The World: W&K puts success down to unconventionality

With a company ethos encouraging chaos and innovation, the agency's independence looks set to continue.

Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to analyse the particular brand of Wieden & Kennedy fairy dust that has helped it reel in the accounts, trophies and media coverage, as well as captivate peers, employees and clients alike. Its latest wins - including Nokia, and the Visa International Rugby World Cup sponsorship - have netted the agency some $400 million in new billings, and contributed to a growth rate of 40 per cent over the past four years.

"It's a cliche, but it's a relentless focus on the quality of the work, no matter which office," Tim O'Kennedy, the managing director of the Amsterdam office, says. "We get asked a lot about our DNA. Dan (Wieden, the W&K co-founder) is a great believer in the power of a degree of chaos, and so each of the offices ends up being slightly experimental. They become what they need to be in order to compete. As long as central DNA is there - which is the obsession around the work."

Dave Luhr, the Portland-based global chief operating officer, says it's the agency's autonomy that allows it to do things other agencies do not. "The quality control of our network is very attractive to clients," he says. "We worry about our clients, not the bottom line, or pleasing our holding company. That's what gives us our independence. Plus, our network provides an environment that attracts good clients, which also attracts great talent."

One reason for the agency's success, London's executive creative director, Tony Davidson, says is its willingness to make mistakes. "When Dan and Dave first set up, they didn't know they were going to get Nike, and nobody wanted to go to Portland," he says. "So they hired creative people like John Jay, who didn't come from the ad industry. And through that kind of forced error, the work on Nike was a lot more interesting."

Starting from scratch, rather than buying existing agencies, ensures a continuation of the W&K spirit in each office. "These aren't eight separate offices," Luhr says. "This is W&K, with offices around the world. We use people from all those offices, and that attracts clients."

The Wieden way is to try to grow something from within a country's culture. "Dan loses a lot of money, because he doesn't do it the easy way," Davidson says. "But he believes he gets a more interesting company at the end of it. Amsterdam was quite difficult, and London was very slow getting off the ground. But we try to pick clients that genuinely want good work. People come here because they want to make the best work of their lives and find like-minded clients."

The agency's success also reflects the changing needs of clients. "There's a movement in clientland towards the power of ideas over geography," O'Kennedy says. "People have been through the globalisation experiment over the past 25 years; there's no one process or structure that will create alignment, (just) the quality of the work. So you've got to come up with great ideas that everyone wants to buy."

With seven offices (Portland, New York, Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai) plus - as of later this year - Delhi, clients that include global mega-brands such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Starbucks, as well as its founding client Nike, around 750 employees and an estimated $1.4 billion-plus in billings, how big can the agency get, before - in Jay Chiat's words - it starts getting bad?

O'Kennedy says he doesn't know: "We're already at a point where simple size and scope would suggest we should be getting bad, but we don't seem to be. In new-business presentations, I pop a showreel in the DVD, warts and all. Even the wartiest thing is still good. We'll probably keep doing what we're doing until it stops working."

For Davidson, the biggest current challenge of growth is absorbing the latest wins and staying true to the W&K culture. "With Nokia and Visa, we'll go past 100 people and we're naive if we don't think it's going to affect us."

The agency's global ambitions are aligned to those of its clients. "We've never focused on our growth," says Luhr. "The goal is to work with like-minded clients and do great work. We fall in love with people as clients; we don't fall in love with categories. If that allows us to double in five years, then great. And if it allows us to only grow 20 per cent, then that's fine, too."

Davidson adds: "I just want it to be the most interesting, creative company in the world. You want to be a diverse, multi-talented company that inspires everyone that works there. And we need to start owning some of our own content. They're all just platforms."

As for the scenario once Wieden finally walks away: "We are addressing those issues," Luhr says. "We have strong managers in place, not just in Portland, but around the world. But I don't want to get into details. That's our issue." And don't even ask about selling, even though it's had offers aplenty. "Dan is very emphatic. He says we're not for sale and never will be." Got that?