Wieden, Beyond ‘Halftime’

A smash Super Bowl spot kicks off a winning season for much-admired Stumptown shop

It takes a fool to create something ingenious, says Chrysler global marketing chief Olivier François. In other words, if you’re blissfully unaware of boundaries, you may create something extraordinary—say, an epic Super Bowl ad starring an iconic actor that’s gritty and inspirational and even becomes part of the national dialogue around the U.S. presidential election.

Wieden + Kennedy’s “It’s Halftime in America” with Clint Eastwood—which aired, naturally, in the first break after the second quarter of February’s game—was an instant classic, and an exceptional blend of star power and humanity. Against Eastwood’s rasp, images of “people who are out of work” and “hurting” gave way to the determined faces of men assembling Chryslers. The balance of dark and light and Eastwood’s gravitas disarmed cynics and turned even hardened ad critics into believers.

“That final punch line where they say, ‘It’s halftime in America, and the second half is about to begin,’ I was about ready to go out and try to enlist in the Marines,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “It was very rousing. It was very patriotic without being jingoistic.”

“Halftime” and other work on Wieden’s global reel this year represent advertising at its best—words and images that spark emotions and transcend categories. Surprise is another key element—making, for example, a chubby boy jogging on an open road the focal point of “Jogger,” a Nike ad that aired during the Olympics. Likewise, the shop featured moms not athletes in “Best Job,” an ad that marked Procter & Gamble’s first global sponsorship of the Olympics and celebrated the little things that mothers do as their children grow into Olympians. The two-minute ad won the Emmy for outstanding commercial. Other creative highlights this year include “Beach” for Southern Comfort, “Crack the Case” for Heineken and “Shake on It” for ESPN.

Even for a premiere creative agency like Wieden—Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year for 2012—this was an exceptional year. The most memorable Super Bowl ad. The Emmy (its fourth straight). The biggest campaign ever for Heineken, celebrating the brand’s global sponsorship of the James Bond flick Skyfall. A whopping 45 Lions at Cannes (including 29 out of its Portland, Ore., headquarters, making it Agency of the Year). Banner wins like Tesco, Sony, Facebook and American Express Open. New business and organic growth from existing accounts fueled a swift rebound from the loss of Nokia and Target, in 2011 and early ’12, respectively. The agency ends this year with global revenue growth of 5 percent to an estimated $294 million. U.S. revenue also grew 5 percent, to $205 million.

Among its peers, independent agency Wieden, now in its 30th year, inspires both pride and envy. After all, in the past four years, Wieden has won an average of 29 Lions a year. Agency co-founder and global president Dan Wieden attributes that creative consistency to building a culture that’s “just more fun than you can believe and harder than hell. That generates ideas, great enthusiasm and new ways of looking at old issues.”

Much of Wieden’s standout work in 2012 centered around major events. In late 2011, Chrysler’s François needed an execution to fit a halftime buy during the Super Bowl, perennially the most watched program on TV. Chrysler had made a big splash in the previous big game, casting Eminem in a starring role for the launch of the “Imported from Detroit” campaign. This time, François wanted Wieden Portland to make Chrysler’s turnaround feel part of a national comeback. Hence, the casting of an American icon, who, after some initial hesitation, signed on. The agency enlisted poet Matthew Dickman and novelist Smith Henderson to help write the script.

“Powerful spot,” tweeted Obama adviser David Axelrod shortly after the two-minute ad aired Feb. 5. The next day, Republican strategist Karl Rove asserted that “Halftime” was payback for the federal government bailout of the auto industry. But even Rove admitted the ad was “extremely well done.”

Parodies ensued, including a series of Saturday Night Live clips in which Bill Hader, as Eastwood, squinted and railed about presidential candidates, China and Mexicans. “If those kinds of things happen,” says Wieden, laughing, “you know you just hit a home run.”

Going into the London Summer Olympics, P&G global marketing chief Marc Pritchard wanted to give the “Thank you, mom” campaign a global makeover. Previous ads, from Wieden Portland, focused on U.S. athletes (P&G sponsored the American team at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada). Back then, Wieden global chief operating officer Dave Luhr had challenged Pritchard to create “world-class marketing” for a “world-class event.” This time Pritchard pushed Wieden to “surprise us.” He approved the moms-on-the-job concept on the spot. “When you see something that makes your spine tingle, you’re onto something,” says Pritchard. “I knew immediately that this was a winner.”

While the maternal message is universal, local customs vary. That’s why one scene shows a Chinese mom watching her daughter compete on television. In China, moms don’t attend such events, explains John Jay, Wieden’s global ecd.

“Best Job,” from CDs Danielle Flagg and Karl Lieberman, launched in April, and the global push is on track to generate $500 million in incremental sales gains across 34 brands, including Tide, Crest and Pampers, says Pritchard. One of every three people on YouTube has shared the two-minute ad.

In the spring, the challenge facing Wieden’s Amsterdam office in marketing around Heineken’s sponsorship of Skyfall was to build on the brand’s existing “Man of the World” campaign. The campaign’s 30-ish leading man gets most of the screen time in the 90-second spot, in which bad guys chase the hero through a train full of colorful characters. The star of Skyfall, Daniel Craig, does have a cameo, though.

The ad broke in September and is still running in 34 countries. It is the centerpiece of a broader sponsorship push backed by an unprecedented $70 million in media spending, according to Sandrine Huijgen, global communications director at Heineken. Huijgen, who also works with Wieden’s offices in New York; São Paolo; and Delhi, India, says of agency leaders like Amsterdam ecd’s Eric Quennoy and Mark Bernath: “They push things and I think it works well with Heineken in terms of the personality of the brand. You know, we just want to do things that are different, and Wieden is very, very good at that.”

That reputation led Facebook to approach the agency in October 2011. The social media giant wanted to launch its first brand campaign to celebrate its upcoming billion-user milestone. Facebook execs worked with a small group at the agency including CDs Flagg, Lieberman and Eric Baldwin to develop “The Things That Connect Us,” a 90-second ad that broke in October and has generated massive buzz (not all of it positive) which Facebook shared via its own network. Asked about negative reactions to the spot, Facebook brand marketing chief Rebecca Van Dyck says, “I’m not afraid of that at all.” She adds, “It’s important for iconic brands. I think that’s what Wieden + Kennedy actually does well.”

Tesco’s Matt Atkinson likes what he sees thus far in Wieden’s London office, which, led by managing director Neil Christie, beat TBWA, VCCP and JWT in July to claim one of the most coveted accounts in the U.K. The retailer, which each year produces more than 1,000 ads and spends about $175 million in media, last month broke a campaign that centers around a familiar object in England this time of year: the holiday hat.

Wieden brings “an ability to help you express yourself in the new world,” says Atkinson, Tesco’s group marketing and chief digital officer. “That was what we were looking for.”