Steve Luker On The Spot

Luker, 39, a creative director, doesn’t consider himself part of the ad industry. That exists in some East Coast netherland far from Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., where he partners with Jim Riswold and Roger Camp, and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, where he twice teamed with Steve Simpson on brands such as Hewlett-Packard, Nike, Sega, Isuzu and Norwegian Cruise Line. A fine artist turned art director, Luker is happy to be back on games (Electronic Arts) and spirits (Miller beer and Belvedere and Chopin vodkas), where the blend of work and fun is intoxicating. How did you come to work at McCann in Seattle and enter the world of advertising?

I was still going to a fine-arts school in Seattle, and a great art director named Woody Lowe came to school one day and asked if anyone would like to do some freelance, and I was the only one who raised my hand.

What are your influences, both inside and outside the commercial world?

I started out as very much an art director, into typography, photography and graphic design, and, like most people, I was drawn toward commercial art for the money. I got married young, had some kids, and needed money. Then I gravitated to Goodby and Wieden because of the huge amount of art they bring to the business.

You’ve stayed on the West Coast all your life. Do East Coast agencies appeal to you?

A couple of times I’ve looked at it, and it has been a disaster. In the West, we’re still allowed to work from a gut level. Creative and individual talent is still valued. In New York, it is more about the business of ads, not the art. Here in Portland, or in San Francisco or Seattle, it’s not a business mentality. We want to do kick-ass creative and hope the business follows. It is almost a different industry, and I’m more comfortable in this industry. That being said, working in Europe could be cool someday.

How do you and Roger Camp plan to differentiate Electronic Arts within what has become a boilerplate genre?

Our gut tells us we are doing something wrong if Madden Football and Need for Speed are getting bigger than EA. Kids know the title, not EA. Wieden + Kennedy does a great job with Nike, which has lots of lines, but [we have to do] some level of brand advertising [for EA] that can live above the brand titles.

How do you avoid game-footage formula?

We’re getting to work with EA while they’re in development to get better shots for the commercials—shots that are still legitimate within the game. They can take the camera and get, for instance, a helicopter follow shot. I just want to make sure the ads are at the same creative level of the game. As the trust level grows between EA and us, you’ll see more of this interaction. For instance, a street artist in San Francisco discovered by us will be incorporated into one of EA’s games, so it reflects the real culture of the street. It’s a brilliant idea.

How is it working with people like Dan Wieden and Jeff Goodby?

[Wieden] is a true leader. He inspires great work and gives you the freedom and the rope to hang yourself. He doesn’t need to approve every piece of creative leaving the building; he has to approve of the spirit of the work. Brand on a higher level, bring him in. At Goodby, I dealt more with Rich [Silverstein]. He’s one of the best art directors of all time and very involved. He likes to be on a high level but also looking at rough cuts and revisions of rough cuts. He loves every little piece of it.

Is it frustrating to you being at Wieden but not working on Nike?

No. Mike [Byrne] and Hal [Curtis] are doing the best work in the country, and to me it is a great bar. I hope our work is talked about at that level. Everyone at the agency is trying to grow.

What’s the work most proud of?

Stuff we did at Cole & Weber, when we were young and no one knew what they were doing, and for cheap. You become more proud now about what a group of people can accomplish.

Are there accounts you wouldn’t work on?

Ethically, no. People have a right to smoke. I could do awesome cigarette commercials.

What would be the “brief,” so to speak, on selling Steve Luker?

Stubborn. Difficult to work with. I see myself as more accommodating than perhaps I am perceived. I think I care a lot.

What are three words others would use to describe you?

Rich Silverstein’s one-word description was: confrontational.

What’s the most underrated agency?

There are people at agencies who could be doing great work: Publicis in Seattle. Bob Moore, a [former] creative director at Wieden; Todd Grant; Kevin Jones, my old partner at Riney; and Steve Johnson, my partner at Cole & Weber. They have great potential, and Seattle, as a market, has never tapped that potential. Now they have to find the clients and the point of view that will drive the agency.

What would you change about advertising overnight if you could?

Accountability. I’ve always been confused about why the bar is so low and it is allowed to be so low.

What is your biggest fear?

Not being able to surf anymore, being in Portland. I’m only adequate, but I love it. It’s not about how good I am but about getting into the water.