Creative: Double Vision

Hall Of Famers Dan Wieden And David Kennedy Consider Their Place In Advertising History
It’s been 17 years since Dan Wieden and David Kennedy left a tiny Portland, Ore., agency called William Cain to open their own shop with one unknown client, Nike, billing less than $1 million. They founded Wieden & Kennedy on April Fool’s Day with little more than a typewriter borrowed from a Nike marketing director and a cardboard box for a conference-room table. With an adventurous client and fierce dedication to the craft, they produced a remarkable body of work that has inspired and entertained.
Wieden & Kennedy exploded onto the national scene in 1987 with a spot featuring The Beatles’ “Revolution,” a controversial move to introduce Nike’s Air technology that showcased their bravery, creativity and ability to push advertising into the realm of art. They challenged the world to “Just do it” and in the process built a global brand and set a standard for an entire industry. Their agency now bills $800 million worldwide for clients such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Miller Brewing and ESPN Networks.
On Feb. 1, copywriter Wieden, 53, and art director Kennedy, 59, will be inducted into The One Club Creative Hall of Fame. “Their agency has changed the way people think about advertising,” says Mary Warlick, executive director of The One Club. Lee Clow, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame two years ago, adds, “Between their work and the brand they created for Nike and the brand that Wieden & Kennedy has become around the world, one of the hallmarks for creativity, if they don’t qualify as the ultimate writer/art director team, then I don’t know who does.”
In an exclusive interview with Adweek’s Eleftheria Parpis, Wieden and Kennedy remember past glories and reveal future hopes.
ADWEEK: Did you ever imagine your agency would become one of the most-celebrated in the world?
Wieden: We weren’t sure we could make it last for a year.
Kennedy: Who knew?
Wieden: In the beginning, we were strictly just trying to create, basically, a place where Kennedy could art direct and I could write, where we could just have some fun. That was about as much vision as we had.
ADWEEK: What has made your partnership so successful?
Wieden: It’s been phenomenal. In as many years as Kennedy and I have worked together, I don’t think we ever had one serious disagreement or fight. There’s a basic chemistry and mutual respect, like we knew each other ages and ages ago.
Kennedy: We had one goal, one passion–the work. That was the thing. We looked forward to coming to work every day.
ADWEEK: As you’ve grown, do you feel you’ve been able to stay focused on the work?
Wieden: Oh, gosh, you know, you are so bloody close to it. For me personally, I’m always dissatisfied with where we are. I always think we can do better. I always think we’re slipping behind.
ADWEEK: Do you think the way you approach creative has changed much?
Wieden: Oh, we’re still as arrogant and as obstinate as ever, and hard to do business with.
ADWEEK: How do you keep your culture intact as you expand overseas?
Wieden: Well, we sort of carve a piece off the mothership and send it over there and weld it to other people from other cultures. We just split ourselves like some mad amoeba, replicating and using the same basic DNA we’ve always had.
ADWEEK: Can you describe that DNA?
Wieden: Well, it is very rambunctious, very youthful. We’re a tight culture. There’s not a ton of politics here, although you can’t be this big without some politics. It’s pretty driven. People like to walk to the edge of things There is an old saying, I forgot who said it though; “We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re sure it wasn’t the fish.” So, it’s a little hard for us to know exactly what the hell this culture is.
ADWEEK: What was the greatest test on the agency and that culture?
Kennedy: Around here, probably the drug test probably size. I think the most shattering thing that happens around here from a cultural perspective is when we have layoffs. Because we’re such a tight group–for God’s sake this is Portland, Ore.–we’re pretty much all holding hands here and when you have to let people go because of strictly financial situations, cutbacks on budgets or loss of clients, it’s just horrible. I can’t tell you how painful that is for everyone. We always have to come back from that. It’s happened a couple of times. From my point of view, that’s the thing we suffer from most.
ADWEEK: What do you feel is your greatest achievement as an agency?
Wieden: I think it’s been the development of people. We’ve moved a few shoes in the process and some other parts. But at the end of the day, I’m most proud of the strange collection of folks who came together and have been able to produce and grow in the process and become very well-known names in the business.
ADWEEK: Is there anything you would have done differently?
Wieden: Well, I feel so goddamn lucky to be here. I don’t know what I’d change.
Kennedy: I’d change the name. I always thought Kennedy & Wieden sounded a lot better than Wieden & Kennedy. It’s even alphabetical.
ADWEEK: Dan, you mentioned earlier Wieden is an acquired taste. What do you mean?
Wieden: Well, because we’re so focused on the work, I think sometimes we just assume an intimacy with the client and a shared responsibility to move the brand forward that they don’t always agree with, or aren’t ready for, and we have to kind of learn our place in a relationship. And that comes from being so tight with Nike as Nike grew that we were like family. We grew up speaking our mind and quite plainly and quite aggressively and when you internalize another person’s business, you need to learn some manners about it. That’s what we’re trying to do as we get older.
ADWEEK: What is the biggest misconception about Wieden & Kennedy?
Wieden: I think it’s that our brilliance is only creative deep, that we’re a bunch of wild-ass creatives with no strategic capabilities.
Kennedy: Yeah, I think people tend to think we’re undisciplined, whereas the reverse is true.
Wieden: There’s a piece of paper attached to my wall. It says, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” And that’s a governing philosophy around here. I think you need to know where the order and regularity belongs and if you have that, then you can afford to be extremely violent and creative in the rest of your business.
ADWEEK: What type of order?
Wieden: From the fact that we’re dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars that don’t belong to us, down to the rational strategic thinking that has to go on, the understanding of the marketplaces and process and just logical thought in general. And then knowing at what point you bring in the creative stone that skips across the water into unpredictable places. That’s the art of running an agency.
Kennedy: The other thing tacked onto his wall is “a quart of milk and a loaf of bread.”
ADWEEK: Which agencies do you admire?
Wieden: I admire Chiat/Day. I know when we first started out it was like, “Wow.” I mean the fact that they ran that damn pirate flag, It just felt so wonderful and their whole attitude toward the work itself. You saw the work and you went, “Holy God, how did they get there?” You look over the course of that agency’s life, how many great campaigns and how many times they tried to reinvent the business. A lot of this is up for discussion, but I tell you that the bravery of that agency over a long period of time is just We all ought to send them a bouquet of flowers. I think it’s just an amazing shop. Not as good as ours, of course.
ADWEEK: What was the most difficult work to sell?
Kennedy: Actually, “Just do it” was not an easy sale because it didn’t have any meat on it. It was just a line. There was a need to encompass the different faces of Nike with a unifying device. I had T-shirts printed, silk-screened with “Just do it.” It was the year after the “Revolution” spot. On the front it had “Just do it” in futura, white on black, with “The Revolution Continues” or something like that on the back. That was the way we showed them the line and unfolded all these storyboards that were eventually produced. That was the first year we produced all the work with Bo [Jackson] and all the other athletes. We got no response. Almost everybody left them on the meeting-room table and walked away. Although we sold all the commercials, the line wasn’t really embraced. It wasn’t until it actually ran, and people thought about it more, that it became a handle that worked.
ADWEEK: Is there a particular campaign or ad that you feel really helped the agency take off?
Wieden: I would probably say the Lou Reed spot for Honda Scooters [in 1985].
Wieden: It was a very influential spot, even though it didn’t get a ton of media weight. It made Nike, which had rightfully seen us as a small local shop, take us seriously, and it helped us gain the rest of the business back. It also sold a lot of scooters.
Kennedy: It was our first major non-Nike piece of business. “Revolution” was another turning point for us and for Nike. That’s when [Nike] positioned itself as a fitness company, not a sporting-goods company.
ADWEEK: We talked about turnover and the fact you’ve had to lay off staff last year. Do you feel the last couple of years have been the hardest on the agency?
Wieden: Yeah. Well, no, I think the second or third year when Nike decided to hire Chiat/Day. And before they did that, they put the account in review, and there were about 11 of us. That was pretty stressful.
ADWEEK: How do you feel about your relationship with Nike now?
Wieden: I feel great about it because I think we’ve done some really great work. I think they understand that. And we’ve had some great discussions about new work. At the end of the day, with this agency, fortunes rise or fall whether or not we’re doing good work. We don’t do politics very well and we don’t hold hands all that well, but we do make really great ads, all things being equal. So that’s usually what gets us through the night and back into the sunshine.
ADWEEK: What do you feel was one of the smartest creative decisions you’ve made?
Kennedy: Probably when Dan quit writing.
ADWEEK: When did you pull back from the work?
Wieden: Well, you do your best to have people who are better than you, then you get intimidated and you just go, “OK, I’m done.”
ADWEEK: You’re intimidated by your staff?
Wieden: Yeah, but they don’t know it.
ADWEEK: What does this Hall of Fame honor mean to you? Dan, is it odd to you given your age?
Wieden: Well, yeah. I called the doctor to see what the problem was.
Kennedy: But seriously, it’s hard for me to imagine my name being spoken in the same breath with Leo Burnett and all the people who followed him. I don’t think Dan and I, as art director and writer, think of ourselves as workmen at that level. I don’t know if that’s appropriate or not. I think the workplace is what we’ve created, and it’s appropriate to be recognized for that.
ADWEEK: What has living and working in Portland meant to your business?
Kennedy: It’s both a blessing and not a blessing. Everybody understands that if it hadn’t been for Nike, Wieden & Kennedy wouldn’t have existed. The fact that they were in Portland, and we were in Portland. Our growth is so obviously tied to their growth. Our global expansion is tied to their global expansion. I think we’re in lock step with Nike, that’s the first element. The second element is, it’s great to be outside the business, like Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis or Tracy-Locke in Dallas, [but] we have a difficult time keeping people sometimes; [one employee] left to go back to New York. He said, “I’ve got to start dating again.”
ADWEEK: David, what led to your 1994 retirement?
Kennedy: Well, I started life as a sculptor, and I wanted to pick that up again. That was one reason. The other is, I am a hands-on, union-card-carrying art director, and I was doing less and less of that, and attending more and more meetings. It was really frustrating for me.
ADWEEK: How much time do you spend at the agency?
Kennedy: Well, I still continue to work on our pro-bono account, which is The American Indian College Fund. Dan and I are the co-creative directors on that, and I am on the board of trustees for the college fund, so that’s my job right now. We raise money for tribal colleges. We produce a couple of commercials a year, three or four print ads and a series of blankets with the Pendleton company. I sort of art direct and work with native designers on that project. I’m in the agency about half the time.
ADWEEK: How often to you still call on David for advice?
Wieden: I’m not going to admit to that. I want everyone to think I’m doing just fine by myself. David and I talk a lot, but David has his own projects, too. We share thoughts about larger things, but we don’t tend to get into specifics too much. When we have a partners retreat, we try to get Kennedy out of the studio and down to the beach or wherever so we can talk in general about where we’re going, what we’re trying to do and some of the problems we’re facing. He’s still a pretty wise old fart.
ADWEEK: How did David’s retirement impact you, Dan?
Wieden: I tell you, for me it was extremely difficult when Kennedy retired because from the day we first met, when we started working together at McCann, we dealt with all issues together. With the exception of how do I want my coffee, David and I chatted about everything at the agency, the most galactic of issues and also the miniscule. So when he retired, it was a very tough transition for me personally.
ADWEEK: You’ve described David as the soul of the agency. How did you make up for the loss?
Wieden: We’re pretty much soulless now.
Kennedy: We were sort of joined at the hip for all those years, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they jumped off the cliff holding hands, crying, “Oh shit.” We didn’t know what we were doing when we started this place. We started by making mistakes, and, then good choices, too.
ADWEEK: Where do you want Wieden & Kennedy to be five years from now?
Wieden: Hopefully, we’ll be a more-ingrained and well-recognized international advertising agency, still dealing with some of the world’s great brands. But more importantly, it will be clear we are the premier creative agency, independent creative agency.
ADWEEK: You mentioned the agency is in transition
Wieden: We’ve lost some very valuable people on whom we were extremely dependent. Luckily, we’ve been able to attract a new group of young, aggressive, bright people who are serious about being here. It is one of those transitional times for us. I can tell you quite honestly, without hype, that this year should be the other side of the moon for us.