U.S. Agency of the Year: Wieden + Kennedy’s Work Resonated Even in a Divided America

From 'Dilly Dilly' to Colin Kaepernick, the indie shop dominated the conversation

(L. to r.) Neal Arthur, managing director (NY); Colleen DeCourcy, co-president; Karl Lieberman, executive creative director (NY) Kevin Scanlon for Adweek
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As 2018 draws to a close, Wieden + Kennedy co-president Colleen DeCourcy can finally exhale.

This past year saw the fiercely independent shop both courting controversy and reinvigorating core American brands like KFC and Delta—and somehow never losing its way. “We’re a company that’s at its best when we’re in the eye of the cultural storm,” DeCourcy says.

The agency’s wild ride effectively began on Super Bowl Sunday with a onetime throwaway line echoing through the stands as “Dilly Dilly” became “Philly Philly” and the Eagles’ upset of the New England Patriots turned into an unprecedented branding opportunity for Bud Light.

Courtesy of Wieden + Kennedy

Seven months later, W+K marked the 30th anniversary of advertising’s most transcendent tagline, “Just Do It,” with a spot starring former 49ers-quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick. Threats of boycotts followed, as did a surge in sales for Nike.

To cap off the year, the agency reintroduced the world to America’s top automaker with a “Built Ford Proud” campaign powered by Bryan Cranston’s swagger.

A select few agencies touched the same creative peaks these past 12 months; some undoubtedly delivered more revenue to their parent companies. But none was more effective in placing its clients at the beating, sometimes-broken heart of American culture.

For this reason, Wieden + Kennedy was the clear choice as Adweek’s 2018 U.S. Agency of the Year.

One state, two state, red state, blue state

“Increasingly, advertising is going into a values space,” says DeCourcy, the creative conductor who was promoted late in the year when the agency named new global leadership. As she and her colleagues often tell clients, “You’ve got to believe in something.”

This “something” can produce work as disparate as W+K’s spots for Nike and Bud Light. One was a call to persevere that became a political Rorschach test, while the other was a call to order one more bottle of the country’s most popular beer.

The tweet seen 'round the world led everyone in America to pick a side: Were you with Colin K, or against him? But personal politics soon gave way to an inspirational campaign that told viewers to chase even their most far-fetched dreams. In other words, Just Do It.

DeCourcy says there’s a common thread in the most visible products from her agency’s two U.S. offices over the past 12 months: “They were both release valves on the year for different people at different times.”

Ecd and New York creative lead Karl Lieberman first realized “Dilly Dilly” had become an institution in late 2017, when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger audibly used the phrase before a snap. In an even more impressive act of branding, the Eagles recently unveiled a Bud Light-sponsored statue depicting head coach Doug Pederson and quarterback Nick Foles as they discuss the secret play that helped bring the title home.

Noting that W+K New York first proposed this monument, Lieberman adds, “It will be there, I assume, well after I’m dead.”

Anheuser-Busch InBev signaled its satisfaction approximately one month after the big game by handing social media AOR duties on its largest brand to the agency without a review.

We don’t do advertising

The W+K-Nike marriage remains an object of envy in an industry filled with turbulent pairings.

“We’ve had a valuable, long-standing partnership with Wieden + Kennedy, and together we’ve created industry-defining campaigns that have pushed beyond traditional marketing to inspire consumers the world over,” says the client’s vp of global brand communications, Adam Roth. “Our relationship is rooted in a shared belief of the athlete—and the limitless bounds of human potential—and we are proud that our work has transcended sport to impact culture.”

Love it or hate it, "Dilly Dilly" was the silly earworm that wouldn't go away this year. The medieval campaign inspired by that nonsensical catchphrase took the Super Bowl by storm with a trilogy of spots that got people chanting ... and buying T-shirts.

For proof of this point, witness the breadth of creative released in 2018 for “Just Do It” (which agency leadership calls “JDI”), such as a glimpse into Serena Williams’ relationship with her father and a mesmerizing tribute to the world’s fastest marathoner.

It all grew from the unlikely pairing of two famously determined men.

Scott Bedbury, who served as Nike’s worldwide advertising director from 1987 to 1994 and oversaw the launch of “Just Do It,” recalls his first job interview with founder Phil Knight: “He looked at me and said, ‘Marketing? That’s what other companies do.’”

Bedbury later complimented Dan Wieden for making excellent advertising at what was then still seen as a frontier outpost. In response, Wieden reportedly said, “We don’t do advertising. We create great fucking communications.”

That contrarian synchronicity has driven 30 years of boundary-breaking work that played a key role in Nike’s dominance of the global athletic-wear market.

Yet even cultural flashpoints like “I’m Not a Role Model” didn’t inspire as much discourse (or as many counter-memes) as the Colin Kaepernick campaign—nor did they have such a dramatic impact on the company’s bottom line.

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted how big the reaction would be,” says W+K Portland, Ore., ecd Jason Bagley. That work touched on the “intense cultural division impacting America,” he adds, because “we knew that young people, who are Nike’s real target, felt there were many voices that were being restricted.”

W+K Portland managing director Karrelle Dixon, who oversaw the Nike account for nearly five years, compares the campaign’s success to the moment Oprah Winfrey credited “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” with inspiring her to “buy me some Old Spice.”

Yet the Nike team has never been one to rest on its laurels. “I think if you ask most people who worked on [the campaign], they would tell you how they think it could be even better,” Dixon says.

(L. to r.) W+K Portland managing director Karrelle Dixon, ecd Jason Bagley [pictured], ecd Eric Baldwin
NashCo for Adweek

The island of misfit toys

Nike and Bud Light were so ubiquitous in 2018 that they risk overshadowing W+K’s additional triumphs.

Early in the year, the agency refreshed brands as dissimilar as OkCupid and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures with unorthodox debut campaigns, while a new chapter of P&G’s “Thank You, Mom” cast the Winter Olympics as a study in diversity. Meanwhile, the teams continued pushing out consistent work for longtime clients like Old Spice and Jordan.

Some of W+K’s more interesting assignments escaped the spotlight. Regarding Airbnb, ecd Eric Baldwin says, “We’re getting embedded into their business [to] help shape the path of the company,” with more visible campaigns to come.

The agency refers to this ever-expanding palette of work as “Branded Everything™.” As Lieberman puts it, “You just need to point at which wall you want us to run through.”

While W+K was not immune to the shrinking budgets and in-housing trends facing other agencies, the two American offices won creative reviews for Amazon Music, Converse, Netflix, RXBar and Tinder, not to mention a certain auto account.

According to New York managing director Neal Arthur, who describes W+K’s selective approach to new business as “a long game,” the Ford pitch included a healthy dose of honesty.

This year, no American brand needed a shot in the arm quite like Ford. After a surprising win that saw an end to WPP's 75-plus year status as the carmaker's lead agency, W+K New York delivered with a bold, confident campaign starring none other than Bryan Cranston.

“I think our opening slide read, ‘We’re Wieden + Kennedy and we know we can’t do this whole thing,’” Arthur says, laughing. But Ford still chose W+K for its comeback campaign and named the network as an “innovation partner” alongside BBDO.

Media sometimes goes unnoticed amid these creative headlines. Two of Portland’s biggest wins this year concerned U.S. planning and buying duties for KFC and the League of Legends gaming franchise.

“They’ve made such a big contribution to our turnaround at KFC,” says CMO Andrea Zahumensky, who chose to award the media business soon after arriving from P&G late last year. She gives particular praise to “larger than life” country superstar Reba McEntire’s appearance as the latest in an ever-growing roster of Colonel Sanders stand-ins.

For many, W+K’s idiosyncrasies are key to the appeal of what DeCourcy calls “the island of misfit toys.”

“They’re pushy; they’re driven; they’re aggressive; they’re quite committed to their own ideas,” says Delta Air Lines svp, CMO Tim Mapes. He also calls W+K “a fantastic partner,” adding, “They will be this company’s ad agency for a very long time to come.”

On they go

Most of W+K’s organizational shifts took place last year, but 2018 brought its own share of changes.

In addition to promoting DeCourcy and rehiring Tom Blessington to co-lead the network along with her as Susan Hoffman and Dave Luhr moved into chairman roles, the agency also picked Nicole Jacek and Noreen Morioka to head its design team, and reintegrated tech division The Lodge after that group’s leaders left to launch their own venture. The restructured teams at its Portland headquarters create what Dixon describes as “seven mini-agencies” in order to increase “diversity of output.”

W+K has increased its diversity in other ways as well; more than two-thirds of department heads in Portland are now women or people of color.

This year also marked the third season of On She Goes, a podcast series started by several minority women to share their perspectives on travel. Senior social strategist Rebecca Russell calls the project “a testament to W+K’s dedication and genuine interest in increasing representation within and outside of our agency.”

Despite all this, DeCourcy gently disputes the idea that Wieden + Kennedy is an activist organization dedicated to any particular agenda beyond making great work.

“I think there are interesting pockets of experience inside [the company],” she says. “They all add up to ferociously giving a shit.”

Lieberman laughingly describes the company where he’s spent the last decade as “full of people with a healthy disdain for advertising.”

He says employees understand that they will not make the most money, have the best titles or work the most convenient hours. This year, as in years past, top talent converged on Wieden + Kennedy for another reason altogether: to create the best fucking communications in the business.

Check out the rest of our 2018 Agency of the Year coverage here:

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.