LOS ANGELES In 1992, when Nike, in the midst of its international expansion, asked Wieden + Kennedy to open an office in Amsterdam, Dan Wieden had a jocular comment from a European colleague ringing in his head. Made a year or two before, when Wieden was basking in the glory of its Nike cross-training campaign with football and baseball star Bo Jackson, the remark opened Wieden's eyes to the fact not all creative transcended borders.
"He'd been lying in bed with his wife and this commercial comes on. He told me, 'When it was over, I looked at her and said, 'So, who is this Bo—and what is he supposed to know?'" recalls Wieden, the agency's co-founder and chief creative officer, with a laugh. "That's when we realized we needed to get a little smarter about the rest of the world and not just assume that what plays in the States will resonate in the world."
Wieden did open an Amsterdam office in response to Nike's request in 1992, which was also the independent, Portland, Ore.-based agency's 10th anniversary. But it would still take some time before it put more dots on the map. In fact, it was three years away from even launching a New York office (1995), and had no publicly stated ambitions for starting shops in London (which it did in 1997), Tokyo (1998), Shanghai (2005) and, last year, Beijing—just in time for handling Nike, Coca-Cola, Target and Nokia China for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Also in 2007, accelerated by its global Nokia win, the shop opened an office in Delhi, India, where it convinced the partners in the "A" Creative Agency, managing director Mohit Dhar Jayal and ecd V. Sunil, to raise the Wieden flag.
Wieden's size pales in comparison to large networks, so it's not surprising its global executives say they would have been hard pressed to predict its success abroad. Partner and ecd John Jay, however, architect of Wieden's Asian strategy, says, "The dream [of going global] was deep in the psyche here from the beginning, even if they didn't know it."
For its ability to grow globally with its independent spirit intact, its strategic management skills and its culturally relevant, award-winning work, Wieden is Adweek's Global Agency of the Year. These days, the combined shops outside of the U.S. outperform New York and Portland, pushing up global revenue 18 percent from $140 million to an estimated $165 million in 2007. And that's apparently big enough for a roster of international blue-chip clients.
The winning recipe, according to global COO Dave Luhr: one-third Wieden culture, one-third DNA of the host city and one-third the personality of whomever leads the office—then shake.
According to Jonathan Mildenhall, Coca-Cola vp of creative excellence, Atlanta, "Working across the Wieden network in Amsterdam, Portland, or consultancy work out of China, has ensured the universal appeal of the work. [It has] resulted in more than 200 countries around the world embracing and activating our co-created campaign, 'The Coke side of life.' Their expanding network gives us the opportunity to take the relationship further and explore the evolving needs of communications for our business."
Even some clients still tentatively exploring Europe and Asia value the agency's tightly controlled brand management.
"Our relationship [with Wieden] continues to evolve," says Terry Davenport, Starbucks vp of global brand strategy and marketing. "We count on them as a key brand advisor and partner, even if that doesn't result in the creation of a lot of traditional advertising."
In 2007, after fits and starts in various offices over the years, Wieden was firing on eight cylinders. Amsterdam won Coke Zero and Pernod Ricard's Polish vodka brand Wyborowa. Beijing secured Nike and Google. Tokyo also added Google, as well as the prestigious Sapporo beer brand and, after pioneering work with another real estate developer, Mori, added Takenaka's Omotesando Gyre shopping center project. (The agency conceptualized, named, advertised and designed mobile-activated interactive kiosks for that project, home of Chanel and the first MoMA outside the U.S.)
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