Inside Wieden + Kennedy’s Evolution Into the Go-to Agency for the New Economy

Adweek's Global Agency of the Year embraces Silicon Valley in a big way

(L. to r.) W+K's Colleen DeCourcy, Susan Hoffman, Neil Christie and Dave Luhr Leah Nash for Adweek

Every day on his way into the office, Wieden + Kennedy president Dave Luhr walks past a large sign in the lobby of the agency’s Portland, Ore., headquarters. In white cursive letters, carved out as negative space against a backdrop of some 100,000 individually placed clear plastic push pins (and one red one, for levity), it offers a pointed imperative: “Fail Harder.”

It’s an apt articulation of the bare-knuckle ethos that’s helped W+K flourish, over the past 35 years, into a powerful and fiercely independent network producing some of the world’s best ads. That same entrepreneurial spirit has allowed the shop to keep pace with the nimble Silicon Valley zeitgeist, winning the business of big names like Airbnb and Instagram in 2017 to round out an enviable roster that speaks as much to where the world is heading as where it is today.

As the holding companies struggle to weather spending cuts by CPG giants like Unilever and Procter & Gamble, W+K has fortified its position as an uncompromising creative partner with deep strategic capabilities, a lean but reliable international presence, and a keen eye for advertising’s future. These factors make it Adweek’s 2017 Global Agency of the Year.

Raking in the wins

“It’s been an amazing year,” says Luhr, citing strategic moves like the agency’s expansion of its partnership network in late 2016, the decision to back an independent startup agency for the first time in Austin’s Callen, and solid relationships with both new economy marketers and more traditional players like KFC and Bud Light. “We’re incredibly well poised in China and India,” he adds, “which I’m very excited about because I think that’s where a lot of future growth is going to come from.”

W+K has also won some of the key reviews launched this year by big-name tech brands. One example is Lyft, which hired W+K’s New York office as its lead creative agency this spring. “From the minute we met the team [at W+K], they asked the most profound questions,” says the ride-sharing company’s vp of marketing, Melissa Waters. “They really believe in our mission and [that] we’re here to change the way people move and, ultimately, the way cities are designed.”

She describes W+K’s “world-class creative” as “table stakes,” adding, “I need a strategic partner who is embedded in our business every day, helping us with product decisions and helping us with the way we design our service experience—not just making ads.”

Facebook also expanded its relationship with the agency this year.
“W+K are great partners,” says Bekah Sirrine, a W+K alum who now serves as Instagram’s executive creative director. This summer, the agency’s Amsterdam office launched a sweeping global campaign to highlight the app’s popular, Snapchat-killing Stories feature. “Not only do they understand the potential of the platform and the importance of inspiring the Instagram community,” Sirrine adds, “but they have proven themselves to be excellent collaborators, which is key for us.”

The longer view

Despite all the new business, this year was also a challenging one for W+K, which split with Portland client Verizon over creative differences and ended its longtime relationship with ESPN before taking up with rival Fox Sports. But the agency’s leaders argue that freedom from quarterly reporting has allowed for the kinds of difficult decisions that will set it up for longer-term success, building on a creative legacy and empowering its 1,400 employees around the globe.

Revenue across W+K’s eight offices is expected to clock in at roughly flat for the year—some $300 million, by Adweek estimates. But those numbers, which include the loss of Reckitt Benckiser in London, don’t reflect key aspects of the shop’s new business operations. Income from fast-growing Airbnb, for example, won’t be realized until 2018.

While W+K’s Portland headquarters suffered a significant financial hit from the loss of Verizon, its New York and Amsterdam offices had their best years ever, thanks in part to Lyft and Instagram. Shanghai, Delhi, Tokyo and London also made strong showings this year—and despite São Paulo’s growth lagging under the weight of a sluggish Brazilian economy, international revenue will surpass North American totals for the first time in 2017.

Those strong results follow an unprecedented effort to shift the agency’s power base away from its traditional center of gravity in Portland by flattening and expanding the global leadership structure. One year ago, W+K grew its employee stakeholder base from nine people to more than 24, including, for the first time, executives in New York, Amsterdam and Brazil.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.