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Media Partnership / Design Indaba

Dan Wieden Is… We spend a week stalking the advertising mogul around a conference in Cape Town

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2015

Words by

Rob Alderson

Illustrations by

Sam Island

Dan Wieden is at a party. It’s being held in the Presidential Suite of a hotel in Cape Town and the views from the 17th floor balcony, across the city to Table Mountain, are insane. There’s a bar in one corner and decks off to one side, but no DJ. Dan and his wife arrive and stroll through the throng to a raised decking area. The party is aware that he’s here but everyone pretends not to have noticed. Be cool. The 69-year-old is the founder of the world’s largest independent advertising agency, Wieden + Kennedy, that he set up in Portland, Oregon in 1982. In the early days it was a small operation; he and David Kennedy put in $500 and rented a basement room that didn’t even have a phone. “We had a payphone at the end of the hallway and we’d run down there if the damn thing rang,” he remembers, then puts on a super slick ad-land tone. “Hello Wieden + Kennedy.” He says the company’s growth baffles him. “We’re a success story that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. We’re a cosmic joke.”

But even though Portland was an unlikely base from which to build an empire, it did have one interesting local firm, a sportswear company called Nike. Wieden + Kennedy started to work with Nike founder Phil Knight – he was suspicious of advertising, they (by their own admission) had no idea what they were doing. But this uncertain start matured into one of the most successful commercial/creative relationships in history as W+K found a way to translate the brand’s authentic athletic attitude into campaigns that worked.

The agency now has a raft of big name clients and eight offices around the wold – having added New York, London, Delhi, Sao Paulo, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Shanghai. “That’s weird. You wake up one morning and you’re a fucking network with 1,500 people and billings in excess of three billion dollars.” He swears like a motherfucking trooper.

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Dan Wieden is washing his hands. He says hello and the word has four syllables – “he-l-l-o.” His voice chimes, and with his white hair and neatly trimmed beard he looks a bit like Santa repackaged by a trendy ad agency. The glint in his eye reminds me of a grandpa that sneaks you your first sip of beer.

Dan Wieden is wearing a giant leaf as a hat. He’s on a tour of a vineyard in the wine country an hour outside Cape Town with rocky mountains and sun-kissed vegetation, weird plants like prickly pears. It’s hot, and the tour guide is explaining the properties of the lotus leaf: “On days like this, you can also wear it upside down as a hat.” Dan immediately plonks his on his head and walks around like this for a good 15 minutes. “I’m glad he’s got it, he burns very easily,” his wife Priscilla says. Dan’s late wife Bonnie is the person he credits for the approach that has come to define his agency. Having been fired from his job at a paper manufacturer (“I was the hippie inside a very conservative company”) he went home to break the bad news to Bonnie, then pregnant with their fourth child. She was taking washing out of the machine when he told her what happened and she replied: “Something’ll come up.”

“She gave me what I could not give myself – permission to fail. That’s the heart and soul of this agency. You have to be able to fail if you’re going to do anything with life.” This sense of freedom helped Dan and David develop a creative culture that’s unique. “It was so simple and so crazy,” he says, and the people who’d come to Portland – “the most ridiculous place you could possibly imagine” – were those “who’d been fired everywhere else or kids just out of school.” Wieden + Kennedy didn’t rip up the rule book; they just ignored it.

“We began as a ship of fools and I believe that’s why we’ve succeeded. We were naive, we were stupid but sometimes stupid can work for you. When you start believing your own historic wisdom you’re not stupid any more, you’re dead.”

They soon realised though that financially they couldn’t compete with the big agencies and found a lot of their best talents were getting poached. Their response was to create a place of work that meant something more than dollars. “Fuck the money. We developed a culture so weird and so sticky it would hurt your damn soul to leave the place,” he says.

“It’s the culture that lifts the people. It’s the people who make the work. It’s the work that makes the relationships between good companies and their customers.” And there you have the genesis of the Wieden + Kennedy mission statement, which begins: “We are an independent, creatively driven advertising agency that creates strong and provocative relationships between good companies and their customers.” It goes on: “We believe that it doesn’t matter where, how or in what medium an idea is expressed, you still have to start with a good one.”

Dan Wieden is shouting at 3,000 people. He’s has just been introduced as “advertising royalty” at the Design Indaba conference and as he makes his way to the stage the crowd are on their feet. “Don’t you dare!” he yells, pointing back at the creatives so keen to hang on his every word. His shirt has a hypnotic pattern of repeating back and white hexagons, and when he gets to the microphone he looks up and grins. “Jesus Christ. How did I get into this. Shit.”

He shows just three adverts during his talk (the LeBron James Nike Together piece and two Procter & Gamble spots) and mixes his charm and wit with some heavy-hitting erudition, quoting Fritjof Carpa and William Stafford exploring dissipative structures. After one particularly mind-bending section he smiles up at the audience. “Is this too weird for you? Are you ok?” Later he talks about the wall of photos in each W+K office with pictures of employees expressing themselves. “I am not going to show you pictures. You have to imagine that shit.”

Dan is obsessed with his employees and getting the best out of them. He believes that a lot of it is about identifying the right people to join W+K, and then cultivating an environment in which individual creative brilliance can flourish, but not at the expense of the best solution. “You want people that have a unique voice, a unique perspective on how the world works,” he says. “You put a bunch of those together and then something really interesting can happen.” In terms of spotting these people it’s not just about what they say. “There’s just some sort of non-verbal sensibility about it. Something’s going on in there. This guy’s got something. This woman has a different way of looking at the world. Let’s see what she can do.” He admits he likes people who don’t seem to automatically respect him. “I know who I am and I get such a joke out of people being deferential because that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

With the right people in place, it’s then about letting them come up with and refine ideas. “You don’t care who comes up with the solution; you just say, ‘Shit that’s better than what I did.’ I absolutely still get that frisson of excitement. It’s insanely jealous though. You go, that fucker!”

He lights up when talking about the Nike spot he showed on stage, an advert where the basketball star gives a rallying cry to his teammates and the whole city of Cleveland answers, joining in a mass pre-game huddle. Even having seen it multiple times, the effect is electric. “I don’t know how those two women came up with that LeBron spot. They’d been at the agency like six months or something and they were working with bunch of very senior people trying to solve this problem and the very senior people went with what those two girls did. They were 26, innocent as hell, talented as hell. And so the team helped them finish the thing off and that’s the magic.”

W+K has a genius ability to make ads that are inspiring but not cheesy and I wonder whether that’s pulled off in the initial ideas phase or the execution. “A little of both. It’s like developing a personality, a very subtle, inexplicable thing. And sometimes you learn by getting it wrong, going past the line.

“We’re a really human lot. We’re less of an organisation than we are a bunch of people with very diverse personalities and talents that try and figure out something special to solve a problem in a way that people can understand. Something that shakes you up or readjusts something inside you as a consumer. It’s not like a science book; it’s kind of like horoscopes and all that shit.”

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Dan Wieden is drinking a cup of coffee. It’s mid-afternoon and we’re sat on a balcony in the sun. A confluence of similar looking glass fronted buildings crowds round us and each is reflected in the building opposite. He will turn 70 in a few weeks and on 1 April Wieden + Kennedy turns 33 (“That’s when they crucified Christ!”).

He has just announced for the first time that all W+K shares are now in a trust “whose only obligation is to never ever under any circumstances sell the agency.” His reason is simple and expressed vehemently. “If we sold the agency the culture would be destroyed.”

He recognises the challenges the digital revolution has wrought on the ad landscape, but relishes tackling them. It’s been claimed that not only is Just Do It the best slogan ever, but that the atomisation of the media means no slogan will ever be able to have such an impact again. What’s his relationship to it now? “Well it’s the last thing I wrote,” he laughs. But he’s wary of thinking, even talking about creativity in the abstract. “Communication is a funny thing and if you start making rules for it or having expectations for it that’ll be what you produce; theories about shit rather than the things themselves. Things will die that aren’t any good and things that are pretty good will last for a while and some things just hang up there forever and nobody can reach it anymore.”

In fact he’s thriving on the current uncertainty, and rethinking how his agency operates within it. “I have an addiction to chaos. I love it when I’m anxious, I love this agency the most when it’s off balance, when we’re going at 70mph and people are puking out the window and everyone’s leaning to one side to keep it upright. Chaos asks stuff of you order never will, and shows you all the weird shit order tries to hide. Chaos is the only thing that wants you to grow, that demands you be creative to make something that matters. Chaos cares more about truth than power.” As W+K has grown, one of the challenges has been maintaining this sense of disorder. “Process begins to sneak its way inside. Chaos is shown the door.”

Dan Wieden is challenging us. “What do you say, let’s shock the world. Deep down that’s what the world wants; to be shaken down, turned loose and to feel young again, uncertain and curious as hell.” Dan Wieden is right.