The man whose agency asked the world "Where do you want to go
today?" on behalf of Microsoft is these days posing another question:
what is the point of all this?
At 56, and with a good few years work left in him, Dan Wieden is one of
advertising's living legends and he is as driven as ever. "I have
reached the age where you ask yourself the questions you spent most of
your life avoiding," he says, recalling a defining moment about ten
years ago when he was sitting in a Wieden & Kennedy conference room for
a client meeting.
"I suddenly realised I had been in the same bloody meeting all my life.
Sure, different clients, different issues but essentially the same
meeting. For years upon end I had been caught in this endless loop, with
just enough unfamiliarity to keep me playing the game."
Happily, he was able to suppress the entire experience quickly: "I asked
myself where else am I going to make this obscene amount of money and,
more importantly, who else is going to grant me this amount of
Fast forward to 30 November 1999, and Wieden is sitting in front of the
TV in his office in Portland, Oregon. Just to the north, in Seattle,
Washington, a riot is taking place. Several thousand people have
gathered to protest at the annual conference of the World Trade
Organisation. Environmentalists, anarchists, survivalists, all fighting
running battles with police between bouts of spray-painting and
To say that Wieden shares their unease is perhaps to overstate things,
but it is half true. He's observed the mergers in the petrol,
automotive, pharmaceutical and media businesses and come up with an
answer to his question. "The point of all this is to keep these gigantic
new companies from putting their head up their ass. Or if it's already
up there, to help them extract it."
So how did he get this far? Wieden was born on the cusp of the baby
boom, in 1945. His father, Duke, was one of the grand old men of
Portland advertising, a consummate account man and chairman of the
biggest, greyest agency Portland had to offer, Gerber Advertising.
Dan was as rebellious as his father was establishment. He wanted to be a
writer, he tried his hand at poetry, he started screenplays, he grew a
goatee, he lived at the beach. Married early, with several children
arriving quickly, necessity was the factor that drove him to make a
living in advertising. He first worked in-house, at Georgia-Pacific,
later at McCann-Erickson in Portland where he was teamed on the
Georgia-Pacific account with an art director five years his senior,
David Kennedy. (Kennedy retired back in 1994.)
The pair jumped ship from McCann to the William Cain agency, which had
Nike as a client, but they rapidly grew disillusioned. Rankled by what
they saw as Cain, the founder, hogging the credit for their work, they
began to plot their own agency and persuaded Nike to agree to jump ship
Mission accomplished, Wieden & Kennedy opened its doors on April Fools
Day in 1982 with four people, two card tables and a borrowed
These were the humble beginnings of what was to become a magnet for
change in moving American advertising's creative mainstream away from
the New York-Chicago-Los Angeles axis around which it revolved in the
W&K lived on the edge of controversy. It became known for irreverent
work and eschewed the reliance on research that can perpetrate tame
Its commercial for Pepe jeans pioneered the split-screen technique. Its
1985 spot for Honda Scooters featuring Lou Reed's gay anthem Walk on the
Wild Side ran in the days when the Japanese industrial giant was still
nervous about its acceptability to the American mainstream. And, of
course, there was Nike, for which Wieden himself wrote the "Just do it"
slogan and the agency signed up godlike endorsers, from a young Michael
Jordan to John McEnroe.
Wieden's comment about Nike, blown up in all its brutal honesty for the
headline to this piece, demonstrates the significance of the
relationship. Campaign's question, for the record, was: "People accuse
you of producing good work for lots of clients but producing your only
truly great work for Nike; what do you say to that?"
Wieden's response acknowledges that Nike is and always has been the soul
of the agency: "I think it's true that I've only done great work for
Nike. We go back so deep; we have figured out a way of knocking each
other down whenever one side gets too big."
For evidence, look no further than Nike shifting its image advertising
brief to Chiat/Day in 1983 (it came back, of course) and its two-year
spell from 1997 with San Francisco's Goodby Silverstein. That agency was
thought to have snaffled as much as 40 per cent of Nike's budget before
a new client returned the entire account to W&K.
Wieden reflects: "It's hard to find clients who literally want to be
pushed more, but it's not easy, Nike is not an easy client. It was born
in a locker room and there's a lot of locker room competition and
towel-slapping going on."
At the start, billings were dollars 1.2 million - today they have grown
to dollars 601.3 million and in addition to the Portland HQ that employs
about 200, there are smaller offices in New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam and
After several well-documented false starts, London has turned the
The defining moment was the hiring of Amy Lawson, the ex-WCRS
new-business director, as managing director. Lawson swiftly hired Tony
Davidson and Kim Papworth from Bartle Bogle Hegarty as creative
directors and the work has improved while its new-business record has
been solid, culminating in the recent arrival of the entire Honda
account from CDP and The Leith.
What does Wieden put the bloody start down to - Nike dictating that it
should be the only client at the outset, perhaps?
"I wouldn't blame that on Nike," he says. "It was our decision. I think
most of it was of our own making. We could not get the right combination
of people with a single purpose."
For a while, the thing Wieden really started to question was whether or
not the proposition of doing a hybrid (the opposite of Fallon's more
successful launch here) was correct: "Island cultures can be sweet but
sometimes they don't take to hybridisation. As close as you would think
London and the US are, the unresolved issues don't appear until you get
Wieden says he likes independence. He likes the size of the agency,
although the financial pressures caused by overseas expansion would
certainly be eased by more new business. But he swears he will never
sell. "I have no intention of selling out, I never have had," says the
man who is reported to hold about 70 per cent of the equity himself.
That leads us to the nub of things. Sure, Wieden can talk about about
being the only independent global ad agency in the world but isn't he a
bit of a control freak? What about that reputation for not relinquishing
control to management teams, a reputation that was not helped by
London's many changes of management until Lawson arrived?
Wieden's patience obviously wore thin on this topic some time ago: "I
get upset about this thing about being controlling, it's no more than a
convenient myth. I am a very hands-off guy, my problem is that I tend to
turn over responsibility and see what happens. I only have that
reputation in London, that is the only spot on the entire planet that
Everybody else complains 'where is the guy?'. It's an absolutely
ludicrous idea that began when we lost some people here in London and
then it got around that these crazy Americans and Dan in particular
won't let London be London. It's just nutty."
But isn't the agency dependent on his presence? Don't people buy the
name? What's the secret of this agency that has at times been the envy
of the industry, provoking outsiders to wonder how it produced such
memorable and enigmatic work? "Well, they damn well better buy the name,
that's the whole point. But, to me, what's really unique about this
agency is that it is like a self-regulating organism, it is a very
chaotic place in some respects, it has its own mind."
Would he say that he actively creates tension in order to spark
"Yeah, I do. People who join the agency feel like they're in freefall
for a while, they don't know where the floor is. We try to chop up
formality where we see it arising and for some people, some clients too,
that's unhealthy. At the same time, if clients need work turned around
quickly, this is an easier environment to make that happen."
Interesting, therefore, that W&K's recent big wins in Europe have been
companies such as Vodafone, Siemens and Honda - big, blue-chip
multinationals not renowned for creativity in their advertising. Will
such clients change the agency's culture?
"If these are anything like the rest of our accounts, they'll be spicy
little relationships," Wieden jokes. "People don't come to us expecting
the best service in the world. We are not a service agency for people
that make stuff, but hopefully we are an agency that engages their
We're not anti-big companies, that would be crazy, but what's clear to
me is that it is a vital and Herculean task to create a meaningful
relationship between these gigantic companies and an individual."
For a while it looked like Wieden had succeeded in that with Microsoft,
for which the agency came up with the "Where do you want to go today?"
campaign. But the loss of the dollars 200 million-plus account, to
McCann in 1999, was a bitter blow. "It was really tough for us and in
some ways Portland is still recovering," he says.
Other technology businesses - evineyards, stamps.com, 800.com - walked
too, due to the dotcom collapse that affected all agencies last year. In
W&K's case, it necessitated a 10 per cent cut in its US workforce.
Reflecting on that dotcom goldrush, Wieden says: "We were used to
talking to clients and getting a real understanding of their culture,
but when you say culture to a dotcom, well, the founders didn't even
know each other six weeks ago."
Over the years Wieden's agency has drawn criticism for being unable to
parley its work for Nike into long-term relationships with other
clients. Coca-Cola seems to disprove this theory.
It liked Wieden's Diet Coke US work enough to give the agency a new
assignment recently - the PowerAde sports drink, which is to be expanded
to fight Gatorade as that brand becomes part of Pepsi. But perhaps there
is some question as to what, if any, brand work Wieden will keep as
Interpublic gets into its stride as Coke's "brand steward"?
"A tricky question, for sure," he says. "So far Coke's done a good job
of dividing responsibilities but I always believe that good fences make
good neighbours. If McCann keeps its cows in its pasture I'll keep mine
Wieden talking tough in those terms is incongruous. He is friendly,
approachable, a joy to meet. He is honest about his failures and humble
about his successes.
I can't imagine anyone in the world ever disliking him but everyone says
he's shitty when crossed.
It's the fault of his principles, of course, the integrity and ethics
with which he's always been associated. He does the usual thing of
wearing them on his sleeve, then going ballistic when someone flouts or
This is nowhere more true than in the case of Amsterdam's 180, the
breakaway agency created by former executives from W&K's Dutch office,
who were fired after the agency accused them of working on a
new-business pitch for Adidas while they were still employed by
Wieden started this interview with a question. Interviewing him, with
his angst and his perfectionism and his mission to stop those gigantic
companies from putting their head up their asses, leaves you with
questions of your own. Why is one of the best in the business stuck
thousands of miles away in Portland, Oregon? And why isn't he available,
on tap, for every person in London advertising where he is needed?