Fenske Returns To Early Stomping Grounds: Wieden

After nearly a decade on the periphery of the industry, Mark Fenske has been lured back to a staff position at Wieden + Kennedy. He’ll initially team with creative director Hal Curtis on the agency’s newly won Coca-Cola global “iconic” assignment.

Fenske, whose last agency post was an ill- fated seven-month stint as chief creative officer at now-defunct NW Ayer that ended in 1996, said he would be moving to Portland in the coming weeks. In recent years, the 51-year-old has been directing music videos and commercials, doing voiceovers, freelancing and teaching.

“I said yes to Dan [Wieden] on the basis of his asking,” said Fenske from his office at VCU Adcenter in Richmond, Va., where he’s been teaching since 2000. “He asked me what I’d been doing, and I told him I’ve been working freelance gigs; it’s just that no one can sell what I write. He looked at me and said, ‘I can.’ “

Wieden said last week that creative director Steve Luker recommended he call Fenske, during a conversation about hiring for Coke. “I thought he’d never come back,” Wieden said. “Mark has always been family—it’s as if he’s been on a long vacation or something.”

Known as a droll humorist with unconventional taste, Fenske was a copywriter at Wieden from 1986 to 1989 (“I was employee No. 23”) on Nike, among other accounts. Wieden said Fenske is remembered at the agency for a Nike spot that was shot from a dog’s point of view, and for a standout print campaign for Memorex. “It wasn’t easy getting there,” remembers creative director Susan Hoffman of the Memorex work. “But I’ve always thought if we don’t bitch, moan and bicker, the idea isn’t that good. For the time, Mark brought in a quite adventurous use of photography and illustration that was scary and challenging at the same time.”

“We have always celebrated big personalities and individuality,” said Wieden. “It’s hard to find strong voices that can make it through the testing and rinse cycles. What’s so powerful is how Fenske reminds us that you need to say something that is new and challenging if it’s going to have an impact.”

Fenske said he expects the difference between Wieden now and then is “probably that I’m not as quick and as funny and good as I used to think I was.” He said he’d recently worked for several days on a freelance project at another agency, only to see two young creatives turn a great idea into a digital presentation in three hours. “The next day I wouldn’t even get up to pee or have lunch,” he recalled. “I filled 20 pages in my notebook.”

After Fenske quit Wieden “to do something different,” he founded The Bomb Factory in 1990, a hybrid production company and agency that did everything from directing MTV’s 1992 Video of the Year for Van Halen (“Right Now”) to a golf-putter infomercial (“Scotland in December”) with 18 original music cuts to a history of Coca-Cola, animated in nine grueling days with Fenske providing the voiceover with his characteristically gruff (to the point of sounding naturally sarcastic) Midwestern drawl. He later left Ayer, Fenske said, because “I thought I could change something there. I thought they were doing bad work because someone couldn’t come up with good work.” He added jokingly that his departure was for the best because “they couldn’t sell [Ayer] while I was there.”

Eric R. Boyd, a second-year student in Fenske’s “Copywriting 2” and “Creative Thinking” classes at VCU, said most of Fenske’s teaching “comes not from what he says but what he doesn’t. He doesn’t talk about advertising. He talks about inspiration, observation and education. About God, sex, fear and greatness—the things that drive us creative folk.”

Fenske said, “I know that 51 is older than most of the people writing ads, but I’ll look at it and say, ‘I still haven’t seen it.’ People are writing good stuff, but it isn’t on the air. So, it’s only my nose, but it still smells fresh to me.”