Born In Kansas City, Now Ruling The World: How VML Became The Powerhouse Of WPP
Once the outsider of an industry dominated by the Madison Avenue creative agencies, VML has merged with Wunderman Thompson to create the industry's largest creative company
17 October 2023
Back in 1992 John Valentine, Scott McCormick, and Crag Ligibel pooled their reputational might as advertising bigwigs in Kansas City to launch their own start-up.
Of course they called their new agency Valentine McCormick Ligibel or VML for short.
Now thirty years later - and still headquartered in Kansas - VML has just become the world’s biggest advertising behemoth, with over 30,000 staff across 64 markets.
Along the way the agency was sold to WPP in 2001, was merged with the legacy creative agency Young & Rubicam in 2018 to form VMLY&R, and this week merged again with sister WPP network Wunderman Thompson (itself a merger between two legacy agencies Wunderman and J Walter Thompson). Wunderman Thompson, of course, is already a powerhouse in its own right, one of the world's biggest and most progressive networks; this is hardly a titan swallowing a lame duck, it's a merger of equals.
Yet in name at least, the newly swollen business is going back to its roots, returning to the simple VML moniker, though there’s nothing backward-looking about the new VML. But then VML itself always was a future-facing company.
From Kansas To The Top Of The World
Valentine McCormick Ligibel originally launched to offer a fully integrated online and offline service, bringing together advertising, software applications and business consulting to create, they said, “a closely integrated agency that was more versatile and nimble, and embraced collaboration with clients”.
It was a radical positioning thirty years ago and thoroughly prescient; today this core scope of services has become exactly what brands are asking for from their agency partners, now on a global scale.
Yet until the merger with Y&R, VML remained on the fringes of an industry dominated by the Madison Avenue creative agencies. Its version of creativity went well beyond the big TV films that most of the established creative agencies had built their fortunes and their reputations on; VML seemed to swim in another lane.
It was only when VML effectively took over Y&R in 2018 - Mark Read’s first big play when he stepped up to run WPP - that the agency began to attract the attention, respect and recognition from the industry establishment.
And as technology has sped ahead, VMLY&R’s business has kept pace with the new challenges and opportunities that have hit marketers head-on, unencumbered by legacy systems and creative processes that are increasingly not fit-for-purpose. And the same can be said for Wunderman Thompson.
Leading The Way
Another constant through most of the company’s history is the presence of Jon Cook. Cook - thoroughly likeable, modest and immensely impressive - is the soul of VML. He joined the business in 1996, became global CEO in 2011 and then global CEO of VMLY&R in 2018. This week he was named global CEO of the newly merged VML, with Wunderman Thompson’s hugely respected global chief Mel Edwards becoming global president. Edwards’ presence - as one of the industry’s most formidable and experienced leaders and the key architect of the powerhouse that Wunderman Thompson has become - will reassure WT’s people and clients that the new business will be more than the sum of its parts. Meanwhile, the role Pip Hulbert has played driving Wunderman Thompson to success in the UK and, over at VMLY&R Justin Pahl and Michelle Whelan's sure-footed leadership, mean that the two companies go into the UK merger in very good shape.
By Cook’s side is his long-time creative partner Debbi Vandeven, who takes over as Global Chief Creative Officer of the merged business. Vandeven, herself born and bred in Kansas City and a VML veteran having joined the business in 2000, epitomises the VML way: she’s a modern creative leader who believes in the power of the connected consumer experience and delivering 360-degree solutions for clients.
Cook, Edwards and Vandeven will now bring together all of the specialisms that have propelled VML over 30 years with the might of Wunderman Thompson, which itself has grown to be one of the most powerful, agile and future-fit of WPP’s businesses.
It’s quite a mark of Read’s fifth anniversary as leader of WPP that he has made such a bold, surprising power play as this merger. And it’s quite a mark of the foresight of Messers Valentine, McCormick and Ligibel that their business (name) has triumphed over all.