Our founder Dan Wieden will be speaking at Goafest this year. For those of you who may not know too much about him and haven’t read Where The Suckers Moon yet, here are some excerpts from an article from 2007 published in The Independent.
“W&K has grown with Nike, building one of the greatest global brands and at the same time expanding its defiantly independent operation to New York, London, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Shanghai. This has been W&K's extraordinary achievement, to maintain its reputation for risky, left-field advertising whilst maintaining a roster of clients that includes such giant all-American brands as Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Subaru and Miller beer.
On a recent visit to London, Dan Wieden explains the DNA of his unique agency and what he makes of the advertising industry's future. W&K, he says, still thrives on a culture "built around a friendly relationship with chaos". "I think it's important that if you're going to be innovative, that there's not a process for everything. Sometimes it seems that if you're never lost you're never going to wind up any place new. It's only if you're willing to be completely fucked-up that you're going to do anything important," says Wieden, who has a silver beard and a barking ringtone on his mobile ("I'm sorry, I keep a dog in my pocket...")
Yet W&K could not have maintained long-standing relationships with such global clients without a high degree of diligence with regard to the financial side of the business. "There are parts of the agency that operate with the precision of a German railroad," he says. "We try to be as old fashioned as humanly possible when it comes to our books. The tracking of projects, the planning and research is very traditional, very methodical."
The relationship with fellow Oregon company Nike has been fundamental. "We're here because of Nike. They were a small shoe company and we were four people trying to buy shoes for our kids. Because of our close relationship, I think that there's many of the same gene pool, almost literally the same gene pool, floating around both companies." The familiarity and success of the two businesses does not have to mean the advertising work is predictable, Wieden claims. "Phil Knight (the Nike founder) loves, and has always loved, to take risks, and he took risks with us.
On Just Do It
That company continues to thrive on throwing out old ideas, embracing new things and waiting to see what happens."
When Wieden looks back at how that "Just Do It" end line came about, he admits it was proposed as nothing more than a "connecting device" to link a group of eight Nike television commercials. "I hated tag lines, we all did, I thought they were dumb. So I wrote, like, six things. 'Just Do It' was one of them. I showed it to some folks in the agency and they went 'Do you think we need that goddamn thing?' " says Wieden, who decided the line should remain. "We just typed it out on typewriters, then blew it up, and put it on a board. It was not a big deal, seriously. Then when it actually aired, it surprised everybody involved because it apparently spoke some truth that was larger than sport or advertising. There's no explaining that thing. Nobody understood that it was going to take off like that."
On The Chinese Market
He is especially thrilled by the "explosive, unpredictable" Chinese market, where W&K opened an office two years ago. "There's just an incredible vibrancy – it's just like unleashing a lot of fresh eyes on old problems," he says of the emerging Chinese advertising industry.
Wieden did not immediately appreciate the importance of the interactive world of new media and is now trying to make up for lost time. "To be honest, we were very late getting into the interactive thing, but we are headstrong about it now," he says. "I mean, we were playing around with interactive, but we were not obsessed with it. We are now obsessed with it." Like so many others, he is not entirely clear "how we can keep doing what we are doing and make as much money" in the digital arena, yet the chaos and uncertainty appeals to him.
On TV ads
He says television work is being undermined in terms of finance and creative energy.
"I'm not sure television is where the most revolutionary work is taking place right now. Production budgets have shrunk, which should not be a break on creativity, but there's not as much psychic energy in television as there is in the interactive space," he says. "But it's still an incredibly magic medium that has the ability to engage you emotionally in ways that few other mediums do. It's great for storytelling."
The independence of W&K, rare in a world of advertising conglomerates, is an essential part of its DNA. "David Kennedy and I are creative guys. We set out to create a second-generation independent advertising agency that would exist long after we were gone. We may have sacrificed a lot of financial gain, but [independence] has allowed us to make decisions more freely. We have the ability, when we don't see eye to eye with a client, to say 'It's not working, what shall we do?' and not feel like we have stockholders in the room making that decision for us." Dan Wieden is an influential man, named one of America's top 25 "most intriguing entrepreneurs". But his success, he says, has come from not compromising his creative instincts. "In this business, you follow one of two masters: you either follow the muse or you follow the dollar..."