Tracy Wong

The 44-year-old principal of Seattle’s WongDoody has had a good year. This spring, a 1991 Chevy’s campaign that the art director created with Steve Simpson while at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners was inducted into the Clio Hall of Fame. Web surfers have been buzzing about WongDoody’s parody site for Alaska Airlines, part of a humorous campaign that broke in September. Next month, Wong will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the agency, which added an L.A. office in 1997 and a Dallas outpost last year, and now employs 60 staffers. Here, he discusses the perks and perils of owning an agency and being a “prostitute of the arts.”

Q. What are you trying to accomplish with the Alaska Airlines campaign?

A. It’s touching on basic truths: Air travel sucks. And I think comedy has its roots in truth. If you look at the Web site and radio, it’s very Onion-esque. The reason The Onion is so funny is because everything is based on what’s happening in the world.

How important was the Web component?

It was a total afterthought. We were sitting at the shoot, and we thought, “Ah, we should do a Web site.” We’re batting around ideas for 10 minutes and reeled off basically all of the things you see on the site now. We talked to the client, got a little money, and off to the races we went. We built that thing in a week, 10 days. The whole thing. It was insane.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

I kind of fell into it backwards. I wanted to be a graphic designer. The graphic-design program [at the University of Oregon] was so theoretical, it was fine arts—I just could not wrap my head around it. What I discovered was how much of a prostitute of the arts I could be and that I would like to have an audience be able to relate to what I was doing rather than just create a piece in a gallery. So I tripped on an advertising course, and off I went. And then I went to Art Center College in Pasadena. I don’t know how I stuck with it, because anytime you turn on the TV, 99 percent of what you see is crap. There are so few things to inspire you, you know, when you’re starting in it.

Why did you decide to start WongDoody?

Most any ambitious young creative, I thought then, has that dream, whether they act on it or not. It just gained momentum over the years. By the time I found Pat Doody [then general manager, director of client services at Seattle’s Livingston & Co.], I knew the circumstances were right. Things happen for a reason. The older I get and the more I look back, the more I see the orchestration.

What do you mean?

I worked at Goldsmith Jeffrey for Gary Goldsmith. I was the first senior art director hired. There were nine people when I got there. And they were great role models. I thought that would be the last job I would ever have because I had admired Gary for so long. And he was a great teacher. The other thing was when I got to Goodby. Jeff was a great role model in the sense of how he ran the creative department, in seeing what you could do if the circumstances were right—and, of course, if you’re a genius too, which Jeff is and I am not. They had gone through a couple of presidents before landing on Colin Probert, and that reinforced the fact that you really do need somebody to run the business.

Your first job was at Ogilvy. How was that?

You come out of art school, and it’s like you’re going to kill the world, you’re going to be like Chiat or Wieden and do great Nike stuff, and then boom! You hit the brick wall. I had to scratch and claw my way out and get to Gary. This was before Boyko at Ogilvy—it was a different kind of culture.

If you could do it over, would you still open the agency?

Absolutely. It’s not for everybody. The analogy is probably closest to parenthood: You have no idea what you’re getting into until you have a child. You can’t even imagine it’s the hardest job you’ll ever have. Quality is job six. Because you’ve got to make payroll, you’ve got to keep your clients happy, you’ve got to meet your deadlines, you’ve got to make sure that you’re insured. All kinds of stuff. It’s not all about the work—it’s a fallacy.

Can you describe your relationship with Pat?

Our logo is that yin and yang thing with the shamrocks in it. We call it yin o’ yang. But it does mean something—we really do complement each other. Where I am driven to make the work great and am extremely persistent, I was not always the best at relationships. Doody’s very good with people. Our values are the same, but our skill sets are different.

Would you ever consider selling the shop?

We’ve entertained different people and parties. But we get to a certain point and we go, “You know what? What we’ve built and the control we have aren’t really worth selling. It would have to be perfect, and there’s nobody who’s going to pay us enough so we could walk away. And if we do, we’d just start another agency.”

What’s the most disappointing creative trend you’ve seen lately?

We’re getting away from it, but the most disappointing trend because it was so heavily copied was extreme humor. Cliff Freeman and the work of Eric Silver is absolutely brilliant, but everybody started copying it, and when you see it on TV, it’s like, how can you outdo yourself over and over again? And it starts to get in the way of the message.

What’s your biggest fear?

Not making payroll. Because that’s everybody’s biggest fear.