You wouldn’t know it from his affable demeanour that Dan Wieden is a legendary figure in advertising, known to virtually every junior art director and copywriter worldwide. The “Wieden” in Wieden+Kennedy, one of the world’s largest independent ad agencies, he is responsible for Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline. Here, the advertising veteran shares his feelings on his company’s success and the importance of breeding a culture of chaos.
From a small basement room in Portland, Oregon to a network of offices worldwide, Wieden+Kennedy can now boast 33 years of independence and a portfolio of work with an irreverent approach to branding. How have they done it?
Wieden puts it down to the culture he and his partner, David Kennedy, first created to retain the talented people working at the company in its early days. When shareholders in the agency stopped dishing out fat salaries, the young founders had to come up with a reason to make everyone stay. Wieden tells the audience that their solution was to “create a culture that’s so damn weird, so wild, so sticky that it would hurt your very soul to leave the place”.
It was of utmost importance that employees didn’t feel like employees, he says. The working environment needed to inspire people and allow each person the freedom to express themselves without fear of failure. They were all given “permission to fail” – an idea that continues to be propagated throughout the company today.
Where most big ad firms have a wall dedicated to their shiny awards, Wieden+Kennedy has a wall of photos in tribute to the weird and wonderful people who work there.
When a bunch of hungry creative individuals is handed a licence to mess up as much as they like, the confines of creativity are invariably stretched. Any sense of authority and order goes out the window and what ensues is a culture of chaos. Wieden recognises “chaos” as a state of deconstruction that challenges comfort zones and demands creativity, as opposed to “order”, which thrives off structure and formality.
“I have sworn in private and in public that we will never, ever sell the agency. It just isn’t fair that, once sold, a handful of people will walk off with big gobs of money and those left behind will either face salary cuts or be fired, and the culture will be destroyed,” said Wieden.
He ended with this bold statement: “The partners and I got together a couple of years ago, took our shares and put them in a trust. A trust whose only obligation is to never, ever, under no circumstances, sell the agency.”
His announcement was a moment in advertising history, delivered almost spontaneously on stage at Design Indaba. It sent ripples of applause through the audience – and reverberated through the ad industry worldwide.
Wieden+Kennedy is where it is today because of this unique working culture, which cultivates a troop of gutsy, free thinkers and in turn, a legacy of provocative and thoughtful campaigns.