Revered yet relevant: The legendary JWT celebrates 150 years

As JWT celebrates its 150th anniversary today and completes 85 years in India, we take a look at little-known facts of the agency's history in India. CEO of JWT South Asia Colvyn Harris talks about the lineage that forms the essence of JWT

e4m by Priyanka Mehra
Updated: Dec 5, 2014 9:46 AM
Revered yet relevant: The legendary JWT celebrates 150 years

One of the largest agencies of India James Walter Thomson better known as JWT; completes 150 Years of existence today, the agency completes 85 years in India today. Few people know it was first set up in Mumbai, in a room at the Taj Mahal Hotel, 1929 primarily to handle the General Motors account. The global account had been won in New York, with the understanding that JWT would set up offices in all countries where GM had assembly plants. It was one of the first global accounts of its kind in the world. After moving out of the Taj Mahal Hotel, its first permanent address was at Ballard Estate. By 1939, JWT moved to Lakshmi Building, which was its address for the next 63 years.The company was incorporated on March 3, 1938 in the name of J. Walter Thompson Company (Eastern) Limited. The name of the company was changed to Hindustan Thompson Associated Limited in 1968. Since JWT’s second year in business, it went on to become one of India’s largest advertising agencies, a position it has worked hard to retain ever since, even in 1974, when it nearly folded up. JWT old timers indicate that the agency was nearly forced to wind up its operations 1974 but was saved by four client cheques received in advance.

Some of its work over the years includes General Motors when it first started in India to the Air India’s Maharaja, Yamaha and Uncle Chipps, to Kelloggs to the most recent Nike’s Make every Yard count.

A huge task in those early, primitive days was to create a basic advertising infrastructure to meet the needs of demanding international clients, like General Motors. The first problem was that there were no suppliers of any of the things that we take for granted today. The agency had an interesting journey of finding people to set up all the various support businesses -- block-making and printing in India. 

The agency also took a lead in establishing the standard 15% agency commission system in India: wherever the agency received more than 15%, it would pass on the balance to the client; and, equally importantly, where it received less than 15% it would debit the client for the balance.

JWT’s early clients (apart from GM) included Horlicks, Stanvac (now Hindustan Petroleum), Kodak and Pond’s. From the 1940s to 1970s, Air India, an early client, served as an interesting case study inspite of being a miniscule account and won many of India’s first international awards.

JWT India heads include

• Edward J. Fielden (1930-1966)
• EGA Bathon (1966-1970)
• John M. Gaynor (1970-72)
• Morris Mathias (1972-74)
• Subhas Ghoshal (1974-1985)
• Mike Khanna (1985-2005)
• Colvyn Harris (2005-till date)

Stalwarts who have shaped JWT India

• Subhash Ghoshal
• Gerson Da Cunha
• Mike Khanna
• Subroto Sengupta
• Syeda Imam
• Ivan Arthur
• Ram Ray
• Sumantra Ghosal

“Leadership is about not thinking that you are going to be the only one standing, it is about carrying your team through the storm and ensuring at the end of the storm, many of the people who had taken you to the successful place are still there,” says  Colvyn Harris, CEO South Asia JWT, who has been with JWT India for 35 years out of the 85 years of the agency’s existence in India.

A few excerpts from a freewheeling chat with Harris on JWT celebrating 150 Years today

What has kept you going at JWT for all these years through the numerous ups and downs?

If I was in a smaller agency or in an agency less successful, or an agency not of JWT’s stature, I would have moved. Why would I go through this pain when I could have just gone to something more successful which was there and do some different role? I could have. But you don’t do that. Because you are the last person who should leave the ship. Have I been through those moments? Many times. Have I thought now is the time to jump off? Innumerable times. Have I come very close? I have. But what is it that sustains you? You just say no. There are many things which keep you there. One is I think firstly the people you work with, the people you like are not the people who will move with you. You have to give away that element of your career or work you do. Two is many of the clients you have today, are those clients that you have had a hand in either winning their business, or then being with them. Today 25 years later, they are the golden assets of great people who trust you, they’ve had so many years of knowing that JWT will pull it off. That’s another great reason why you’d never want to leave. Three is; our proposition is of our own making. If the proposition of what I think about or what I want to do with the company, is not current or relevant enough, then I am the weak link in the chain which may have changed; which is why you have to either recruit the talent you may not have personally, or to get the skills you may not have, but always try and be the most relevant proposition from a client’s standpoint.

Do you believe in hiring  people more talented than you?

Yes, because there are many things and most things I can’t do. There is a time you can do it and there’s  a time you can’t do it. And for reasons of time as well. For reasons of the scale of the operation or the amount of companies you are trying to manage, or the sheer scale of clients, space and business, you don’t have that time. So you need somebody else otherwise as a company of one, we wouldn’t have been at that scale. You’ve got to keep adding your talent pipeline, your skills, and together that becomes the larger formation of our company with the future, with ambition, with purpose, with scale and only then you remain relevant to clients.

After 35 years in JWT’S 85 year journey in India what is your advice to young adlanders ?

I still believe that client engagement is fundamental and critical, never move away from that. Don’t treat clients lightly. And don’t treat the relationship the company has with that client lightly. Because there is somebody who believes that a 20-year long or a 25-year long relationship is our greatest asset, and our greatest gift to a generation who may follow. The second is your talent; the people who are there to help you deliver on what that client had called on, those who helped to deliver on the values or the culture or the capabilities of the company, are equally critical in this chain if I can use that metaphor, because if that was the weak link, your best projection or proposition will not be met.

On JWT celebrating 150 Years ….

When we crossed 125 years, I think that was the first time it hit us that we are a company with such a great lineage of things we have done in the past. Today, when you stand at 150, it’s a fabulous achievement. And suddenly we are at a time, where media is alive and dynamic, social media is alive and dynamic. Everything to amplify this story is in front of us, at our command. That we can send out a message as powerful and strong as this is as nuclear as you can think. It is a great moment, for everybody in the company to just think that here I am, in a company of 150 years, a company which has given me a platform, and on that platform, I can build my career. Career doesn’t mean it has to be with JWT. A lot of people use us as a stepping stone, which is fine. When they leave we wish them all the best. It’s a happy state where people move on. But these 150 years will add a value or an added dimension to everybody who is at JWT.

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