Ask Martha Littleton, a former Wieden & Kennedy staffer, about her favorite memories of the Portland agency, and she'll describe a workplace so relaxed that on her first day even an older, long-haired janitor--keys dangling from faded jeans--came up and quietly introduced himself by first name. She didn't think much about it until later when a friend asked how she liked her new job. Littleton described the close-knit crew she had met, including the scruffy cleaning man. "That was David Kennedy, you idiot!" her friend shot back.
No one laughs harder about that encounter than the man in question. Kennedy, the 54-year-old chairman of what is arguably America's most trend-setting creative shop, may also be the industry's most enigmatic custodian of that celebrity. Equal parts Father Christmas and Jerry Garcia to staffers, few of his employees know Kennedy is a former Marine and art director who once partnered with Leo Burnett himself. Outsiders know even less. Kennedy stands in the shadow of agency front man Dan Wieden, whose own limited taste for media flamboyance was on display at W&K's popular New York debut at the One Club in 1989. An uncomfortable Wieden stood back and shrugged to a reporter, saying "We don't go in for publicity much. I don't know what I'm supposed to do here."
Not surprisingly, Kennedy's biggest headlines in advertising were generated last month after he announced he was leaving the business. The same pull that led him out of Chicago to Portland in 1978--a desire to concentrate more on his personal life--is again taking him in a new direction. At the end of the year, Kennedy will leave the $200-million agency to study sculpting, devote more time to creating advertising for a favorite cause, The American Indian College Fund, and tend his fledgling Christmas tree farm. Kennedy and Wieden have been planning the departure for two years. Still, there was no small amount of tears shed last month when employees got the news. Even best friend Wieden is grappling with what to expect after the change.
"I don't know. Dave is the soul of this agency. You know how it is with family: You get them through a crisis first, and then you're free to deal with your own emotions," says Wieden. "When Dave is around there is a real sense of self-assuredness. He is the father figure here, and with him there was always the sense that things would be alright. After he goes, initially there will be a little nervousness. But we'll just have to learn to get along without him."
Recent industry history suggests that the departure of founders at even the industry's most personality-driven creative shops--places like Fallon McElligott and Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein--hasn't necessarily changed the work or culture of those places. Even so, there's no small amount of curiosity about the transition ahead at W&K. Perhaps more than most of the country's best-known creative agencies (most of which are owned by larger holding companies), W&K has thrived in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along independence of its idiosyncratic, maverick founders. Over the years, that spirit has spawned many of advertising's most startling, original ideas for clients like Nike, Anne Klein II and the Paramount Hotel. But it also makes for delicate piloting of a high-flying agency craft on the banks of Oregon's Willamette River, thousands of miles away from troubled clients like Subaru, which to date has depended largely on Wieden as its sails and Kennedy as its anchor.
"Dan may have been the one more actively creative, but Dave gives him the means to be creative," says Nike founder Phil Knight. "Dave makes the trains run on time and holds things together." Colleagues describe Wieden as assertive, verbal and inwardly directed, with tastes that run to Captain Beefheart. Kennedy is more soft-spoken and quiet; an art director who loves precision, craft and Ray Charles. W&K producer Bill Davenport echoes an often-heard comment from agency staffers: "Dave is the check and balance for Dan. Wieden's the guy with the idea who will jump up and bolt out the door with it. Kennedy is more likely to to sit back and observe. He doesn't say much, but when he does everyone listens. In two sentences he'll tell you why something will work or why it won't." Says Bomb Factory creative Mark Fenske, "Dave directs talent through sheer force of personality. You wouldn't want to show him anything with a lot of hype or B.S."
In large part, that discipline comes from the former Marine's "San Diego charm school" days. "We never missed a deadline at the agency because we never knew how to," Kennedy observes. At the same time, the agency's culture is loose, open-ended and free-flowing. Ideas can come from anywhere; orders given from the top can be questioned and overturned. (That happened with the Nike ad that used the Beatles, "Revolution"--Dan and Dave initially rejected the proposal from the creatives on the account, then accepted their reasoning for using the song.) The creative staff is mostly young, and at times the agency looks like any college campus where the kids are plugged into the latest underground music, magazines, films and books.
Although he started out in the straight-laced Midwest, Kennedy always did things his own way. He went to meetings with his full beard and what has become known as his daily uniform: jeans, denim shirt and cowboy boots. The son of an oil wildcatter, Kennedy initially wanted to be an illustrator. He ended up in an fine arts program at the University of Colorado, where he studied sculpture. "I didn't understand Abstract Expressionism, which was in full bloom at the time, so I went into sculpture. I was from the oilfields and knew how to weld."
Instead of metal-bending, Kennedy became entrenched in the advertising business. He spent the first 15 years of his career in Chicago, working on packaged-goods accounts at Young & Rubicam, Leo Burnett and Needham Harper & Steers. He also logged seven years at a creative boutique that eventually became part of Bozell & Jacobs--an experience that only served to fuel his aversion to selling W&K. By the late '60s and early '70s, Kennedy was counted as one of Chicago's bad boys of advertising, along with creative people like Gary Johns, Jeff Gorman and Joe Sedelmeier (who have since become well-known commercial directors). They bounced around a lot of agencies, often getting fired. But they were known for emulating some of the best work coming out of New York agencies like Ally & Gargano and Scali, McCabe, Sloves.
With his wry sense of humor, Kennedy can still be nudged into telling some hilarious stories from those days. Like the time when the then-junior art director at Burnett flew to New York for a Pillsbury photo shoot. He was instructed to carry the agency's two little Pillsbury doughboys "in little black caskets" on his lap and was led to believe they were the company's only two in existence. Of course, during a lunch break, someone left the hot studio lights on. When Kennedy returned, the doughboys, heads had become little puddles. Kennedy was petrified to go back to the agency in Chicago, still ruled by Leo himself. (There were scores of doughboy models elsewhere.)
In reliving such moments, Kennedy has an odd sense of respect for a school of experience that would seem to be everything his own agency set out to change. "I'm conservative in my tastes. Chicago was a great place to grOW up in the business. At the places where I worked, the art direction never got in the way of the concept. But things have changed so much. You have things now like the influence of computer graphics." Nonetheless, what Kennedy has always retained is a desire to connect with people. "The agency's work is rarely clever or facile in the way advertising copy is," says Mark Silvera, a former colleague who is now a creative director at Hal Riney & Partners/Chicago. "Their work is more interested in bonding with consumers than selling to them."
In forging that bond in today's visual language, W&K's art directors credit Kennedy with allowing them to push beyond normal boundaries. "It's not a stylistic thing we share around here. It's attitudinal," says W&K creative director Michael Prieve. "We have a pluralistic agency. The greatest mark Dan and Dave have left on this place is that they haven't left any creative mark at all."
In fact, when the two started W&K 11 years ago, they seemed to have little focused intent of any kind. "This is not an agency born of ambition," says Wieden, who likened a reading of The Principles of Operating an Advertising Agency to learning a foreign language. Wieden, the son of a popular Portland agency personality who ran Gerber Advertising, had little enthusiasm for the business, hoping instead to become a screenwriter or playwright. In the meantime, he ended up freelancing for McCann-Erickson for five years. He finally went on staff and needed a partner to work on the agency's flagship account, Georgia Pacific.
Kennedy came west to join him, anxious to trade the Chicago ad scene for Oregon's mountains. After initially teaming with Wieden at McCann, the two moved on to William Cain Inc., where they began working on a little Beaverton athletic shoe company called Nike. "Nike was very unusual; a very strange company. You would never, never ever run the same ad twice. It was like telling the same joke twice," says Kennedy. "They just didn't believe in it. Their professed goal was to be the Saturday Night Live of the Fortune 500."
When Nike decided to leave Cain in 1982, Wieden and Kennedy broke away with two colleagues and took the account with them. Two years later, however, Nike headed south in search of a better TV agency for its image advertising. Company insiders say Nike had come up with an Olympics TV concept based on Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." music video. They wanted to take no chances with execution because they felt if done well, the TV campaign could make Nike look like an offical sponsor even though it wasn't. (Nike was also looking for an agency big enough to handle something that worked well for the company during the London marathon: images of athletes on painted buildings that barely used the Nike logo.) The business went to Chiat/Day. "We were happy with Chiat/Day in the early stages, but then they got popular and they had Apple," says Knight. "We had to stand in line to get an appointment with (agency creative director) Lee Clow." A year later, as Nike began negotiations with Michael Jordan, the business was on its way back to W&K.
The agency was already making its mark in TV with client Honda Scooters. In 1985 Wieden & Kennedy, still virtually unknown outside of Portland, created one of the most talked-about TV spots in the industry: Lou Reed set against gritty New York street scenes with a soundtrack from Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." Such work bore the fingerprints of budding W&K writers like Jim Riswold and art directors like Prieve. (Wieden and Kennedy's last hands-on work together was in 1988, creating Nike's mantra: Just Do It.) As the W&K family grew to include young talent, the two creative founders fell into new roles as parents of their eccentric, rebellious tribe.
"They unlocked in each other things they were unable to do on their own," says Silvera. "They bring out the best in one another." In Wieden's own words: "I couldn't have done this without Dave."
When asked about the dynamic of the place, agency staffers inevitably lapse into parental metaphors. "Dan once said no one would ever understand the relationship he and Dave have. Like a lot of long-term successful marriages, they've fallen into such a public pattern," says Nike copywriter Janet Champ. "Dave doesn't like to talk but has strong opinions. So he lets Dan talk. But you know they talk a lot in private and Dan leans on him a lot."
If they seem outwardly to be permissive parents, Wieden and Kennedy are also known for sharing strong, fundamental beliefs. "Wieden & Kennedy is full of people who ar e as hip as hip can be," says director Joe Pytka. "But in a way, Dan and Dave are like a throwback to another era. It's not really the '60s as you'd think. It's more like the '50s, the glorious golden days of our country. They're genuinely decent guys in their philopsphy about life. They don't have an agenda."
That philosophy is probably more akin to Father Knows Best than to Woodstock. The two seem traditional in many of their priorities. At the top of those concerns is family--Kennedy has five children, Wieden four--and a love of privacy. Take a 10-minute drive outside of Portland and you'll be in the middle of nowhere. Wieden lives 45 minutes west of the city and Kennedy is 45 minutes east. In the early days Kennedy used to get around by public bus, traveling from a secluded Estacada A-frame house that overlooks a stream. Although Kennedy has lived in the house since he moved to Portland, he is just getting around to remodeling it, adding details like a sidewalk and master bedroom.
"Before Subaru, Dan always had rattletrap cars and Dave might have had the oldest VWs in existence," says Silvera. "Success has brought virtually no change to their lifestyles. Dave's the original mountain man and Dan's the Oregonian beatnik. If anything, that kind of status stuff is an affront. They look down at their nose at those things."
Kennedy's disdain for flashy materialism may stem, in part, from his having grown up around Indian cultures in the Southwest. About two years ago, as Kennedy was beginning to wind down his own activities at the agency, W&K was approached by The American Indian College Fund for pro bono work. Kennedy was thrilled by the aesthetic and cultural rewards of working with the organization. He now sits on the Fund's board and has joined in tribal events like the Sioux's sundance rituals, a weeklong ceremony in a remote location. Even though the terms of Kennedy's buyout from the agency will keep him closely affiliated with it for the next five years, his only client involvement will be on the Indian business.
Kennedy says the idea to break away and pursue such interests was not initially his. "Early on we needed some advice. I hadn't paid attention to how ad agencies ran their business and Dan certainly hadn't. So this advisor came down with our accountants to talk. The advisor said, ~Now Dave, since you're the oldest, you ought to start thinking about when you want to leave the advertising business. It's a young man's game. You probably should be thinking about leaving when you're 55.' It was like he had this gun pointed right at my face. I was about 50. I'll never forget it. I was shocked. What do you mean, 55? But he planted the seed in my head as a possibility. I could leave the business and pursue the kind of things I really wanted to do."
It would also mean escape from the growing number of agency meetings and inevitable layers that come with success. And obviously a return to his artistic interests may provide him the kind of outlet not easily found in advertising anymore. "A couple of years ago, Dave told me he had spent 25 years becoming an art director only to hand it over to an industry of kids. As an art director, he's already a lot like a sculptor. He believes the accent should still be on craft," says McCann-Erickson/Atlanta executive creative director Lloyd Fabri, who brought Kennedy to Portland.
For his part, Kennedy believes that as long as W&K employees abide by the agency's only rule--the work comes first--the agency will flourish well beyond its founders, day-to-day presence. He still remembers sitting at Leo Burnett's farewell breakfast speech to his agency. "It was a great speech. Leo told everyone to take his name off the door when people stopped caring for one another and when the creative product fell below the agency's standards. When that happens just throw all the goddamn apples out the window. I'd have to quote Leo, too. As long as we remember those things, Wieden & Kennedy will be around a lot longer than me."
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)