After a long search, J Walter Thompson (JWT), one of the largest ad agencies in Martin Sorrell-led WPP, appointed Tarun Rai as the successor to Colvyn Harris in South Asia, including India.
While speculation about Rai’s appointment at the helm of JWT was doing the rounds for some time, it gained steam in the last one month, culminating in the announcement on January 14.
Rai is expected to formally take over next month at JWT. The ex-Bennett Coleman & Company Ltd executive (he was the CEO of Worldwide Media, the magazine arm of BCCL, the publisher of the Times of India newspaper, for six years), had spent nearly two decades working at JWT before he quit in 2008. This familiarity with the JWT system is expected to hold him in good stead, persons in the know say.
Rai says of his appointment in a statement, “It is wonderful to return home to JWT. Being away for a few years has given me an invaluable ‘outside-in’ perspective of the advertising business.”
But the road ahead is hardly expected to be easy, say industry sources.
JWT has seen both loss of business and employee exodus in the last two to three years, multiple sources say. The last year and a half have been particularly bad with the infamous Ford Figo scam dogging the agency (in 2013), which was followed by the exit of Chief Creative Officer Bobby Pawar(no replacement has been found yet). Key accounts, as well as people, parted ways with the agency in the aftermath.
Some of the businesses that moved on include the channel, SET Max, and Birla Sunlife Insurance in Mumbai, Videocon in Delhi and Levi’s in Bengaluru.
Nike, another key account for JWT in Bangalore, and one that gave JWT seven Cannes Lions in 2014, is up for a review right now. Creative hotshop Wieden & Kennedy has made its pitch presentation to the company brass, sources say.
While outgoing CEO Colvyn Harris, who takes over as executive director, global growth and client development, did attempt to set things in order (by beefing up the creative team, working at improving JWT’s creative product and introducing a process of reviewing work every three months), it has done little to stem attrition and boost employee morale.
JWT had its brief period in the sun during the awards season last year, bagging the highest tally of 40 metals at the Creative Abbies and also emerging a big winner at Cannes with eight Lions. Yet, the count of people who have left across offices in the last year and a half is said to be over 100 and the immediate priority for Rai would be to put a stop to this, say sources.
“I expect he would be talking to both clients as well as people in JWT to instill a sense of confidence in them. That would be his main course of action to begin with. Having worked as CEO of Worldwide Media, he has also interacted with advertisers across the board. That should help him get new business. But that will come next. The top priority for him would be to send the message that ‘all is well’,” says a senior advertising executive, who is aware of developments at JWT.
Rai could not be reached immediately for his comments.
Legacy of JWT
Besides being one of the largest ad agencies in the world, JWT also has the distinction of being the oldest. It celebrated its 150th anniversary worldwide last year. The agency entered India in 1929, handling clients such as Hindustan Unilever, which it continues to work on to this day. Incidentally, the agency had to exit India in the 1970s, owing to the cap of 40 per cent on foreign equity introduced by the government under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act of 1974.
JWT quit the country, handing over the company to its Indian employees. The agency was then rechristened Hindustan Thompson Associates (HTA), a name it continued with for two and a half decades before reverting to JWT in 2002. In the seventies, HTA was led by the legendary Subhash Ghoshal.
Traditionally, JWT has been known as a strategic planner’s paradise, with its creative fortunes dipping and rising from time to time. The agency hit a highpoint in terms of its creative output six years ago, when it walked away with the country’s first and only Grand Prix at Cannes for the Times of India’s ‘Lead India’ campaign. While the agency has tasted success at Cannes after that, it is yet replicate the magic of 2008.