JWT quits Chicago

The glory days ended Friday for JWT Chicago, once one of Chicago’s biggest, most prestigious ad agencies that had been in business here for more than a century.

JWT North America president Rosemarie Ryan flew in to personally inform 50 staffers of management’s decision to cut its losses here and invest in its more successful Atlanta and Toronto offices.

“The Chicago office has been struggling for six or seven years. It hasn’t been growing,” Ryan said in an interview with Advertising Age.

Consequently, an attempt to “restore it to its former glory” was not “an affordable proposition, particularly amid a recession,” she said.

“There are only so many places where you can spend you energy and time,” she added.

JWT suffered its biggest loss two years ago this month when Kraft Foods moved $160 million in billings for six major brands to several other agencies.

JWT had been Kraft’s primary global agency since the 1930s and its agency-client relationship was the longest in the city, if not in advertising history.

Kraft’s exodus resulted in reducing the then-120 member staff by 25%. Shortly thereafter, its president and chief creative officer also departed. After a brief attempt to replace them, New York ran the Chicago office and failed to win new business.

JWT’s biggest remaining client is Illinois Tourism. If it survives a review, JWT might maintain a small service office to run the account.

Nestle ice cream brands and Kimberly-Clark, the remaining accounts, are being absorbed by JWT New York.

Founded in 1864, J. Walter Thompson is America’s oldest advertising agency. Since the 1890s has had offices in Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati and London.

London-based WPP Group gobbled up the agency in 1987. The name was updated to JWT in 2005. JWT in 2007 was the fifth largest ad agency with billings of $1.2 billion.

The Wrigley Building had been its headquarters for 40 years until the arrival of Bob Edens in the mid-’60s. One of its most flamboyant and successful of all managers, Edens gave the agency a new image when he moved it to the then-new Hancock Building. The agency’s next address was 900 N. Michigan Ave.

Following the ignominious Kraft loss, the agency was relegated to small offices in the Merchandise Mart, a million miles away from Michigan Ave., where it had dominated Chicago advertising for most of its 118 years in business here.