‘Advertising is culture and it feeds off culture’: JWT’s Simon Lendrum tells the story of the world’s oldest ad agency

As it says on the impressive James Walter Thompson online timeline, the agency’s history is the history of advertising. And as it celebrates its 150th birthday, we talk to Simon Lendrum about its place in New Zealand’s cultural fabric—and its recent renaissance.  

Back in 1864, a man by the name of James Walter Thompson was hired by advertising brokerage owners William J. Carlton and Edmund A. Smith to sell space in religious journals. 150 years later and the medium the ads are running in may have changed, but the world’s oldest surviving agency network is still using its skills to promote its clients’ wares and, according to JWT New Zealand’s managing director Simon Lendrum, it’s undergoing a renaissance here and in many other markets. 

Lendrum says JWT, which is now part of WPP, arrived in New Zealand in 1930 on the back of General Motors (its first international office opened in London in 1899), and, as the gallery below shows, there were plenty of automotive ads created for the likes of Chevy and Vauxhall over the years. But Lendrum’s favourite is the anachronistic Horlicks ad. 

He says it’s quite hard to piece together the narrative of the agency’s local history, but, as everyone seems to say on anniversaries of note such as these, it’s “not about looking backward and resting on that history. It’s about taking that mantle into the future”. And he says the past four years have seen it heading on that trajectory. 

Internationally, the agency has been heavily involved in some major moments of history and, as he says, “advertising is culture and it feeds off culture”. For instance, it was brought in to help spread the positives of the Marshall Plan to a sceptical European audience. And, more recently, while it’s probably not of geopolitical significance, he says the recent Google Kit Kat collaboration was a huge coup for the network and a good example of the type of thinking required in this day and age. But over those 150 years, he says the success of the agency also comes down to the support of its clients, some of which have been alongside it for over 100 years. 

It’s not uncommon to hear pundits talk about how we live in an era of unprecedented change. But, as Lendrum says, for all those who specialised in press advertising back in the early days, the arrival of radio in the late 1890s probably scared the bejesus out of them. The arrival of TV in 1927 was another huge change. And now many are dealing with the shift to digital. Change is certainly not unique to this era. But in every case—and in the case of business in general—he says navigating those changes requires an ability to adapt and evolve.  

“Those changes seem quite straight forward in retrospect, but it’s always more traumatic when you’re living through it.” 

As for the state of the New Zealand outpost, he says Rod Prosser, who has been a copywriter with the agency for around 25 years, believes it is bigger than it’s ever been in terms of staff numbers and Lendrum is pretty sure the same is true of revenue. And, after years of largely dealing with global clients, it has recently added a host of local clients like Contact, Sovereign and University of Auckland. 

“We’re now 70 percent local clients. That was about 70 percent global clients four years ago. And that’s down to local growth, not global decline.” 

When reliant on global clients, agencies are often more exposed to their whims and limited in the amount of creative control they can exert. But he says the notion of local knowledge has become critical to many global clients, something clearly evidenced by the activity of one of its major clients, Ford, which JWT has done some good work for over the past few years. And he says that’s not just about understanding the audience, it’s also about the complexities of implementation in different markets. 

The same is true of agencies, he says, and he says JWT aims to merge a solid network foundation with the ability to adapt to different conditions in each market. 

JWT’s full-page ad in the Business Herald. 

Whenever an agency celebrates a big milestone, there are generally some hilarious anecdotes, stories of classic campaigns that landed with a thud on the collective consciousness or tales of excess. Disappointingly, Lendrum can’t dredge any up. “We don’t do excess,” he says with a wink, preparing for the massive birthday/Christmas party at Hallertau Brewery in Auckland this afternoon. We’ll be sure to let you know if he’s telling the truth. 

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