Wieden Eyes ‘Rebirth’

Tumultuous Year Has Shop at a Crossroads
LOS ANGELES–Dan Wieden refers to the recent disappointments at his agency as a “crucible.”
Like most agencies, Wieden & Kennedy has experienced its share of ups and downs. But the last two months, during which time nearly $300 million in billings evaporated, has been particularly trying.
“We’ve been through a crucible,” Wieden said last week, referring to the loss of its Microsoft and Miller Genuine Draft accounts.
“I feel kind of like a May bug,” he said about Miller. “We entered into a new relationship with new people under a stressful situation. We managed to keep one out of two [of the Miller accounts]. It’s not what we wanted, but we’re happy.”
A recent bright spot is last week’s win of the $50 million AltaVista Web account. While it does little to offset the billings deficit, it goes a long way toward restoring hope.
“[AltaVista] was a huge win for us. It gave the agency momentum,” said W&K’s chief operating officer, Dave Luhr. “When [the client] came in that day, there was a lot of emotion.”
Ironically, it was the Microsoft loss that lit a fire under W&K to more aggressively pursue AltaVista. “The day [the Microsoft loss] hit the press, we got a call from [AltaVista]. We just began pushing,” said Wieden.
“We find clients that are like-minded and want arresting work,” he said. “That was the big turn-on about AltaVista. … We share the same sort of spirit and want to shake things up.”
Even so, there remains an uneasiness inside W&K. Call it a funk or growing pains, but for about two years there has been a steady exodus of top-flight talent: Jamie Barrett left for Fallon McElligott in New York; Jerry Cronin co-founded Atlanta’s Bayless/Cronin, a Merkley Newman Harty company; and Vince Engel went to Lowe & Partners/SMS.
Some blame the agency’s notoriously self-absorbed attitude for the staff and account losses. Others point to ill-suited partnerships with corporate concerns whose ideas about advertising clash with the agency’s risk-taking approach.
Things began to slip when W&K lost about one-third of its Nike business to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, starting in 1997. It should have been a wake-up call, say observers. “It hurt,” said Chuck McBride, co-creative chief on Nike, who formerly worked at Goodby. “Sure we’d like to have the business back, but we don’t obsess over it.”
Some insiders say the agency is in a period of renewal. “We’ve shed our skin,” said one staffer. Wieden himself describes it as “a rebirth.”
That may just be the official line during these hard times. But the rank and file do seem relieved, at least, to be rid of Microsoft.
The Microsoft account team had battled for years with the rigidly conservative client. Creatives, in particular, felt stymied by its demands and what they viewed as interference. Most recently, they were frustrated by the decision to stick with a touchy-feely campaign featuring small businesses in Lusk, Wyo.
When Wieden broke the news of the loss with his staff, he expected disappointment. The response, though, was sighs of relief–even some cheers. Creative director and partner Jim Riswold is said to have sent an e-mail to staffers exclaiming, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”
Despite the losses, W&K still claims $700 million in billings worldwide and a staff of 458. Wieden says the hardships do not impact the agency’s independent status, and that he is sticking to key principles: “The most important thing I want to be judged by is the quality of the work we do. With the clients we now have on board, we have a chance to do some really fine, fine work.”
–with Jane Irene Kelly and Andrew McMains