In mid-May, 150 or so top execs from Wunderman Thompson Health came together in San Diego for its first post-merger global summit. Nobody expected anything approaching tension — the three newly unified WPP brands, Wunderman Health, GHG and J. Walter Thompson Health, were quite familiar with one another from years spent under the same corporate umbrella. But there were some questions, both among the leaders at the summit and their charges back home, about the impact of integrating three iconic brands into one.
“One of the biggest challenges from the GHG side was the loss of identity,” says WTH chief strategy officer Nichole Davies, who was previously EVP, head of strategy at GHG. “I’m not sure people realized they’d miss the identity until after it was changed.”
Ultimately, the appeal of the combined offering quieted any such concerns — and among the recent WPP restructurings, the WTH one is said to have proceeded most smoothly, internally and externally. “It was all about making these phenomenal groups of talent feel connected to a common sense of purpose and see the opportunity the way [company leaders] saw it,” Davies continues. “On the GHG side, we were always missing the data part of the equation. The discussions were very invigorating.”
On paper, there’s not a lot that the combined WTH can’t do. Wunderman Health brings data and technology chops to the table. JWT comes armed with big-brand creative know-how. GHG contributes a keen understanding of professional audiences and strategy.
“It played out this way in true recognition that clients are looking for more simplified structures to help them address more complex challenges,” says WTH CEO Becky Chidester, who previously held the same title at Wunderman Health. “Clients today don’t want to go to one agency with PR and another with creative and another with data. They want to work with a partner that can meet varied and distinctive needs, no matter what journey they’re on.”
The company ended 2018 with 680 people under its six North American roofs, located in New York, Washington, DC, Toronto, St. Louis, Stamford and Kansas City, Kansas. MM&M estimates 2018 revenue from the three merged entities at $160 million.
On the personnel front, former WPP Health chief data officer Destry Sulkes slid over to WTH as chief customer experience officer, a role in which he’ll head up the agency’s new customer experience practice. Besides Davies, the other GHG higher-up who joined the new organization was president, IMsci, medical education Barbara Blasso. She previously served as GHG’s executive managing director, medical education and market leader, Stamford.
It’s worth noting the names that aren’t found among the new organization’s management ranks. Former GHG CEO Erin Byrne left the company after less than two years at the helm, while former EVP, chief creative officer Gary Scheiner became EVP, executive creative director at CDM Princeton in October.
Chidester sounds almost philosophical when discussing the departures, acknowledging that “before the merger, there was some significant turnover within those organizations.” Davies adds “there was a period of time when it felt pretty uncomfortable, frankly. We had just gone through brand development for the agency, and now we’re switching over to something different.” However, she says any lingering disappointment in
the ranks has faded. “Given everything we’ve been through, I’m really proud of how we navigated it.”
It’s likely that the breadth and brashness of the WTH offering helped ease any concerns. Among the new company’s main selling points is a focus on helping clients inspire action among their audiences, whoever they may be. “We’re shifting from always kind of telling our clients what to do to actually working in a more co-creative way,” Chidester explains. “It’s more participatory and real-time. What we’re delivering is intended to meet real business needs.”
That value proposition was honed at a two-day, off-site hackathon WTH hosted for nine of its clients earlier this year. The goal was not only to develop smarter workflows, but also to show off the combined company’s enhanced capabilities.
Each client was placed in what Sulkes describes as “a pod” staffed by a creative, a data scientist and a researcher. The teams ran live surveys around unconscious motivators of behaviors, an exercise that ultimately highlighted WTH’s ability to work data magic.
“We were worried because we’d never done something like [the hackathon] before,” Sulkes recalls. “But clients saw how to use data in a more meaningful way, how to use it to drive those personal experiences.”
Global client partner, NY lead William Martino enjoyed the hackathon for a different reason: “It was interesting and cool to see clients geek out on different parts of the process.”
As for those clients, the creation of WTH potentially opens up all sorts of doors, both for existing ones (the agency prefers not to name names, but is said to work with Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer arm, multiple Blue Cross Blue Shield entities and Verily) and ones already engaged with the Wunderman Thompson mothership. “There could be more wellness-related opportunities,” Chidester says. “Bose and Samsung have products that are relevant for health.”
One recent client addition, Foundation Medicine, seems a particularly good fit for WTH. The company, whose genomic profiling test analyzes cancer-relevant genes and biomarkers, tapped WTH for an awareness push around its offering and precision medicine in general. “It’s a unique opportunity,” Chidester adds.
As for what comes next, it depends upon whom you ask. Sulkes hopes to see WTH help clients “engage in an even more personalized level of brand delivery.” Davies expects the agency to create “compelling, meaningful campaigns and pull them through in a way that’s tangible.” Chidester anticipates an intensified emphasis on “getting people to act, rather than education.”
Martino, who has the unfortunate distinction of being the last to answer the what’s next/crystal ball question, chimes in with, “What they said.” After a laugh, he adds that he hopes WTH is done talking about itself.
“There’s been a deliberate effort not to make a lot of fanfare that we’re new,” he explains. “That’s part of a broader philosophy of showing, rather than telling. I just want to show up with new people, capabilities, depth and solutions and see the surprise in clients’ faces when we solve a problem in a way they haven’t seen before.”