Dan Wieden, co-founder and majority shareholder of Wieden + Kennedy, has quietly started estate planning, and he’s looking at ways to ensure the agency will never be sold.
As one of the industry’s hottest agencies, Wieden + Kennedy is also one of the most coveted major independents left in the business. Long known for its iconic Nike creative, the agency is proving it can transition into a digital future with work for marketers like Old Spice that has become the envy of competitors and the stuff of pop culture.
But it looks like the agency isn’t up for grabs—at any price. “It will be six to eight months before there’s anything concrete finalized,” said a source. “But Dan’s always said he’d blow the place up before he’d sell it.”
Wieden was unavailable, but Joani Wardwell, global director of PR at Wieden, said, “Dan has always reiterated that under no circumstances will he sell this company.”
Wieden told The Independent (U.K.) in 2007: “David Kennedy and I are creative guys. We set out to create a second-generation independent advertising agency that would exist long after we were gone. We may have sacrificed a lot of financial gain, but [independence] has allowed us to make decisions more freely. We have the ability, when we don’t see eye to eye with a client, to say, ‘It’s not working,
what shall we do?’ and not feel like we have stockholders in the room making that decision for us.”
As recently as two years ago, W+K publicly identified seven partners with a stake in the agency. They included COO Dave Luhr, executive creative director Susan Hoffman, Wieden Entertainment president Bill Davenport and co-ecd John Jay. In 2009, the agency added W+K London ecds Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth, the first employees to be given a stake in the shop in 13 years.
Equity participation, in anticipation of an agency sale, has never been a carrot dangled in front of potential talent recruited by the Portland, Ore.-based shop.
“It’s a verboten topic of discussion,” said an ad industry insider. “There was a period of time when the agency would hire new people who would bring it up, but Dan would rather aggressively shut them down about it.”
One of the options Wieden, who is 65, may be looking into to ensure W+K’s independence is the creation of a trust. Ten years ago, Stan Richards, who owns 100 percent of his eponymous Dallas agency, selected that option and chose a charity which will act as a repository for Richards’ stock. In exchange for agreeing to never sell the shares, the charity—which Richards has not publicly identified—receives a yearly stipend.
The Richards Group is known for its high-retention rate among staffers, even without the stock options long-time execs might expect at an independent. Richards said he makes it clear, as part of the orientation process for new employees, that they know the agency will never be for sale.
“When agencies are sold, bad things happen. That’s universal,” Richards said. “I’ve never known of an agency that has gotten better after it was sold. So why would I want to put my employees in that situation just to stick a bunch of money in my pocket?”
Wieden, it seems, feels the same way.