The Wieden Challenge

NEW YORK–Buz Sawyer officially began his managing director duties at Wieden + Kennedy here last week, entering a market in which growth has been lugubrious, managers are jittery and business relationships have been made fragile by downsizing and curtailed client spending.

And that’s the good news.

“At least there is an advertising market here,” joked Sawyer, who was president of Lowe Lintas & Partners in San Francisco until the office closed its doors in early May.

But while New York isn’t suffering as much as other U.S. ad markets, Sawyer has the considerable challenge of being the third managing director of a shop that has yet to establish a presence since opening in 1997.

Sawyer, 47, replaces Matt Seiler, who resigned after only a year over philosophical differences with management at the agency’s Portland, Ore., headquarters.

Sawyer said his mandate for the 75-person shop is to stabilize existing accounts, more aggressively pursue new ones and “pull the entire office together into one focus. We have a group of individuals who are strong and good, but are not operating as a team with a common focus.”

Accounts such as ESPN, Nike and Jordan anchor the agency’s claimed $87 million in annual billings, but like other agencies, Wieden has felt cuts in spending, particularly from clients such as Sure trade and Konami. Its new-business wins in 2001 have been modest: a total of about $15 million from the School of Visual Arts and Lightpath, a division of Cablevision.

The shop is awaiting a decision on the estimated $8 million Cunard Line business after making its final creative presentation to the client last Friday. Other contenders are TBWA\ Chiat\Day and Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, both New York.

One source said Sawyer’s main challenge is to understand New York in terms of its personalities and competing agency brands.

“Wieden is an incredible brand,” the source said. “But the real challenge is how much does a Portland-oriented agency know about New York, which is not a branch-office town. New York is a headquarters town.”

Sawyer reports to Portland-based COO Dave Luhr, who remains optimistic about the New York shop’s potential.

“I look at Tokyo, London and Amsterdam,” Luhr said, referring to other markets in which Wieden initially struggled. “Starting offices is never an easy proposition. [Success] doesn’t happen overnight. We’re taking the long-term view.”

Luhr added he is confident that having Sawyer as part of a three-pronged management team that includes co-creative directors Ty Montague and Amy Nicholson, who both joined the agency less than a year ago, will be a good mix.

Sources said that at Lowe Lintas in San Francisco, Sawyer was regarded as a dynamic and charismatic leader with strong relationships with clients such as Virgin Mobile USA, Sun Microsystems and The Walt Disney Co.

In addition, he is a Wieden veteran and helped established the agency’s Amsterdam office in 1992. During his six years there, the shop’s staff grew from six to 130, with clients such as Nike, Microsoft, Coke, Benelli Motor Scooters and Hypo Vereinsbank.

Sawyer understands the agency’s culture and is unlikely to encounter the tension that sources said beset the Luhr-Seiler relationship.

Sawyer also knows the New York market. He began at N.W. Ayer in 1978, and joined BBDO two years later, working primarily on Pepsi until 1990, when he went to Wieden in Portland.