Independent thinkers

Thirty years after its birth in provincial Portland, Wieden + Kennedy has offices in eight cities around the world and a reputation for great creative work. But how do they maintain standards and keep that work fresh? How do they deal with change and the highs and inevitable lows of agency life? Eliza Williams gained unique insight into the workings of one of advertising’s top networks. Here’s our special report on life at W+K

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Longevity in advertising is a rarity. By its nature, the industry is about the new, the ephemeral, the fashionable. Clients come and go, agencies get bought and sold, and relationships are often fickle. Against this backdrop, the Wieden + Kennedy network appears something of an anomaly. This year marks 30 years since the network’s first agency was launched, and it now has offices in eight major cities around the world. Yet it is still helmed by one of its founders, has maintained its relationship with its founding client, and, most importantly, is entirely independent, regardless of the many overtures it has received from holding companies over the years. Despite three decades in a wildly fluctuating industry, it has stayed true to its core principle of focusing its attention on creativity and how this can be used to build its clients’ businesses, an approach that has led W+K to work with some of the most famous brands on the planet. So how have they done it?

In the beginning, it didn’t seem likely that Wieden + Kennedy would become the network that it is today. The first agency was launched by Dan Wieden and David Kennedy in Portland on April Fool’s Day 1982, a date that signified the apparent irreverent approach of its founders. The main W+K office remains in the Oregonian city, but 30 years ago, it wasn’t quite the arty, hipster enclave that it is today, and it certainly seemed something of a backwater compared to Madison Avenue, where most of the US advertising action had been centred since the early 20th century. The duo’s approach was also unconventional; Wieden’s father had been in advertising in Portland, but despite this familial link to the industry, he was far from your typical ad man, even then. Describing himself today, he says: “I’m an old hippie, Kennedy says, a wayward child. We never expected to be this successful.”

The duo had a number of qualities on their side, however. Most crucially, they had a unique client. They met while working together on the Nike account at the William Cain ad agency, and, upon leaving, took Nike with them. “I think what was beneficial to us was we were not in Madison Avenue,” says Wieden today. “We were out in the hustings and we had a great client, who was as much of a rebel as we were. So you began by being ignorant. Nike thought you’d never run an ad more than once, because you wouldn’t write the same letter to someone. It was that kind of innocence that really let us rethink what the process is, and actually build a brand. I think being ignorant is the key to our success.”


If you spend time with almost anyone at any Wieden + Kennedy office around the world, before too long they’ll tell you that the most important thing to know about the company is that “the work comes first”. The expression is one of a number of ‘Wiedenisms’, pithy statements used to sum up the ideology of the network. Others are ‘fail harder’, ‘don’t say it, be it’, ‘a white wall is a missed opportunity’. To those allergic to the ad industry’s love of such slogans for self-promotion some of these may grate a little, while others don’t necessarily translate well across cultures; the subtlety of ‘fail harder’ for example, falls decidedly flat in China, where failure is an anathema. But it’s hard to find fault with ‘the work comes first’, and the meaning it holds for the group. “Nobody comes here if that’s not what they’re into and what they’re up for,” says Mark Bernath, ECD at W+K Amsterdam. “There’s so many reasons why a good idea can become a less-good idea in this business, you need that fortified front to keep pushing as long as it takes to get something good, and everybody here just does it naturally.”

Take a stroll through Wieden + Kennedy’s back catalogue, and the results of this philosophy are easy to see. Its work on Nike alone is legendary: stretching back to Dan Wieden’s coining of the phrase ‘Just Do It’ (sparked by “Let’s Do It”, the last words of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore to the firing squad before his execution), through to the brand’s encouragement of women to use sport as a means for empowerment in the 80s, and its epic spot ‘Write The Future’ which stole the advertising show at the 2010 World Cup. It’s hard to imagine other brands, or agencies, convincing Tiger Woods to perform the earnest mea culpa to camera that he did for Nike after he was caught up in an infidelity scandal that threatened his career in 2009, or to focus on a severely obese kid running, as Nike did for a spot in its recent ‘Find Your Greatness’ campaign.

But Wieden + Kennedy is far from just being about Nike these days: there’s Happiness Factory for Coke, Old Spice Responses Campaign, This Is SportsCenter for ESPN, Grrr and Cog for Honda, The Entrance for Heineken … the list goes on and on. Less well-known is the early work that the Tokyo office did for Uniqlo. The clothing brand, then a small Japan-only enterprise, was the first Japanese client at the W+K Tokyo office, and Uniqlo’s founder and president Tadashi Yanai credits W+K’s John Jay (ECD in Tokyo at the time, now global ECD, based in Portland) for helping the brand expand into the vast global business it is today. “I owe John Jay enormously,” he said in a recent interview in Fast Company. “He spent a lot of time on our business, talking to us about what kind of DNA we have and what kind of creativity we needed.”

Summing up the kind of work that Wieden + Kennedy makes, Portland ECD Susan Hoffman explains that they try and avoid anything that’s “too addy”. “I always describe our work as editorial,” she says. “It should be that deep and it should be that challenging, and it’s not ‘sell, sell, sell’. A lot of people are brought up to do ads, but we pride ourselves on doing more editorial truth, finding something that makes a difference.”

In order to help bring creative thinking to the fore at all times, the network uses an unusual management structure, which places creativity at its heart. “Each of our offices is run by a three person management team,” explains global chief operating officer Dave Luhr. “That three person team is always two creative types, and one managerial type. There’s always tension with a threesome, but Dan likes that tension, he likes to build that tension in. His philosophy is if you just had an account person and a creative person running an agency, eventually the account person would take control of the agency in most cases.”

“I think the chemistry of the three is hugely important,” says Neal Arthur, managing director of W+K New York. “I’ve been surprised how much the office can sense whether there’s a divisiveness of any kind. This dynamic is awesome but when it’s divisive it can be really problematic … you can almost look at an office’s success and point to how much chemistry there is between the three at the top.”

By placing two creatives on the team, the structure is more weighted towards creative thought, though it also means that there is more expected of the creative leaders than there might be at other agencies. “What’s interesting is that if you are one of those creative partners, you clock pretty early on that Dan Wieden expects you to run the business,” says Kim Papworth, ECD at the W+K London office. “In some cultures, if you’re the creative director of an agency, you’re quite indulged, whereas Dan is like, ‘no, the three of you are running that office, and if there is something wrong with that office, I expect all three of you to be accountable’. It’s a very different job.”

A certain degree of chaos is also actively encouraged. “Dan can be very tight and businesslike one minute and then very loose and creative the next,” continues Papworth. “I think that’s the yin and yang of an office, the discipline and the undiscipline doing battle.”


The ability for Wieden + Kennedy to place so much emphasis on encouraging creativity is perhaps only possible due to its independent status. Whereas another agency might feel beholden to their stakeholders in terms of the business decisions it makes, W+K has the freedom to push for its clients to make potentially difficult choices, in order to get results. “To me, the most important thing about being independent is it gives us the luxury of being honest with everyone, with our clients and with our people,” says Icaro Doria, ECD at W+K São Paulo. “If you have a relationship with a long-time client that is based on money only and is not a partnership, you will always say to the client what he wants to hear, and not what you think.”

This honesty can occasionally prove challenging to clients, and has at times led to W+K being known as a ‘difficult’ agency to work with, due to their creative rigour. There are even tales of ads being pulled by the agency itself, after client sign-off, due to a realisation by the creatives that the work could be better than it is. When so much advertising work that is released into the world is at best mediocre, such a high-minded position is unusual. “I think we possibly are more demanding of our clients than some agencies,” agrees Neil Christie, managing director at W+K London. “I remember the old quote that we were once described as was ‘inspiring but tiring’, in that we were always asking questions … and for some clients, they don’t want that. But I think on the whole you figure those things out when you meet people and you hopefully don’t get into a long-term relationship when you can see that that’s not the kind of relationship that they want to have.”

Some clients are drawn to the idea of working with W+K but are in fact not really ready for the chaos that may go along with it. “I think the cult of creativity is pervasive now,” says Mark Fitzloff, ECD at W+K Portland, “everyone thinks that they need it and thinks that they value it but very few people are willing to pay the price for getting to it, and understand what’s involved.”

Fitzloff describes this price as “deprioritising order”. “We can’t explain it all the time,” he says, “we can’t hit all the dates, we can’t accurately predict what we are going to get when we go and make things.”

“We don’t do a lot of research,” follows up Susan Hoffman. “We actually don’t test on Nike at all, most of our clients we don’t. The reason why we don’t do that for Nike is years ago, when we ran the Revolution commercial, Phil [Knight, Nike co-founder and chairman] asked to have it tested after it ran – because it was very successful and he was curious – and it didn’t test well, and he said, ‘we’ll never do testing, never’.”

Despite the potential challenges involved, W+K has seen a flood of clients signing up to work with the network in recent years. Since the beginning of this year alone, major clients of the calibre of Sony, Tesco and, most recently, Facebook, have begun working with the company, and, despite the global recession, the past four years have been the network’s best. Dave Luhr puts this down to clients being forced to question their approach following the downturn. “The last four years have been really hard for a lot of client organisations and they’ve had to say to themselves, ‘I wonder if we have the right agency’,” he says. “Because it’s hard switching agencies, people get into relationships, you may not like the output but you’re comfortable with them, they know your business. It’s hard to change. I think what’s been helpful, and why we’ve done well over the last four years, is this economy has helped force change. There’s a side of me that likes this soft economy, because it forces clients to make decisions that maybe they won’t make when the economy is good.”

The last four years have also helped consolidate W+K as a network that can deliver advertising and business solutions across a wide range of brands and sectors. Long known as a ‘sports agency’, with hugely successful work for brands as varied as P&G, Chrysler and Heineken now under its belt, it is no longer possible to write them off in this way, or to say that their approach only works for ‘rebellious’ clients such as Nike.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. There have been major client losses: Target split suddenly with the network after six years at the beginning of 2012, while in the summer of 2011, the network resigned its remaining Nokia business, which had a particularly devastating effect on the London office, where Nokia made up approximately 40% of its business at the time. The W+K culture is to encourage its staff to truly be themselves – “the good, the bad and the ugly,” says Dan Wieden – and buy into the wider ‘family’ of the network, meaning that redundancies can be especially hurtful when they come.

“When the Target thing happened, it was crushing,” agrees Neal Arthur of the New York office. “It was crushing for me emotionally, because you have to look at people and go, ‘this is an inevitable reality of this business, but we’re going to try our best to create opportunities for you guys here or elsewhere’.”

In London, the scale of the Nokia account meant it was simply impossible to keep everyone on in the agency. “It was very difficult,” says Neil Christie. “I think it hits people a lot harder because they don’t expect it in a place like this. And it was very difficult to do, but we took the decision that from a cultural perspective it would be more damaging to continue the relationship [with Nokia] and let it kind of die bit by bit, and for the people who worked on it to be frustrated and demotivated and feel like they were doing work that they weren’t proud of. So then we had to take the commercial decision that comes out of that.”

“It’s also a grim reminder that you are in a service industry,” continues Kim Papworth. “I think sometimes if you’re around good work, people can start getting a slightly warped sense of who they are and what they do, and how they should be treated. To go through that, as Neil said, is absolutely awful.”


While the advertising business can be a fragile one, Wieden + Kennedy’s independent status means that they are able to ride out financial and client-based storms in their offices more successfully than most agencies can. The network tends to view its eight offices as supports for one another – if one office falls on hard times, it can be propped up by the others in the group. There is also a tendency to share work and creative talent across offices, despite there being a healthy sense of competition between the various agencies.

Wieden + Kennedy opened its second office, in Amsterdam, 20 years ago, with the move initially prompted by Nike’s expansion, rather than any desire within the Portland office to go global. “We were faced with a very big issue at that point,” remembers Dave Luhr, “because we were a happy, independent agency in Portland, Oregon, doing good work for a big client called Nike, and our life was content and happy. But their business was expanding globally, and at the time their focus really was on Europe. So that was our first really big, to be honest, scare. That is the natural time when most agencies would sell…. But we didn’t want to do that, we’re not going to follow that route. I thank God all the time that that office was the first,” he continues, “because Amsterdam is a very easy place for an American company to open an office in. The culture is very open, it’s inviting. It was an easy entry into that marketplace. It gave us tremendous confidence.”

While the Amsterdam office now works with far more clients than just Nike, it remains, alongside Portland, the most global-focused of the Wieden + Kennedy offices. Almost all of the work that is produced at the agency is for global, rather than local, clients, and even the make up of the office has a global bent, with staff arriving there from all over the world, specifically to work at Wieden + Kennedy. This mixture of nationalities helps in the production of the work they make. “For sure the fact that the make up of the agency is so diverse [helps us to] arrive at the kind of work that travels, just by virtue of the fact that coming to agreement here usually means doing it among people from at least six to eight places around the world and that generally leads us to ideas that are universal,” says Mark Bernath.

After the success of Amsterdam, Wieden + Kennedy opened three more agencies in fairly quick succession: New York in 1995, London in 1997 and Tokyo in 1998. Each opening required different handling, and along the way a method for how the Wieden + Kennedy culture could be developed in the vastly different regions was established. “You have to give freedom to your offices,” explains Dave Luhr. “I always say if you look at our offices around the world, they all have a unique feel to them. I’ve said it’s like mixing a cocktail: it’s one third Wieden + Kennedy DNA, it’s one third of the culture of the market you’re in, and it’s one third the leadership team that you hire.”

The Tokyo office, under the stewardship of John Jay, was especially successful in reaching out to the local community of artists and designers, in order to establish a difference between W+K and the advertising behemoths of Dentsu and Hakuhodo in the city. “We wanted to earn the respect of the local culture and we wanted to find out who were the smartest people in the business world,” Jay says now. “I think the office was open to be an enabler, to be a connector. So many times when this happens now, today, we will help to connect people, whether it’s young musicians, artists, business people, to other people around the world, using our international network. It’s not about business per se, it’s just being an enabler and letting people know that there is this place that’s trying to bring a new dimension to the creative world in Tokyo.”


Wieden + Kennedy took a similar approach when opening its final three offices, in Shanghai in 2005, Delhi in 2007 and São Paulo in 2010. The methodology has been one of a start-up that is entering the market to deliver something different to the other agencies that are there, rather than an American company landing in a new country and trying to bend the culture to its own ways.

This takes patience and careful study of the market, along with an acceptance that it might take time to make the in-roads that they would like. The Shanghai office for example, is a work in progress, with the agency investing in the city in the hope of becoming a significant cultural voice there in the future. “There’s absolutely no reason why Wieden + Kennedy should be here, and there’s absolutely every reason why Wieden + Kennedy should be here,” says Jason White, managing director of the Shanghai office. “You have a market where our standard as a network is higher than the client’s standard a lot of times, and therefore we’re paying for talent that the client has no interest in paying for from the agency. So the financials are totally backwards. But then you come here and you find people who’ve made the most amazing work and are looking for homes…. That’s why we’re here. So it’s an incredible contrast of watching a market try to mature to a place where what you offer it is paid for and valued, but at the same time you’re trying to be a member of a community that’s got all this brilliant talent in it. We’re learning as much as we’re teaching, you come here to play every role.”

John Jay was particularly concerned that the agency did not follow the route of other Western companies and simply try to take as much from the country as possible without giving anything back. Instead he stated from the start that the network should try to “do good things for China”. “A major thing that we wanted was to make sure that people understood that yes, we were there to do business,” he says, “but we also wanted to work with the best in China, and learn from that and hopefully – and we’re still hoping to get there – to help develop the first globally aspirational Chinese brand.”

Alongside the desire to work closely with the local creative community, W+K always brings its central tenet of creative independence to whichever market it enters. This has led to a certain like-mindedness among the key figures across the network, regardless of the different cultures they may work within, and at times the meeting of minds of staff around the world almost sounds romantic. When W+K joined forces with local Delhi creatives V Sunil and Mohit Jayal to form its Delhi office, for example, Jayal described it as if a “giant creative starship landed here”. “In India, creative independence has a bit of a struggle here because things are pretty conservative, it’s only in the last two or three years that clients have been quite radical in their choices,” he says. “At the time we first met with the Wieden gang, it was really encouraging for us to realise that we were not alone, basically. We were very much alone in what we were trying to do over here, and suddenly there’s this spaceship full of people like us who land here and tumble out, and we all hugged each other and realised it’s okay.”


While each Wieden + Kennedy office has to tackle its individual challenges, certain problems face the whole group, regardless of location. The most pressing is the impact of digital on advertising. This is of course a dilemma the industry at large is grappling with, as it tries to keep abreast of the rapid changes wrought to media by new technologies, and find the best ways that clients can enter these new worlds successfully. Wieden + Kennedy is primarily known for its traditional advertising, its epic television spots and its ability to tell stories that chime with people across the globe. Yet the times that it has dabbled in digital have had undeniable impact too. Most prominently, the work created for Old Spice, while born out of a traditional strategy, really came to life when the brand interacted with its audience via social media in the Responses Campaign. Other experiments have been taking place around the globe, including the W+K Shanghai office using the social network site Weibo to share Nike stories and imagery with its audiences, Tokyo creating a live balloon flight based on the number of searches users make on Google, and the Amsterdam office creating Coke Sitelets, a series of elegant online experiences that users are encouraged to seek out via Facebook.

The group faced a blow earlier this year, however, when Iain Tait, global interactive ECD based out of the Portland office, decided to move over to Google Creative Lab after just two years with the network. Tait was one of a number of digital hires brought into the agency over recent years, but was the first to truly chime with its culture, so much so that he was made partner in December 2011. Speaking soon after his departure to Google, Dan Wieden commented, “I think when Iain decided he was going to go over to Google, it sent a real shock through this place.

“We made Iain a global partner right way,” he continues. “But I’m not sure that was the best way to utilise him, because it may have been too much to swallow … and I think his love of making things probably wasn’t being satisfied.”
Tait’s move has led to a renewed period of reflection about future approaches, and the dangers of placing too much emphasis on one person. “I don’t think we’re looking for Jesus anymore,” says Wieden wryly. “But we’ll take the 12 disciples, we can make a revolution with that.”

A particular problem that W+K has faced with digital is how to make it global – while an epic TV spot, beautifully shot, can resonate with audiences all over the world, regardless of language barriers, digital work is far more complicated to make work globally. “Digital when it becomes global is even harder than writing a TV spot for a global audience,” says Mark Bernath. “Forgetting just the mechanics of something that might have language on it that needs to work all over the world, and that it’s interactive, which is an incredibly complicated thing, but then adding an idea that people want to spend time with, I think that’s one of our biggest challenges…. I think when it becomes more immersive and you expect more out of the consumer, it becomes much, much more difficult on a global scale, whereas if you’re just within your own country it is easier.”

All the offices are looking at ways to introduce digital technology, and other forms of innovation, into their work, in order to stay on top of an ever-expanding industry. The Portland office has several teams devoted to experimental approaches, including P.I.E (the Portland Incubator Experiment), which sees the agency collaborate with and support tech entrepreneurs, giving them space to work within the W+K office, while the Shanghai office continues a ‘maker’ culture that has existed at the network for decades, with a particular emphasis on developing digital ideas that may then go on to be applied to client work.

There are also formal education programmes at a number of offices: WK12, in Portland, is now in its eighth year and sees groups of students enter the agency for a year to work on local client work and other tasks. Both the Amsterdam and London offices are now running similar programmes, and the aim of all of them is to both help teach people the business – the students enter the courses from a wide variety of backgrounds – but also bring fresh ideas and ways of seeing into the agencies. “These students feed off what’s going on around them in the big Wieden + Kennedy … but the agency also feeds off them,” explains WK12 programme leader and ad legend Jim Riswold. “Because they don’t have the demands of bureaucracy and all that stuff and they see these wide-eyed kids jumping in with joyous abandon into their work, that’s a reminder of what this place is really supposed to be about. You can always tell when you look at a piece of work, on TV or wherever you see it, if that person had any fun doing it, and you don’t see a lot of work these days in advertising that looks like people are having any fun. And if it doesn’t move you, how’s it going to move somebody that you don’t know?”


While none of these programmes and ideas can guarantee that Wieden + Kennedy is future proof, they certainly help to place the network in a position to be at the forefront of new developments in the industry. Like everything else in advertising though, there is an acknowledgement within the network that it is constantly a work in progress, always looking for new ways to make better work for its clients, and to help them make work that is relevant for today’s world. “I think a lot of brands are realising that the future isn’t about them shouting at people,” says Kim Papworth. “It’s about them having conversations with people, which means that one, their tone needs to change, but they also need to have opinions about things. There’s a lot of clients that seem to feel that we’re quite good at helping with that.”

Despite the many changes that have buffeted the industry over the last three decades, W+K’s philosophy of focusing on creativity has proven to be enduring, and is perhaps more relevant now than ever. “My goal has always been to contribute back to the creative society, to the larger creative community,” says John Jay. “At the end of the day, it’s about exciting ideas that reflect the culture and the people, that you’re able to inspire…. One of the things I always stress is that we have this opportunity to broaden the definition of advertising. We love advertising, we love that emotional connection, we love that ability to help create a voice, a long-term voice.”

In 30 years, much has changed at the network. It has spread all over the world, and enjoyed a level of success that makes the rebellious upstarts who began the company almost look like insiders: almost, but perhaps not quite. David Kennedy officially retired from the industry in 1994, though he still frequents the Portland office to work on occasional projects, while Dan Wieden’s influence continues to pervade the network, and the industry at large – this year alone, he has picked up ‘lifetime achievement’ accolades from both D&AD and Cannes Lions. Having built up a network of like-minded, equally passionate individuals at its offices around the globe, it is easy to assume that this might be the moment that he chooses to bow out of Wieden + Kennedy, or at least take a backseat. But, as many will be happy to note, this doesn’t look likely just yet. “This is a hard business to walk away from,” he says on the subject of retirement. “It’s so damned interesting. I feel alive here. And the more crises there are, the more I just start salivating. It’s sort of an addiction to adrenaline.”