David Kennedy On the Spot

The 64-year-old co-founder of Wieden + Kennedy is unswervingly committed to his passions: furthering the cause of American Indians, sculpting and the Portland, Ore., agency he helped launch 20 years ago. While Kennedy, who will be inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame in November, retired in 1993, he’s at the agency often, doing pro bono work for the American Indian College Fund. He coordinates several projects for the group, including a line of traditional blankets and the book Real Indians: Portraits of Contemporary Native Americans and America’s Tribal Colleges, published last month.

Q. Aside from your work for the College Fund, what do you do with your time?

A. I was a fine-arts major in college. I majored in sculpture, and my particular field was welded steel and cast bronze. I’ve been going to school off and on for the last 10 or 15 years, and currently I’m taking welding classes. I built a studio and shop at my home out in the sticks, and I work there.



What is it about welding that attracts you?

I’ve been doing it all my life. You know, I grew up in the oil fields, so I was a welder’s assistant in Oklahoma when I was a kid.



What do you miss about being at the agency full time?

I come in on a regular basis, and the thing I would miss did I not come in is the collaboration. And I miss the camaraderie and all that sort of thing, so that’s one of the reasons I haven’t left. And one reason I go to school, because I much more enjoy working with young people than old farts like myself.



Would you open an agency today?

I don’t know about today’s climate. It would be a lot tougher to open an agency today than it was 20 years ago. Things are so much more complicated and layered. People communicate on so many different levels. There was only television and print and direct mail, and now information has expanded exponentially. You need a lot more specialists today than when we got started.



Who do you most enjoy collaborating with?

I love working with Joe Pytka. He’s such a sweet, lovable guy [laughs].



Really.

No. He’s a pain in the ass. He’s probably the most talented guy I’ve worked with. He’s got a great eye. He’s fast, and he’s a great editor.

What current advertising do you like?

I don’t watch much television. But one commercial [from earlier this year] that I like is the one Chiat\Day did for Apple with Mini-Me and Yao Ming. I love that spot. It’s got a concept. So much advertising today is without a real strong idea. A lot of it is graphic in nature and not conceptual. And I sound like an old curmudgeon like George Lois, but I think he’s right. There’s not a lot of ideas out there in advertising that break through.



What do you think about the merging of advertising and entertainment?

It’s a great opportunity. We have this incredible resource amassed here, all these creative talents. It’s great to put them to work doing things other than run-of-the-mill advertising.



Was Nike a dream client?

Well, sports is such a fantastic world. Sports are a great learning ground for the youth of America. You learn failure as well as success. I think that’s what you really need in this business. If I had any advice to give people [starting out in advertising], I would say you have to stay resilient, that you can’t let your ego get out of hand. It’s not about you, it’s about the work, it’s about your clients. An idea gets shot down, there’s a better one out there. You have to take it in the chops and come back.



What was your smartest business decision?

Partner up with Dan Wieden. We were just soul mates in a way. [But] I think that so much of what happened to us was luck and not great decisions. We were just in the right place at the right time. Advertising sort of

decentralized from New York and the other meccas, became more regional.



What was it like working with Dan?

Dan and I just hit it off. We really got off on making advertising.



Were you similar?

He’s the more outgoing of the two of us. But I had a pretty rich experience to bring to Portland. I’d worked in Chicago for 15 years, so I had had more exposure to national brands and that sort of thing, which Dan had not experienced. So I was kind of able to turn Dan on to that.



And did he teach you anything in return?

Yeah, he was like an original mind. Unblemished, unspoiled by the advertising business. Didn’t think in terms of clichés. When we started out with Nike, Nike hated advertising, so we pretty much had to go against the grain—we had to be sort of rebellious.



How far did discussions ever get at Wieden about selling to other agencies?

Not very far. Ten, 15 years ago, I remember Sam Scali came to visit, and the staff lined up at the windows to look at his big stretch limo outside. But it didn’t make any sense. Because it would mean giving up creative control. The thing that makes us or agencies like us is our creative product. And you can’t really sell that.



What’s your biggest fear?

Getting old in the head or the heart.



Do you regret, when you retired, not selling the agency and making millions?

No. It’s not about money.