3 Pioneering Lessons for Every Agency from JWT: Creative Agency Digital Convergence

digital learning, eLearning

March 13, 2015 by

Three things every agency can learn from the story of how the world’s most iconic creative brand agency is pioneering digitally once again.

Among marketers dragging their feet and ignoring their digital problem, one agency of global repute started along the path to accelerating the digital-creative convergence. The agency goes by the name of J. Walter Thompson, or JWT. These are the big 3 learnings for any agency at the crossroads of convergence.

digital strategy

But first, the backstory in short: JWT is the world’s oldest brand advertising agency. In fact, James Walter Thompson, known as the “Commodore” for his pioneering leadership, is widely credited with inventing advertising in 1866. Now a subsidiary of WPP with over 10,000 employees, and clients ranging from Coca-Cola to Johnson & Johnson, they control much of the future of advertising themselves – but they also have a legacy that holds them back in digital. To sum it up, they have, or had, a company culture in which the creative genius ruled the roost, account management was all about three-martini lunches, and TV and print were where the big dollars were at. The challenge for JWT was obvious: how do we transform and pioneer once again in the age of digital?

1.  Level-setting starts by admitting you have a problem.

As an outsider, there to discuss education and digital acumen with hundreds of agencies like JWT, what I found most refreshing was the pure candor of admission that digital knowledge could be hugely improved across the board. So often, agency leaders talk about a recent training they did, or the lunch-and-learns conducted in order to “check the box” of staying up to speed on digital. Rarely do they frankly say, “We need to improve this, or it will cost us a lot of business.”

But that’s exactly what the global HR leaders and digital heads around the world said at JWT. “We knew we needed a platform to provide JWT specific courses, but also knew we needed a depth of content for people who were looking for specific subjects,” explained Global Digital Team head John Baker. “And we needed to provide it globally.”

And JWT tackled this issue head on. Now they have what is called “Digital Essentials Training,” an eLearning program that is provided to all 10,000 employees, in multiple languages (from Chinese to Spanish), with great fanfare and engagement across the globe. Now every single JWT account manager can be fluent in digital, speak confidently about integrated strategy, and level-set the knowledge base for all to grow from. No more lost opportunity, missed upsell recognition, or looking surprised when subjects like mobile responsive design or Facebook amplification strategies arise in client meetings. A simple, clear solution to the digital knowledge problem.

2.  Integrate education into current reviews and rewards systems.

One element that is critical in any education initiative is that it must tie back in to the core financial and promotional recognition and rewards systems already in place at the company. In short, don’t create an entirely new reward system. Allow an employee’s participation and proclivity to improve their skills and digital knowledge tie back to things like their personal professional development goals, and any existing recognition system in place.

For JWT, this meant using an API to pass on information, such as time spent watching classes, or who passed the exam for the Essentials Certificate Program. Then they could provide points and badges in their existing HR management system, so staff could show off their achievements and incorporate this information into their 360 reviews every quarter with management. Simple, easy, and effective. Make this a part of what you do and what is already valued, not a separate one-off project or a la carte training.

3.  Continue to drive a culture of learning for talent retention.

When humans learn something new, we get energized. This leads to stories like, “Wow, I emailed my entire team about the case study I watched, and we used that in our pitch the next day to win the business,” and “I had a million great ideas after watching that class, and love the energy I get from learning this stuff.” When we put that energized learning to use and see real results, we have intrinsic feelings of happiness that cannot be replicated by beer and pizza outings.


It is key to instill this feeling into our company cultures, and then provide an outlet for that energy. It’s the one big part of the JWT eLearning journey that bears fruit immediately. Having access to an eLearning library of over 300 video tutorials that’s updated monthly is invaluable. Shout-outs like this are an everyday occurrence: “That primer on Instagram saved my butt. I had a meeting on Monday, but on Sunday night the client emailed to say, ‘Hey, we want to hear more. How can you get us into the social stream of Instagram?’ Watching that class really gave me the confidence to have a thoughtful conversation about it on Monday.”

JWT is now moving into the digital IQ assessment phase to see how much knowledge has been imparted and to get a baseline of strengths and weaknesses, which can then be used to create new categories of learning. Thus, the journey of digital pioneering actively continues with the world’s oldest ad agency. Makes me wonder aloud, why are so many agencies still only talking about this?

Your evolution starts here. Try our classes for free.10 day free trial

10 day free trial