Culture, love and chaos is what one of the world’s greatest advertising agencies,
Wieden+Kennedy, responsible for creating global brands like Nike, was built on. It’s
an agency that encourages failure on the path to great work.
The legendary Dan Wieden, founder and chairman of Wieden+Kennedy, was a
keynote speaker at the annual Design Indaba Conference and Expo in Cape Town
Design Indaba aims to harness the creative industries to use creativity to come up
with innovative and sustainable solutions to solve societal problems, using design to
engineer a renewable new world.
Wieden+Kennedy is one of the largest independently owned advertising agencies in
the world, launched on 1 April 1982 in Portland, Oregon in the USA, and is
renowned for their work on Nike. They famously won over the brand which used to
be “suspicious’ of advertising.
No plan for success
Wieden (70) was forthright and disarming, claiming he had no process, no plan for
success for the agency founded by himself and David Kennedy on April Fool’s Day,
33 years ago in a basement, with five employees and $1 000 as their personal
Wieden+Kennedy is now a global agency brand with 1 200 employees and their
work on clients like Nike created history. They have offices in New York, London,
Amsterdam, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Shanghai and Tokyo.
Apart from creating the Nike brand as we know it today, they have been winning
awards recently with their work on Procter & Gamble for their “Proud Sponsor of
Moms’ commercials. Clients around the world include Coca-Cola, Chrysler,
Facebook, Nike, Old Spice, Sony, ABC Television, Delta Airlines, ESPN, Gap,
Heineken, Southern Comfort, Mondelez, D&AD, Honda, Lurpak, Orange, Prada,
Tesco, Citizen watches, Netflix, Powerade, Booking.com and Audi.
“I can’t tell you whatever the hell this thing is, it’s amazing. We are an ad agency
with a success story that makes no sense whatsoever,’ Wieden quipped. “We didn’t
even have a phone when we launched, we had to run to the payphone nearby. The
only people who would consider moving to Portland were those who had been fired
everywhere else or kids straight out of school. We began as a ship of fools. It was
just so simple and so crazy.’
They never had a mission statement in the beginning or a plan. “Wieden+Kennedy
exists to create strong and provocative relationships between good companies and
their customers. For decades we have been making ads that create good brands.
Our ability to come up with provocative ads is what makes the nature of our
relationships with customers.’
Then there was the fact that they didn’t know much in the beginning, which was a
benefit, Wieden said. “We were struggling to figure out what an ad agency was. And
our one and only client (Nike), was trying to figure out what to do with us. When
you don’t know, you try desperately to find out. The minute you think you know it
all, that is when you start believing your own historical wisdom and then you are
dead. We figured out the importance of being stupid.’
What did become apparent over the years was that their culture has played a huge
role in their success. “We created a culture so damn weird, that it hurts your soul to
leave this place. We created the kind of environment to retain the best people and
inspire them to do the best work of their lives.
“It’s the culture that lifts the people. The people that make the work. It’s the culture
that makes the relationship between good companies and their customers.’
Another key insight from the renowned ad man was on failure. “We give people
permission to fail. That is the heart and soul of this agency. Fail harder. You have to
be able to fail if you are going to do anything worthwhile.
“The other thing I try encourage people to do is, “walk in stupid every
None of the agency’s multiple awards it has won for its work over the years hangs
on its walls. Instead they have pictures of their people doing the crazy things that
make them who they are.
Wieden urged advertising agencies to create a culture were you allow people to be
utterly themselves, to stretch themselves, individuals who come up with solutions.
That is what creates the “chemistry’ for the kind of culture on which
Wieden+Kennedy was built.
Creating out of chaos
“We are a bit more chaotic than most places, but it is love. I love this great agency
the most when we are off balance, when we are in a “car crash’ scenario… I just
love that shit. Chaos does this thing that “order’ can’t: chaos is the only friend which
demands you be creative so you can make something that matters.’
Wieden said the most important aspect of chaos was that it challenged authority
and cared more about truth than power. Something the global advertising industry
needed more of, instead of the comfortable networked position many found
The digital revolution has shaken up the industry, resulted in a clashing of cultures.
The results of this change will be momentous and shocking, Wieden predicted.
Wieden+Kennedy will live on as an independent, railing against the current tide of
global agency groupings, even creating a trust for the agency which forbids its sale.
They’re “weird’ that way.
– Louise Marsland