Another think coming

US agency Wieden & Kennedy is famed for its ads for Nike – and for its strong relationship with designers. Liz Farrelly traces it back to its source.

Portland is a mid-sized US city of less than half a million inhabitants. It has to be said that as a city it’s nothing special. But it is home to the largest urban population in Oregon, a good-sized state on the northwest seaboard, just above California.

Funny place to find one of the world’s most successful, unconventional, critically acclaimed and/or reviled ad agencies. Funny, that is, until you realise that the 15-year-old Wieden & Kennedy, still owned and managed by co-founder Dan Wieden, flourishes in Portland in tandem with its major client, Nike. That “kitchen-table to global mega-corporation” is based a few miles out of town on a kind of sporty university campus staffed by a whole lot of fit bods for whom Oregon’s outback is heaven.

Dan Wieden started out working for a small local agency which handled the fledgling Nike account. When Nike started to grow exponentially Wieden suggested devoting himself and a brand new agency solely to selling Nike, and Phil Knight, the sneaker guru who Wieden describes as having “entrepreneurial risk-taking in his DNA”, accepted the offer. Nike proved a perfect test-bed for radically rewriting the ad-rule book.

“At Wieden & Kennedy we combine basic positioning with an ability to surprise people. With Nike we constantly evaluate how we attack [the problem] and question what is specific. And, in its heart of hearts, Nike is a risk-taking organisation. That’s why the advertising tends to evolve, and can be serious, inspirational and irreverent,” says Wieden.

Judging by the Portland office, which is reminiscent of a defunct hotel squatted by a band of artists, and the refreshingly anti-flash attitude of the people hanging out there, Wieden & Kennedy should win an award for the least-self-important ad agency on the planet. Some put that lack of attitude down to the fact that no one else in town knows (or cares) what it’s up to, so there’s no awe-struck peer group to impress.

The crunch came when Nike’s divisions and products proliferated, and its billing increased, and, as Wieden puts it, “we were having trouble exporting Nike ads to Europe, marketing a US brand as a global brand. The answer was to open an office in Europe staffed by a mix of locals and ex-pats. There are certain constants in sports, such as competition, but we had to learn about local sports and local fans.”

Six years ago Wieden & Kennedy opened its doors in Amsterdam, the nearest city to Nike’s European headquarters. Wieden describes the office as, “…the United Nations. With all the languages spoken there, half the time I have no idea what’s going on. Cultures rub up against each other. It’s interesting and it has its problems, but Amsterdam is my favourite place in the world.” In effect, Nike and Wieden & Kennedy learnt to communicate, to go global and work local, together. And, at the time of writing, Wieden & Kennedy employs 350 people in Portland, 115 in Amsterdam, and has smaller offices in New York and Tokyo and now London.

Earlier this year, that symbiotic relationship kicked up a gear with the opening of the agency’s first London office, underwritten by Nike whose intention it is to rev-up its UK operation. This has been big news in ad land, because, despite enjoying a great reputation for its Nike output, being “headquartered” in Portland has in the past dissuaded both potential clients and creatives from jumping on board Wieden & Kennedy’s bandwagon.

Wieden is guarded about the move – he’s not buying into the current hysteria pertaining to “swinging London”. “It’s the happening place, I suspect. We’ve gone to London with preconceptions which won’t go away until we spend some time there. We also promised Nike that we wouldn’t look for any new business in the first months,” explains Wieden. “We want to form a hybrid with what’s happening in England, and the main reason for being there is the enormous amount of talent.”

Susan Hoffman, a 14-year partner of Wieden, who was instrumental in the Amsterdam start-up, is now creative director in London and currently the only “ex-pat” on staff. Hoffman elaborates on the London move: “Nike was looking for a new agency in London and it’s important for us to have its business around the world. Nike needs ‘insider’ advertising to say it in an English way. It’s fascinating the way people live and breath football over here. Sports fanatics in the states aren’t even close.”

As in Portland and Amsterdam, she’s instigated a non-hierarchical structure within the agency “…ideas may come from anyone on the team, not only the creatives”.

Hoffman has been pleasantly surprised by the quality of post-production facilities and the directorial and design talent she’s encountered, but is pretty unimpressed by the smug attitude and conservative output of London’s lunching ad men. Backing up her rhetoric with action, Hoffman has been checking out college degree shows and is busy looking further afield than ad-land’s talent pool by familiarising herself with London’s design community.

Throughout its history Wieden & Kennedy has consistently surprised its peers by working with a stylistically diverse selection of “out-of house” designers. “The idea of working with designers came from a deliberate desire to broaden how we think about a problem because, for instance, an ad art director’s concept for a fashion ad is going to be way off what a fashion company would do.”

With the likes of Graham Wood of Tomato, David Carson and Rebeca Mendez, among others, freelancing for Wieden & Kennedy, and Tony Arefin (previously art director of Frieze and US ID) and Whitney Lowe (ex-ReVerb) making the move to Portland, the pay-off for designers comes in terms of both financial reward and in keeping good company.

Even though Wieden & Kennedy is currently exclusive to Nike in London, the creative teams in Portland and Amsterdam have other clients to play with. Coca-Cola, Miller and ESPN (a sports TV station) have all opted for a dollop of Wieden & Kennedy’s youth-oriented suss.

Then, a couple of years ago, Microsoft came knocking which posed an interesting problem for an agency staffed by a bunch of street-wise sports-crazies. How Wieden & Kennedy has met that challenge highlights the strengths of its idiosyncratic approach.

Michael Prieve and Bob Moore are the creative directors – art director and writer respectively – on the Microsoft account. “We had to learn its culture which is the total opposite of Nike’s. With Nike you have to know sport, with Microsoft you have to be interested in the idea of technology and realise that it sells computers to a business audience which is spending millions of dollars and needs to know loads of complex information. Add to that the fact that the products are brand new – a piece of software that’s never existed before – and the problem gets kinda interesting. It’s not like selling a shoe to a 16-year-old.”

Eventually, Prieve persuaded his client at Microsoft to consider its seriously lacking core brand identity. Prieve and his team came up with an ultra-flexible visual language abstracted from Microsoft icons, which has been made available to company personnel and other agencies worldwide as print templates. “We haven’t produced glamorous ads, we don’t have the likes of Michael Jordan involved,” explains Prieve, “…but I’ve tried to set parameters for how everything should look. I’m applying the tenets of Modernism to Microsoft.”

Kate Tregoning is a British graphic designer who has been part of Prieve’s Microsoft team for two years. Described by Prieve as “having an aesthetic which is very clean and orderly”, Tregoning art-directed print campaigns with writer Evelyn Monroe Neill and British photographer Julian Broad, before she was offered the opportunity to tackle a television ad spot.

Tregoning’s experiences with Wieden & Kennedy neatly validate the agency’s commitment to young talent. “It gets to know your strengths and nurture them, so that encourages a diversity of approaches,” she explains.

“I was thrown in at the deep end to figure out what advertising is all about. TV is a tight learning curve and that’s keeping me interested. Because the agency is creatively-led I get to present to clients rather than have my ideas rejected by a hovering account handler. That’s almost unheard of in advertising, but it means your neck is on the line,” says Tregoning.

Being experimental around a client like Microsoft, as opposed to Nike, isn’t easy. Microsoft’s public image isn’t good. “Obviously, from a business angle Microsoft has been doing better and better,” explains Prieve. “But because it is led by sales and not image, communication hasn’t been a high priority. It’s a complex situation and there’s a lot of information thrown at us so we can understand it.”

Chris Riley is head of strategic planning at the agency. He elucidates on the science of planning. “We design an objective which the creative work can deliver to a key audience. Then we measure and judge our success.”

Dismissive of “off the shelf” research and testing out ideas on focus groups, Riley reckons his method of planning speeds up the entire advertising process and produces “…more great work. I can execute and evaluate a global brand campaign in 12 weeks, which is how long it usually takes to test an idea. We hire the best creatives and let them do their work, quick. We don’t test talent and we’re reviled for it. I like to encourage people to take risks whereas testing is reassurance.”

With Wieden & Kennedy billing $500m (312m) last year, it must be doing something right. Cynics might claim its success has been down to being in the right place, at the right time and with one very big, very right client. Wieden, Hoffman, Prieve and Riley have all praised the graphic designers they’ve worked with, most specifically; for bringing diverse cultural approaches to a project; for an attention to detail across integrated campaigns, from point-of-sale to typographically elegant print ads; and for methodically problem-solving a campaign rather than imposing an inappropriate idea. Giving design such high priority isn’t exactly the norm in advertising.

At Wieden & Kennedy there’s a heady recipe for success on the boil. Just mix global and local perspectives, keen talent scouting, non-hierarchical management, design skills, radical concepts, effective research, an investment in individuals and last but not least, risk-taking. It’s a wonder then that such a winning formula isn’t being replicated all over the place.

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