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.)
Additionally, New York won Cole Haan and Revolution Places. And led by London, but involving all offices, Wieden will represent Visa in Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) projects, starting with the Women's World Cup in China this year. London also led the global Nokia win—the first global win not directed by the Portland shop—including its flagship stores, bringing the network $120 million in billings, $30 million in revenue.
"[Wieden]'s track record demonstrated strength in creative thinking and the potential to be a strong strategic and business marketing advisor," says Jo Harlow, svp of marketing, Nokia, London.
Among Wieden's strengths is its ability to rebound. Portland lost Nike+ and Nike Running in the U.S. in 2007, a blow less to the wallet than the ego, but the network was awarded Nike's Converse media buying and planning. Amsterdam lost Carlsberg, but Portland capped the year with $100 million in Heineken work. Additionally, while it may have lost global duties on Procter & Gamble's Eukanuba dog food, it won the company's Graham Webb hair care products, and Portland added P&G's Old Spice interactive business to the lead creative account.
The agency's 2007 broadcast highlights included "Videogame" for Coke—an homage to "Grand Theft Auto"—and "I Feel Pretty," a musical starring Maria Sharapova for Nike. Also, its work for Old Spice was one of the year's most entertaining. It included "Painted Experience," in which Bruce Campbell, in a double-breasted blazer, cryptically explains "experience" while walking in front of a ridiculously long nautical mural, and "Manly," in which a hairy-chested spokesman in a locker room touts the manliness of "basketball, recon and Frenching."
The year's nontraditional Nike work also made a splash, including the "Battle of the Nike Gates" experiential marketing work for a basketball tournament, Battle of Nine Gates. It centered on the Nine Gates of Beijing's old city, and melded traditional basketball and Chinese iconography for print, TV and online ads. For the non-print work, China's most popular DJ, MC Webber, produced and performed original music.
In Amsterdam, a guerrilla marketing attack to introduce the Nike T90 Laser includes an ad in which a soccer player is so accurate due to his cleats that he can kick a ball into a wall and have the marks it leaves spell out "R.I.P." as a warning to rivals. And in Japan, the agency designed 130 Nike billboards, each with a different message and visual. Each was strategically placed, says Jay, "in a different sweet spot where young people gather or play sports or in a location of influence for young people."
The strategy no matter the location is for each office to develop its own character, while receiving input from Wieden himself.
"I still stay pretty involved, especially with major new clients and with major campaigns for existing clients," Wieden says. "I pride myself on having hired smart, creative folks who can manage these brands ... but I can't help myself from poking my nose in once in awhile."
Chinese-American Jay—who Wieden asked to act as Nike's global emissary in Hong Kong before he even officially joined the company—says Wieden takes pride not in being an international brand name, but in being accepted in each local market.
"Our strategy is not just to be a mailbox or a house of adaptation," Jay explains. "Our real skill is taking ... the brand essence—the voice of that client, the principles of the brand—and helping to find local relevance." This, he adds, precludes the agency from becoming "top down, where Portland calls all the shots."
"Any culture that is living takes on different characteristics and evolves with the circumstances," Wieden adds. "And our offices are a reflection of the ethics and weirdness of the mother ship, but they also are enriched because they operate in very different surroundings and different cultural settings. And that cross-pollination enriches all the rest of the offices, because we move everyone around. It's just damned remarkable, quite honestly."
Under Jay—who, in 1998, became ecd in Tokyo before returning to Portland as partner and ecd of the network—Tokyo developed its own record/DVD label, replete with unique local Toyko pop art and video elements attached to each song.
The European shops use a self-deprecating wit when presenting themselves in the blogosphere. Wieden Amsterdam's blog sports the headline, "Think Global, Act Stupid," and features an ersatz Soviet art icon using rolls of toilet paper as binoculars. The motto: "Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam: 150 people, 25 nationalities. What could possibly go wrong?"
Its London blog uses the tag, "Embracing failure since 1998." Also, the European shops have things like knitting classes and "thirsty Thursdays" (cocktails, naturally) to keep the internal culture hopping.
Years ago, before the bracing victories of late and global accolades for its Honda work with "Cog" (2003), embracing failure wasn't something to joke about. Take its rough move into London, which Luhr says came as a shock.
"We had early success in Amsterdam," he explains. "Then we go to London ... and we are laughed at in the London press. We made some mistakes with some of our people in that office. It was a very hard market to enter and crack, and we hemorrhaged money for probably five years—so much so that if we were owned by a network, I guarantee they would have said, 'Scratch the London office, guys, it's not going to work.'"
Luhr now considers London an object lesson in independent global-network building. Because the agency makes its own financial decisions, he says, it can remain steadfast. "If we make a decision and consider it a good decision, we will do whatever it takes to make sure we accomplish that goal," he explains. "We refused to give up. We found the right team [cd's Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth, and managing director Neil Christie] and today we have an incredibly strong office."
In fact, after an infamously rocky relationship with Subaru (documented in the book, Where the Suckers Moon), London's standout work on Honda (e.g., "Cog" and "Grrr!") has positioned Wieden as the obvious global adjunct to American Honda Motor's non-international independent, RPA.
In the last few years the agency's international milestones have started running closer together. By 2004, the agency was deriving more than half of its total revenue from its (then-) three foreign offices. Since then, global billings have risen 40 percent, according to Luhr.
With U.S. billings tripling between 2003 and 2006, it became clear that the agency's management structure needed some tweaking. Wieden, Luhr and Jay assumed global roles in 2007 and ceded Portland to local management. Then London led this year's Nokia win. Jay says he expects all the shops to lead one or another charge soon.
For Luhr, the network reaped an "enormous benefit from building agencies in the '90s rather than the '60s and '70s. In the '90s, he maintains, clients became more global and "technology came into our lives," allowing the offices to communicate and travel in unprecedented ways.
Corporate attitudes were changing as well. "We did a lot of research before opening Amsterdam," Luhr notes. "[Back then] most clients did not want 120 offices, did not want to pay for 120 offices and, quite frankly, most agencies don't know how to manage 120 offices."
Wieden himself agrees that while building the Wieden culture globally is "very much a creative act, in some ways we are a product of our times. If McCann Erickson hadn't followed Coca-Cola to every country in the world, somebody would have had to come along and do that."
At the global management meeting in India this year, each office was spoiling to share talent with another, says Jay, describing what is for him the most electrifying period in the agency's history. For example, Tim O'Kennedy, one of the industry's original strategic planners, moved from running the Electronic Arts account in Portland to Amsterdam as managing director. And the Portland office is importing interactive talent from China.
"The goal is always to have Wieden talent inside [each international shop]," says Jay, "especially at the beginning." In Shanghai, which opened with no clients and is already working for EA, Starbucks and Nike, the management team hired cd Iris Lo from M&C Saatchi Hong Kong to join creative director Frank Hahn and managing director Kel Hook. Recognizing that the agency needed to catch up on interactive, Renny Gleeson was hired from Carat Fusion as global director of digital strategies, and the Swedish-Argentinian cd Joakim Borgstrom was wrested from his own agency, Double You in Barcelona, Spain to work in Amsterdam.
While it grows, the agency hopes to maintain a "less is more" difference. "In the past, just because a network had 120 offices, it was by no means guaranteeing strategic discipline for those brands," Luhr says. "In fact, having that many offices often helped fracture a brand rather than holding it together."
In the competitive sense, Wieden says the pitch to international clients is as "the independent network. ... And I think the reason we've been able to establish the relationships [we have] and be the lead in many of these markets, if not a global presence, has been the nature of the client/agency relationships. I think ... we will tell it like we see it and not worry about losing margins or watching our profits take a hit or having to suffer the consequences of our conscience. ... We're more concerned with the quality of the work we produce and the quality of the relationships that we can establish."
Now poised to thrive on three continents, Wieden seems well prepared to answer the legendary Jay Chiat question: "How big can we get before we get bad?"
"We were bad when we were small," Wieden says with a laugh. "I'm wondering how big we have to get before we get really good."