'I'VE ONLY DONE GREAT WORK FOR NIKE': Wieden & Kennedy is well-known for its free-thinking creative work, notably on its flagship Nike brand. Dan Wieden, its founder, tells Caroline Marshall how he keeps motivated to work in advertising

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

with them.

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

thinks 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

in 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

ignores them.

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?