At J. Walter Thompson’s midtown headquarters at 466 Lexington Avenue, six floors above the building’s cavernous glass atrium, Ty Montague was preparing to address the 125-member creative staff of the venerable advertising agency as its newest president.
“I’ve always thought of J.W.T. as a very respectable brand,” the 41-year-old Mr. Montague said of the world’s oldest and most legendary advertising firm. “It’s an agency that obviously has an incredibly long heritage. You don’t get to be 140 years old without doing something right. But my impression of the brand was that it had become maybe a little bit … dusty.”
As of Jan. 1, as chief creative officer and co-president of its flagship New York headquarters (along with J.W.T. chairman Bob Jeffrey and co-president Rosemarie Ryan), Mr. Montague will be Swiffering up the place that made brands like Ford, Kellogg’s and Kraft household names. (There’s a Ford in your future!)
But the Madison Avenue stalwart has hit troubled times in recent years. Masters of the 30-second spot, the storied New York advertising house traces its roots to 1864 and grew to be the largest agency in the United States in the television era, if one can already speak of that. But in recent years, J.W.T., a wing of the globe-spanning W.P.P. Group, has seen an exodus of marquee clients like Miller Brewing Co. and Sun Microsystems, without many new deals coming in. In 2004, the agency entered final-round bids for five high-profile pitches, including Old Navy, Staples and Verizon, valued at more than $700 million-yet of the accounts up for grabs, the agency only secured a $45 million account with Jenny Craig.
As outposts far beyond Madison Avenue’s power base-agencies like Crispin Porter and Bogusky in Miami, and Minneapolis-based Fallon Worldwide-have become the new creative avatars in the TiVo age of Internet marketing, Mr. Montague’s arrival signals J.W.T.’s latest effort to pull the agency out of a creative malaise and reimagine the model of the New York advertising establishment. Or, as J.W.T. chairman Bob Jeffrey put it: “What I am trying to do across the world is make substantial changes. Because of our size, you can’t reinvent yourself incrementally. The world doesn’t have patience for incremental change.”
J.W.T. is not alone. Runaway campaigns such as Crispin Porter and Bogusky’s “Subservient Chicken” Web site for Burger King, and BMW’s iFilm series, put out by Fallon Worldwide, have sent a chill through the long corridors of Madison Avenue juggernauts like Ogilvy and Mather and BBDO.
Last month, Mr. Montague left his post as co–creative director at the New York office of Wieden and Kennedy, where he captivated a slogging ad industry with campaigns including ESPN’s “This Is Sports Center” and “Without Sports” franchises and Sega’s “Beta 7” Internet Web site. He’s now responsible for the creative vision of J.W.T., a global giant with 8,500 employees stretched across 150 cities in 86 countries that last year recorded worldwide billings north of $10 billion.
In offices and boardrooms, it’s impossible to avoid the collective lament about audience-killing gadgets like TiVo and exploding media outlets splintering consumers into ever-greater niches in a downward spiral leading to the death of Madison Avenue’s biggest profit engine: the 30-second television commercial.
“New York is home of the big agency, and big New York agencies are good at what they do,” said Chuck Porter, the founder and chairman of Crispin Porter and Bogusky. “As a result, they have a vested interest in the status quo, which up till now has been making 30-second television commercials. If that’s what you do, you don’t want the world to change. But the world is changing all around them. Are they reacting more slowly? I would argue they are. But that may simply be because a revolution is not good for the ones at the top.”
But what if the revolution can be contained and channeled through Madison Avenue? In June, BBDO poached David Lubars from Fallon to be the agency’s new chief creative officer. Like Mr. Montague’s hiring, Mr. Lubars’ move was viewed as a further signal that Madison Avenue had to reach out to the creative minds responsible for successful new media campaigns. (Mr. Lubars conceived the iFilm series for BMW that placed BMW cars in short movies directed by Hollywood heavies like Guy Ritchie, John Woo and John Frankenheimer.)
But even as campaigns like Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken”-a Web site where a guy clad in a schlocky chicken costume performs stunts at will when users type instructions onto the screen-spur talk of the coming future of effective advertising (to date, more than 12 million people have viewed “Subservient Chicken,” spending an average of six minutes on the site), the question remains: Will this kind of creative shtick sell everything from laundry detergent to automobiles, or is Madison Avenue just grasping for something- anything-to revive its fortunes?
Mr. Montague doesn’t resemble the typical Madison Avenue hawk. A former river-rafting guide and car mechanic from Albuquerque, N.M., he started his upward march in the industry from the mail room of McCann Erickson some 20 years ago.
On a recent Friday in J.W.T.’s airy offices, decorated with promotions for Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese, sausages made out of papier-mâché and a Christmas tree decorated with Triscuits, Mr. Montague eased back in an angular black leather chair. He was dressed in trim gray monochrome, a few stray wisps of gray in his brown goatee. He spoke with the careful inflections of a reformed Deadhead, not a hard-charging ad executive.
“I think anybody who says the 30-second spot is dead is overstating the case,” he said. “I don’t believe the 30-second spot is dead. But I do think the 30-second spot is going to become increasingly less important, and increasingly less effective, unless it is treated as but one piece of a much larger story that is told across a number of mediums.
“And if you have built your business and focus on nothing other than 30-second spots, your business will suffer.”
Back in 1974, for example, one ad during the network evening news broadcasts could reach 25 million American homes, according to Nielson Media Research. And in 1982, the M*A*S*H season finale was viewed by 60 percent of all television viewers-50 million households. That kind of singular media blitz is gone.
“If you define yourself as an advertising agency, you wind up creating advertising-print ads and television commercials,” he said. “But in the new world, marketers need to think of themselves as creators of their own audiences, regardless of the medium. They need to attract an audience to their own brands.”
And as part of this paradigm shift, Mr. Montague says that J.W.T. will be in the business of “buying time,” creating entertainment infused with the client’s message that consumers will want to seek out.
“The business that we’re in is making sure consumers are spending the maximum amount of time with our clients’ brands …. Because stories are the things that, since the dawn of time, have attracted audiences,” he said.
Mr. Montague argues that the stakes are too high not to reinvent the New York advertising firm as we know it.
“The macro shift taking place is basically a power shift. Power is shifting from the hands of producers of products and producers of media into the hands of consumers of products and consumers of media,” he said. “Today, where consumers are empowered, the idea of interrupting them with a message is the thing that is going to die. You have to create your audience around the message.”
Not everyone on Madison Avenue is buying that argument, of course.
“The fact is, television as a medium will always be an advertising medium. There will always be television spots,” said Tim Mellors, the president and chief creative officer of Grey Worldwide North America. “Because we’re in a business that is so often keen to be with the zeitgeist, we seem to overreact when something new comes along.”
“I’m pretty much a naysayer when it comes to an old agency importing a new culture,” said Alan Blum, the president and executive creative director of Blue Elephant, an independent New York branding firm whose clients include Air France, ABC News and Terra Chips. “At the end of the day, a lot of times it becomes just a quick solution for agencies looking for a quick fix to say, Get me that guy! I don’t know that just by hiring Ty, it will suddenly rewrite the nature of J.W.T. and make it culturally and creatively a very different place.”
“I’ve seen big agencies try to think they’re something they are not before,” said Neil Powell, the founder of the New York–based Powell agency. “During the 1990’s, they jumped on the dot-com bandwagon and bought up every Web shop around. I’m pretty cynical when it comes to big agencies. Ty is an incredibly talented guy, one of the best people out there-but you know, you’re talking about changing the mind-set of an enormous amount of people.”
Mr. Montague commutes in every day from his family’s home in Westport, Conn., where on weekends he unwinds with suburban rituals like coaching his son’s soccer games. He runs marathons and is also a pilot.
“You can’t fly a plane and think about anything else-you have to be fully in the moment. It’s a great way for me to relax my head,” he said.
His parents were academics back when he grew up in Albuquerque, but Mr. Montague didn’t take to school. After his first year studying biology at the University of New Mexico, he got “bored and sidetracked” and dropped out. He took jobs leading tourists out on river-rafting trips on the Rio Grande, and worked at a garage fixing Italian sports cars. At 20, he decided to go to New York.
“I decided [fixing cars] was a dead end, and I was just going to waste away in Albuquerque. I thought, ‘Well, time to go to New York and see what I can see,'” he said.
Mr. Montague moved to New York and got a job waiting tables at the Olive Tree Café and tending bar at the Comedy Cellar on Macdougal Street. One night, a friend at the bar suggested he give advertising a try, and he soon scored an interview at McCann Erickson.
“When I showed up, the interviewer asked me, ‘Do you even have a résumé?’ And I said, ‘Uh, no.’ And the person interviewing me said, ‘Well, let’s make you one.’ On a legal pad, they tore out a page and wrote out my résumé, and sent me down the hall to meet the head of personnel,” Mr. Montague said. He landed the job and spent a year stuffing mailers in McCann’s mailroom.
After a year at McCann, Mr. Montague jumped to the creative side of the business, and soon began his ascendance through the New York advertising world. In 1986, he joined Scali McCabe Sloves, and over the years has held posts at Chiat Day, Ogilvy and Mather and Goldsmith/Jeffrey, where he worked with Mr. Jeffrey, who would later lure him to J.W.T. In 1995, he launched his own agency in Norwalk, Conn.; in 1998, he returned to the corporate world and opened the New York office of London-based BBH, winning such high-profile accounts as Reebok International.
“Not only is he a creative talent, he’s a forward-thinking talent. Ty is a cutting-edge advocate to helping clients solve business problems and build their brands,” said Cindy Gallop, BBH’s chairman and chief marketing officer.
Before landing at J.W.T., Mr. Montague won a 2004 Grand Clio award (sort of the Oscars for advertising) at Wieden and Kennedy for “Beta 7,” a campaign for Sega’s latest sports release, ESPN NFL Football. The four-month-long campaign provides a snapshot of the kind of advertising that Mr. Montague sees as the new standard of effective brand-building in the post-television era.
“Beta 7” told the story of a fictional Sega game-tester suffering from a gaming overdose, which led to malefic episodes mirroring the onscreen action, such as tackling innocent bystanders on a whim like a linebacker steamrolling a quarterback in the pocket. Along with television spots and print ads, Mr. Montague created an anti-Sega blog supposedly run by the maligned tester, who also posted Sega-bashing rants on gaming message boards. Rumors and conspiracy theories fanned out across the Internet as to whether the campaign was a hoax or a real crusade by a lone Sega employee taking on the venerable video-game maker. Mr. Montague added to the intrigue by mailing out “unauthorized” versions of the game before its official release, only to send out phony letters from Sega demanding the games’ return. The speculation fomented the hype, which, in turn, helped Sega successfully launch its new title, boosting sales projections by some 20 percent.
“‘Beta 7’ was all about learning to tell a story in a new way and using the natural advantages of the Web,” Mr. Montague said. “The fact is, the Internet is a medium where people can not only experience a story, but people can participate in the story in a very real way.”
At Wieden, Mr. Montague won accolades for his campaigns, including a Nike television spot that featured a manic fan streaking nude across the field during a professional soccer match, and the “This is Sports Center” campaign for ESPN, where sports icons from Tiger Woods to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin swanned through the network’s Bristol, Conn. studios mingling with the program’s anchors.
“He digs below the surface of the subject matter and gets at what’s culturally important,” said Lee Ann Daly, ESPN’s executive vice president of marketing. “I think there’s a big dose of skepticism in Ty, and in some respects, that keeps his work authentic.”
When he takes the reigns of J.W.T.’s creative department after the New Year, Mr. Montague will face his biggest test yet. At Wieden, he directed a staff of 75-plus, with billings of $120 million. J.W.T.’s New York office bills over 10 times that much.
“At some point, many of the large agencies stopped innovating. And that is an industry-wide phenomenon. I think that what you’re seeing is a rebirth of innovation at the larger shops,” he said. “The No. 1 issue is institutional inertia. Big organizations resist change, simply because it’s hard to get large groups of people pointed in a new direction.” Then he added: “Companies all have a certain DNA, and you cannot move a company away from its fundamental DNA. But the good news is that there is clearly innovation in the DNA of J. Walter Thompson.”