Okay, I’ll admit that I knew nothing about JWT before starting this article. I knew he was the founder of J. Walter Thompson Advertising, now the huge conglomerate Wunderman Thompson. I also knew he didn’t fit the mold of most of my subjects. He came way before the “Mad Men” era. In fact, he actually served in the Navy and Marines during the Civil War. He also wasn’t a creative, and I wouldn’t normally write about someone on “the other side.” But, by all accounts, he did leave a lasting impact on the industry.
Carlton and Smith.
After the war, Thompson got a job at Carlton & Smith, which placed ads in religious magazines. He started as a bookkeeper in 1868 and soon moved into a more lucrative sales role. According to Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, he “eventually oversaw all magazine advertising placement.” In 10 years’ time, he bought the company and its furniture for a combined $1,300. In today’s dollars, that’s just about $28,577.67. By 2016, he sold the agency he renamed J. Walter Thompson for $500,000, or just shy of $14 million today. Along the way, he did some pretty groundbreaking things.
Advertising as a science.
One of the key contributions of James Walter Thompson was his approach to advertising as a science. He believed in the power of data and research to understand consumer behavior and create effective advertising campaigns. He was one of the first to conduct market research and gather data on consumer preferences and habits, which was a groundbreaking concept at the time. This emphasis on research and data-driven decision-making set the foundation for modern advertising practices.
Advertising as a profession.
Thompson also played a crucial role in professionalizing the advertising industry. He established standardized processes and procedures within his agency, JWT, setting new standards for professionalism and accountability. He believed in hiring talented individuals and nurturing their skills. JWT soon became known for its creative and innovative approach to advertising. He’s also credited with assembling the first creative team to streamline the process of clients getting copy to his agency in time to be placed in a magazine.
Maybe his most important contribution is that Thompson recognized the importance of building strong relationships between brands and consumers. He introduced the concept of brand positioning, emphasizing the need for brands to differentiate themselves and establish a unique identity in the marketplace. He understood that advertising should not just focus on promoting products or services but also on building brand loyalty and trust among consumers. A great example of this was conceived by one of Thompson’s ad execs, Mortimer Remington, who came up with the motto “Prudential Has the Strength of Gibraltar.” You can still see the Rock of Gibraltar prominently adorning the company’s logo well over 100 years later.
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