How Wunderman Thompson gets the nation talking

Three years since its creation, we caught up with the UK leadership team at Wunderman Thompson

By ian darby

A little over three years ago, Wunderman Thompson UK was formed when WPP announced that it was bringing together JWT and Wunderman to create a new global network based on a vision of integration. The agency’s recent success — it achieved a stellar 2021 — is in no small part due to a new-look UK management team assembled by Pip Hulbert, its chief executive.

Previously chief executive at Wunderman UK, Hulbert was tasked with leading the merged business. To do this, Hulbert secured the services of Steve Aldridge as chief creative officer in March 2019 (returning him to the Wunderman brand where he made his name), and Sid McGrath in October 2020 as chief strategy officer (after 14 years at Karmarama).

Since the trio were united, Wunderman Thompson has added more than 100 new people to its ranks, bringing the the UK team total to 600. The agency also scored 15 new-business wins in 2021, including Pets at Home and First Direct, and smoothed the merger with three businesses (Mirum — in digital innovation and experience — Acceleration — in data — and Prism — in sports marketing and entertainment). The agency’s creative output also hit new heights, with BT Sport ‘Unscripted’ winning 43 awards in 2021 (including BT’s first at Cannes Lions), and HSBC’s ‘Homeless Bank Account’, which helped those without shelter secure their first steps to recovery, landing the bank two Gold Lions.

Shared expertise

Pip Hulbert says the 'new' agency understands the need for "real simplicity" for clients and also provides everything that a brand needs under one roof: “We can get all of those experts together in one room to help navigate challenges.

"BT’s a good example, we can bring in the strategy expertise and the tech expertise, and leverage the capabilities that they have to provide an element of speed to help brands in many different ways. Given the size of the business that we are, we're extremely quick and responsive.”

This is also reflected in a creative department that has the capability to deliver across disciplines including brand advertising, CRM, and experiential.

Steve Aldridge argues that the merger led to an opportunity: “We needed to build a creative culture for a new agency, in that sense it was the biggest start-up in the world.” And says there was an excitement for the creative people at both UK agencies in coming together: “The idea of rebirth and regeneration was intoxicating,” he adds, because people were able to respond to briefs and not be limited to one solution.

Making brands 'whole' again

Wunderman Thompson’s creative firepower was further intensified by the arrival in March 2021 of Tom Drew from BBH London as executive creative director. Other new faces at the agency include Emily Rule, also joining from BBH, as head of strategy, Wavemaker’s Christian Lette arriving as chief data officer, Alex Ringhofer, formerly of Tribal, and Katy Nyman, ex-RAPP, taking on the roles of client partners.

In terms of the agency’s approach to strategy, McGrath says it was a case initially of building confidence within his 55-strong team, and recognising the immense heritage of JWT in particular, given that Stephen King had played a key role there in the invention of the account planning discipline during the 1960s: “That has given us a huge obligation to do the right thing for clients”, says McGrath, and has led to a focus on “reconnecting to the brand”.

He explains: “Advertising’s focus on the brand has been surpassed by tech, data and platforms, but the brand is a businesses’ most valued asset.”

The agency wants to work with clients on “making fractured brands whole again” built on the approach of “whole brand thinking”, and it provides advertisers with blueprints to identify where these fractures exist based on a “single brand view” as opposed to a “single customer view”. McGrath adds: “Our creative ambition is very clear – what can we do to get as many people talking about our work? With the idea of whole brand thinking to get the whole nation talking, how can we light the blue touch paper that inflames conversation?”

Aldridge is especially fired-up by the creative opportunity that’s presented by Wunderman Thompson’s focus on “getting the whole nation talking.” It’s a bold ambition but given recent work including HSBC ‘Borders’, BT’s ‘Unstoppable’ interactive experience, and IKEA’s ‘Open for Business’, it’s already well on the road to achieving this.

Diverse talent

Recent months have also seen Wunderman Thompson boosting its investment in people through its Spring learning and development programme based on the idea of “whole person development”, coaching and exercise classes that reflect a commitment to health and wellbeing, and several meaningful diversity and inclusion initiatives.

These include The Catalyst Academy, an 18-month scheme for entry-level candidates that offers well-paid placements to people from all backgrounds. In 2021, 42 per cent of people placed came from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds, 43 per cent were female or non-binary, and 18 per cent stated that they have a disability. This investment is not only the right thing to do, but Pip believes this also creates a space full of interesting, diverse people in which its teams can better “help to grow brands”.

'Not slowing down'

Looking ahead, what does 2022 and beyond hold for the agency as it aims to build on the successes of 2021? Hulbert says: “We’re not slowing down, the opportunities are everywhere. But we work with 50 brands, they’re on the high street or you will have them in your home, and there are opportunities to better connect them, help them to grow, and inspire them. Experience, more and more, becomes central to helping to join the dots.”

Aldridge is bold in his vision to continue to innovate creatively: “To create campaigns the shape of which we perhaps haven’t seen yet. To help brands have conversations with customers in ways, and channels, and touchpoints, they’ve never had before.”

And that seems possible just so long as Wunderman Thompson’s UK leaders remain as driven and committed as they are today.

McGrath says: “We’re not leaning back and doing middle of the road stuff. We’re trying to do the kind of work that we’d do if the three of us started the agency this morning. The kind of work you’re proud of, and everyone talks about.”


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