Wieden: Shop Ready for ‘Rebirth’

Dan Discusses Microsoft, Miller and the Prospects for Future
LOS ANGELES–Dan Wieden refers to the recent disappointments at his agency as a “crucible.”
Like most agencies, Wieden & Kennedy has experienced its fair share of ups and downs. But the last two months, during which nearly $300 million in billings evaporated, has been particularly trying.
“We’ve been through a crucible here,” Wieden said last week, referring to the recent loss of the Microsoft and Miller accounts.
“I feel kind of like a May bug,” Wieden said about Miller. “We entered in 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 the win does little to offset the billings deficit, it went a long way toward restoring some morale.
“[AltaVista] was a huge win for us. Not just in terms of billings and revenues, but it gave the agency momentum,” said W&K’s chief operating officer Dave Luhr. “When they came in that day, there was a lot of emotion. There’s a lot of confidence now.”
Ironically, it was the Microsoft loss that lit a fire under Wieden to more aggressively pursue AltaVista. “We knew we had lost Microsoft the day before it hit the press. We called AltaVista that day but couldn’t reach them,” said Wieden. “The day it hit the press, we got a call from [AltaVista]. We just began pushing.”
“What we’ve always said is that we find clients that are like-minded and want arresting work,” he added. “That was the big turn-on [to us] about AltaVista. The client is established in the category, but without advertising. We share the same sort of spirit about things and want to shake things up.”
Even with the AltaVista win on the books, there remains an uneasiness inside the agency. Call it a funk or growing pains, but for about two years there has been a slow-but-steady exodus of top-flight talent, including Jamie Barrett, who left for Fallon McElligott in New York; Jerry Cronin, who co-founded a new entity based in Atlanta, Bayless/Cronin, a Merkley Newman Harty Co.; and Vince Engel, who went to Lowe & Partners/SMS.
Some blame the agency’s notoriously self-absorbed attitude for various staff and account turnovers.
Others point to the ill-suited partnerships with corporate concerns whose traditional ideas about advertising clash with W&K’s risk-taking approach to brand advertising.
Things started to slip in 1997 when W&K lost about one-third of its flagship Nike business to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. It should have been a wake-up call. Wieden couldn’t rely on its past successes nor a handful of glamorous clients, say observers.
“It hurt,” said Chuck McBride, co-creative chief on the Nike account, who formerly worked at Goodby. “Sure we’d like to have the business back, but we don’t obsess on it. We’ve asked people to concentrate on their work. Do the job and the rest will take care of itself.”
Some insiders say the agency is going through a period of renewal. “We’ve shed our skin,” said one staffer. Wieden himself describes it as “a rebirth.” That optimism may be a case of putting the best face forward during hard times, but the rank and file seem relieved to be rid of Microsoft.
W&K’s Microsoft account team had endured years of battles with the rigidly conservative corporate client. Creatives, in particular, felt stymied by Microsoft’s demands and what they viewed as interference. Most recently, they were frustrated by Microsoft’s insistence at sticking with the touchy-feely Lusk campaign, which featured small businesses in Lusk, Wyo.
When Dan Wieden broke the news of Microsoft’s firing to his staff, he expected to see disappointment. But the response was sighs of relief–and even some cheers. Creative director and partner Jim Riswold is said to have sent out an e-mail to staffers exclaiming, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”
Despite the recent account losses, W&K still claims $700 million in billings worldwide and a staff of 458. The agency works for Coca-Cola, ESPN, PowerBar, among others, but Nike is still its biggest account. Wieden says the recent hardships will impact the agency’s independent status.
“Quite frankly, we’re such assholes and so outspoken, most agencies and holding companies don’t come around,” Wieden jokes.
Next up is a move to a new warehouse building in Portland’s artsy Pearl District. The converted cold- storage warehouse will be home to W&K’s 250 Portland staffers, in addition to the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and retailers who will lease space from W&K on the first floor. With the notion that nothing is permanent, the building has been laid out so part of the 220,000-square-foot space can be rented out.
Wieden says he’s 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 Nothing ever lives up to what I want it to be. But I’m starting to see some of our finest work coming through. The real trick is to get people you love and respect and hope for the best.”
–with Jane Irene Kelly and Andrew McMains