Rosemarie Ryan, the former CEO of JWT North America, is pretty convinced about this one thing: “JWT invented the grilled cheese sandwich,” she told Digiday while in the office as a guest on our podcast a few weeks ago. The concept is often as used as proof that agencies can do more than just sell product: they can invent, they can change culture and they can create a client’s stories.

The claim that WPP’s JWT invented the grilled cheese sandwich is one that is oft-repeated by agency execs, fans and the wider population. (When Jeff Benjamin was hired as the agency’s North American CCO, he mentioned it in an interview; CBS News reported it as fact in a story about the agency’s 150th anniversary last year.)

In this week’s edition of unsolved mysteries, we get to the stringy center of the legend.

The myth
Walter Thompson executives and fans have long said that the agency, working on the Kraft business, decided to sell executives at the company on “end-dish” or “functional” marketing, which showed what you could do with the product, versus just showing the product itself.

In 1922, JWT won the account for Phenix Cheese, which later merged with Kraft in 1929, with the agency acquiring the advertising responsibilities for both companies. In the 1960s, the company pioneered the “end-dish” marketing concept.

It had been dabbling with recipes for a while: JWT had opened the first test kitchen to test recipes for its clients in 1918.

“You will find Kraft American Cheese ideal for grilled sandwiches,” read one long-copy newspaper ad that also gave out free packs of Kraft Cheese when you bought a Griswold brand grill.

That’s nice. But … did they invent the sandwich?
No. We’ll get to that.

So why propagate the myth?
David Eastman, former CEO North America (who later replaced Ryan and her co-CEO, Ty Montague), said that the grilled cheese sandwich story was used in new business pitches from time to time during his tenure at the agency, “usually when we wanted to show that we’d been inventing for clients for decades.” It’s become part of the agency’s folklore.

 

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“The genius of the campaign is that it’s difficult to prove it didn’t exist before JWT used it,” said Eastman. “I imagine people were making grilled cheese sandwiches before the ad, but the point is that the campaign made the grilled cheese sandwich belong to Kraft.”

A JWT spokesperson said a timeline is shared with all new hires — it includes the sandwich and other moments in the agency’s history. While it’s not relied on for onboarding or new business, “fun facts” come up from time to time, the spokesperson said.

What does Wikipedia say?
Not much. But HowStuffWorks has an in-depth look at grilled cheeses by other names — the French had their croque-monsieur since the 1900s; in World War II, Navy cooks were making cheese sandwiches, sometimes open-faced.

A recipe in “Calendar of Sandwiches and Beverages” by Elizabeth O. Hiller, published circa 1915, has a recipe for “toasted cheese,” made in a wire broiler and served with tea.

The actual term “grilled cheese,” however, doesn’t appear in print until 1932, in a suggested menu in the Los Angeles Times for luncheon: grilled cheese sandwiches, a salad, baked bananas, orange cake and tea. Kraft didn’t introduce Singles — individually wrapped slices of processed cheese until 1949. These days, JWT’s official line is that they “helped popularize the grilled cheese sandwich,” a claim that’s easier to prove, since grilled cheese sandwiches really took off in the 1950s.

As recently as 2007, Kraft said it would spend a large portion of its $1.4 billion marketing budget to grilled cheese — to bring Singles back and make the item a staple on American menus.

Did they actually invent anything?
Those measurement markings on sticks of butter, for client Swift & Co. In the 1920s, markings showing were first placed on packages of lard, then became standard practice for butter and margarine as well.

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