Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a pioneer of the advertising industry and the founder of the J Walter Thompson agency. Thompson acquired his employers' company Carlton & Smith in 1878 and renamed it the J Walter Thompson Company.
Thompson developed techniques and disciplines that defined the early history of the advertising industry, which was then dominated by magazine advertising. As well as convincing magazine owners and editors to include advertising space in their publications (then selling that same space to the advertisers of the day), he also pioneered the concept of a ‘full service agency’ in which employees of his company would create content as well as acquire the space and place the adverts on behalf of their clients. As a result, Thompson became the exclusive agent for 30 noted periodicals of those times.
Thompson was also a pioneer of international advertising, opening an office in London in the 19th century having already opened offices in Chicago, Boston, and Cincinnati. In the 1880s Thompson began to publish books that expounded his advertising philosophy, showed examples of his agency's work, and provided circulation and rate information to prospective advertisers. ‘Advertising,’ he stated, ‘is a non moral force, like electricity, which not only illuminates, but also electrocutes. Its worth to civilization depends upon how it is used.’ Thompson also introduced the contemporary innovation of creating ‘house advertisements’—which aimed at promoting the J Walter Thompson agency to companies seeking professional advertising services. The ads began appearing in both trade and general magazines in the 1880s and increased in volume and variety with every decade through much of the 20th century.
Thompson sold his agency to a group of company officers, having expanded it over the preceding 38 years. He was succeeded by Stanley Resor who built the J Walter Thompson Company (later known as JWT) into the largest and most dominant agency in the advertising industry for the first half of the 20th century. In 1987 a British company, WPP Group plc, purchased JWT, and today it remains a prominent global advertising agency. See also advertising; public relations.