visitation was low and subsequently declined.

In June 1999, a far more interactive version—including functionality to allow a user to design her own diamond ring and share her choice with others via email—debuted. According to Anne Ritchie, Partner/Account Director, “Women love design, and design is what drives desire. So, we knew if we could get women to interact with design, we could get more involvement.”

The re-launch received an editorial mention in Cosmopolitan magazine “and the rest was viral marketing through the site’s email,” says Ritchie. It took off like a rocket. Page views increased 619% over the previous year, and visitors nearly doubled. Up until then, “The website was an element of communications, but not a primary one,” she adds. “After the initial results, we saw the huge potential and put TV spots behind it,” including a 15-second commercial produced by the digital group.

A “Design Your Own Engagement Ring” sweepstakes followed, advertised by an online campaign that yielded 85,000 entries. The agency closed out the year with a push for consumers to covet a “Millennium Diamond.” Media buys included banners on, MTV, Yahoo, Looksmart, and Lycos, along with male-targeted Unicast superstitials on CBS Sportsline and ESPN and microsites lodged at and One version featured Comet Systems’ “cometized” banner ads that transformed a cursor into a diamond icon for users who have the appropriate plug-in installed.

Wassong sees a future where high bandwidth delivers “completely engaging communications, with a high level of interactivity, in real time. When people talk about the convergence of the TV and PC, it’s irrelevant now. The reality is, convergence is communications with marketing, and entertainment with marketing. Digital is the thread that draws those pieces together.”

As an example, Wassong imagines a day in the high-bandwidth future when a viewer can watch a basketball game, follow a player running down the court, notice the logo on his sneakers begin to flash, click on it, see a box that reveals shoe colors and styles and another with a Footlocker logo. If he clicks on the latter, he could leave the game to enter a Footlocker store, put his foot up against the screen to be sized, choose a shoe, make a purchase, and return to the digitally broadcast game exactly where he left off. Old J. Walter himself would be proud.

Susan Breslow Sardone can be reached at

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