Dan Wieden On the Spot

Wieden, chief creative officer and CEO of Wieden + Kennedy, is the first to admit he shuns the spotlight. “I would be quite content to be a hermit somewhere, [in] a brown shack with a sleeping bag,” says the 58-year-old co-founder of the Portland, Ore., agency that some say elevated advertising to art with its Nike work. Wieden will make a rare award-show appearance as president of the film and press and poster juries at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, which opened Sunday. How could he say no? Last year the shop won the Grand Prix in film for Nike’s “Tag,” and this year longtime client Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, is advertiser of the year.

Interviewed by Eleftheria Parpis

Q: What are your objectives for the juries?

A: It is my hope that this year could be an opportunity to find the work and celebrate the work that seems to point to a new, more appropriate voice and new, appropriate mediums and a new attack on the issues we’re faced with.

Can you give me an example?

There was a big flap last year about BMW Films. But there are a lot of different techniques and a lot of different media that need to find ways into the competition. Also I think it’s just as important to find new sensibilities that may be appropriate to the age. What happens is that we all get used to trying to perfect our craft in a way that connects with people, and once we learn that, we tend to repeat it even though the people we’re talking to are evolving and changing in their attitudes and sensibilities.

How do you judge work?

I respond most strongly to messages that feel like they come from somebody, not from some organization—when I feel a sense of an individual voice that has conviction and passion about what they’re trying to say.

How did you get into advertising?

My dad was in the business [Duke Wieden of Gerber Advertising in Portland], and I could never figure out why he was in such a whorish industry. Then I ended up getting fired from a job I hated, and I was doing some commercial freelance writing and started doing some ads. And I went, “Oh, this is quite fun, actually.” So I sort of backed in against my better judgment.

What did you most connect with—was it the writing or the problem solving?

I loved the shortness of the form, because a lot of the work I had been doing was in films and annual reports, things like that. Being forced to work with time constraints or space constraints made me quit being so lazy. When you’re writing long form you can take a long time and push things off to the last minute. In advertising, you tend to have a gun to your head from the minute you wake up in the morning.

How do you nurture talent?

It helps to have had four children and a partner [David Kennedy] that had five children. What you learn from being a parent is that no two of your children are alike and you are bonded for totally inexplicable reasons. But you can’t really have a philosophy of child rearing per se or you end up screwing things up a bit. The big thing about it is trying to enter into it with an open heart. I think people need to feel safe but still under pressure in some weird way, a healthy pressure. People need to feel that you’re rooting for them to succeed.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

Opening that first office in Amsterdam. Sometimes you get so hooked on your definition of self or your definition of the place that you don’t challenge it. It was, at that point, out of our comfort zone, to say the least, but we did it and learned from it.

Plenty of agencies can’t export their talent that way. How did you make it work?

It’s hard not to overstate the importance of Nike as a client. We were trying to serve Nike as they were expanding, and they put up with a lot of our stumbles in the early days over there, and then we were able to gain other clients eventually and grow out from that.

Your agency has been proactive in bridging the gap between entertainment and advertising. What’s your next goal for the shop?

What I’m most concerned about is that we are able to produce things we are extremely proud of. And in order to do that we have to be offering the people that work here a chance to play on a big stage, and they have to have a sense of freedom, a sense that they’re going to be rewarded for the efforts they put in. So sometimes that means growing rapidly, and that’s a passion of mine. Given the economy, I am desperately seeking opportunities to stretch and grow and offer new challenges to folks here.


Where do you think this advertising- entertainment trend is heading?

It’s still sort of murky out there. What’s interesting about this is while a lot of people are speaking up about it, it’s more out of a sense of, “Oh, shit.” It’s not the “Aha!” thing. I enjoy that a whole a lot more. I like being thrown into the briar patch and like, “All right, how do we get out of this thing?” You have to actually find something interesting rather than having preconceptions about it.

What work are you most proud of?

I don’t really keep trophies. It’s important to get rid of memories, in some ways, in this business. They end up piling up like stones in your pocket, and it’s impossible to walk or swim or do anything. Being present in the situation you’re in is the hardest part.