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.

“When we considered what the next 35 years are going to look like, we really wanted to broaden that [stakeholder] group to reflect more offices, more disciplines … more regions and more diversity,” says Luhr.

W+K also promoted Neil Christie, veteran managing director in London, to become its first chief operating officer in three years and elevated longtime executive creative director Susan Hoffman (who became the agency’s eighth employee back in 1985) to global co-chief creative officer. She shares that title with Colleen DeCourcy, who has been instrumental in shaping the agency’s evolution since coming aboard in 2013.

Executives say these changes have resulted in tighter bonds and increased collaboration across offices, increasing creative output and new business wins, while also helping to expand relationships with existing clients like Nike, A-B InBev and KFC—all of which took W+K’s work into new markets this year.

Creative cross-pollination

This year’s success wasn’t just born of partnerships with flashy tech brands. W+K has racked up more than new 50 new-business wins since November 2016, ranging from beauty products to auto racing leagues.

“The way you work with an Airbnb or Instagram is a very different process than the way you work with a CPG marketer,” says DeCourcy. “I feel like we’ve enabled ourselves to span both … not just switched focus or pivoted, but that we have stretched ourselves with the addition of different kinds of people, with new ways of working, with different kinds of clients.”

The agency has also pushed itself to excel at the more varied creative services demanded by a perpetually pivoting industry. “We’re conscious that [W+K] in the past was known for its big-budget, emotional TV spots, and we still do those for some of our clients,” says Christie. “But I think if you look at the work we’ve done this year … there’s a really wide diversity of creative approaches, of channels and executional style.”

Instagram ‘Stories Are Everywhere’ W+K Amsterdam introduced the world to Instagram Stories with a bold, colorful campaign superimposing content from the Facebook-owned app’s new video feature with scenes from users’ real-world lives. The attempt to contrast Instagram with Snapchat was successful as Stories’ user base easily surpassed Snap’s over the summer.

As Instagram’s Sirrine says in describing the aforementioned Amsterdam work, “the scale and pace of Instagram’s ‘Stories are Everywhere’ campaign required a fundamental shift in the typical approach to production, which W+K fully embraced.  The shoots were run-and-gun. Everyone was making Stories. The work felt spontaneous, in-the-moment and fun … because it was.”

“The medium is the message,” she adds. “The team created everything within the Instagram app, and were able to quickly prototype and build from there. The multiplicity of executions not only reinforced the idea that stories are everywhere—but also, and most importantly—allowed us to test and learn while in market, optimizing along the way.”

Turning inward for innovation

Much of W+K’s most interesting recent work has come from The Lodge, an internal unit launched in 2013 to support emerging tech talent. The Lodge hit its stride this year with work like “The Hard Way,” an oddball KFC virtual reality video game; Nike’s Live Design project, a retail experience that let users walk out with custom sneakers in about 90 minutes; and an elaborate Reddit-themed livestreaming campaign for toy-robot maker and new client Anki.

Leah Nash for Adweek

W+K is also striving to address one of the industry’s thorniest and most recalcitrant issues—promoting women and people of color into key leadership positions around the globe and working to draw disparate talent into the pipeline at various career stages.

No one is close to declaring victory over advertising’s well-documented diversity problems, but these efforts reflect a progressive ethos that also frequently finds its way into the agency’s work. This fall, for example, Hoffman spearheaded “Love Over Bias,” a poignant Olympics spot for P&G’s main brand that united themes the agency has explored in the past year concerning race, sexual orientation and gender identity for clients like The Atlantic, P&G’s Secret and Equinox.

“Every brand has to have its place of honesty and dealing with the situation out in the world now,” explains Hoffman, citing P&G’s natural focus on moms as a vehicle for a conversation about diversity.

“Our hope here is that more and more, all voices come through in the creation of the ads,” DeCourcy says. “So whether it is an ad about diversity and inclusion or an ad about stain remover, there is a point of view behind it that comes from an inclusionary place because of the people that had a part in making it.”

Speaking collectively, we have a ways to go on that front. But W+K hopes to lead by example, as it has for much of the past 35 years.

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

@GabrielBeltrone gabriel.beltrone@gmail.com Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.