Inside the design boom at ad agencies

We talk to Wieden + Kennedy Portland, Droga5 London and Mother Design about bringing together design and advertising work under one roof, and the perception of design work produced at ad agencies

“I remember the first time I saw as a kid how impactful the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s LP was in the design,” says Eric Baldwin, ECD at Wieden + Kennedy Portland. “I remember going through that and understanding the story and talking to my dad about it and how this band had created this other band, and this whole world around this band, down to how the sleeve of the record was printed. Then there was an insert that had moustaches to cut out and put on your face and little badges. You could become a part of that band.”

Baldwin’s early interaction with design has informed his mindset when it comes to bridging the gap between advertising and design. “In wrestling, they call it kayfabe. They don’t want to break that narrative, so they try to keep you in it at all times,” he says. “That’s really what I like about advertising and what we were trying to do with Old Spice and KFC and all these brands over the years. What we’ve been doing with them is trying to expand beyond just doing television. There’s so much opportunity outside of it.”

Wieden + Kennedy Portland has established a reputation for delivering blockbuster TV spots and campaigns, including a spate of high profile Nike ads. Yet the agency’s burgeoning design arm has been growing under the radar, despite it being part of its DNA. “It’s been there really since the beginning. I mean, David Kennedy himself is a craftsman. When you think about Just Do It and the layout of that type and the choice of the Futura Condensed, that’s all David,” he says. “So it’s always been there, we’ve had this design group, and we’ve always done design work for clients, but over the years, it became more of a service to the advertising business.”

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Baldwin stumbled into designing at ad agencies after joining Luis Peña’s PenaBrand, a design agency within Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners. Since he came to the helm as ECD at W+K, he has put an emphasis on embedding design directors “further upstream, not just an end of a line, because that’s kind of how they were – you would go to them at the end of the process,” he says. “So now we have a design director attached to brands. We’re even at the point now, for the first time in a long time, where brands are coming to us for identity work, that then leads into advertising work.”