Wieden & Kennedy founders Dan Wieden and David Kennedy started out in traditional advertising venues. The two met in the Portland, Ore., office of McCann-Erickson, where they worked together on the Louisiana-Pacific Corp. account. They also shared a discontent with the state of advertising creativity and a disdain for poor work.
They opened Wieden & Kennedy in Portland with media specialist Jane Kirby and production manager Dennis Fraser on April 1, 1982. For Nike, the agency's first client, Wieden & Kennedy at first continued the footwear marketer's existing image of athletic existentialism. In 1988, it introduced the slogan "Just do it!" and created quirky ads that equated individuality and rebellion with the footwear maker's sneakers.
In 1987, Wieden & Kennedy rolled out its "Revolution" TV spot for Nike, using the Beatles' 1968 anthem "Revolution" as the sound track. This launched a series of ads for Nike that used improbable subcultural references—including a song by proto-punk rocker Iggy Pop and Beat author William Borroughs—to push the growing marketer's products.
Wieden & Kennedy even imitated subcultural media itself, quietly promoting Nike sneakers by publishing a low-key "fanzine," a medium that had been created by bohemians in explicit reaction against commercial culture.
Working on the Nike account, Wieden & Kennedy further developed a style of "anti-advertising" pioneered a generation earlier by Doyle Dane Bernbach for Volkswagen. One Wieden & Kennedy TV spot, featuring basketball great Michael Jordan and shot by independent filmmaker Spike Lee, deconstructed the traditional celebrity star spot.
In it Mr. Lee told viewers they were welcome to buy Nike sneakers, but wearing them would not make a viewer able to do the tricks Mr. Jordan did. Mr. Lee then offered a "confession" that his ad was just an ad, yelling out his window at his noisy neighbors, "Shut up! I'm doing a Nike commercial here." With an ironic wink, Wieden & Kennedy attempted to win the viewer over, implying that it, too, disliked advertising.
Mr. Kennedy retired in 1993, but Wieden & Kennedy continued to grow. In addition, the agency garnered numerous awards, including being named Agency of the Year by both Advertising Age and Adweek in 1991.
During Wieden & Kennedy's tenure, Nike grew from a $270 million company to one valued at more than $9 billion.
But not all of Wieden & Kennedy's work found an audience. In 1991, when Subaru America hired the agency to recreate the brand image of the well-engineered but dowdy all-wheel-drive auto, Wieden & Kennedy opened an office in Philadelphia and channeled some of its best creative talent into the job. In one spot, a man ridiculed the overwrought claims of typical automobile ads, claiming that a car "won't make you more handsome. Or prettier. Or younger." Instead, he said, "A car is a car."
However, those spots failed to win consumers and were disliked by the Subaru sales force. In 1993, Subaru fired Wieden & Kennedy, leading to layoffs of 60 employees and the closing of the Philadelphia office.
After that, Wieden & Kennedy rebounded with a strategy of building an independent global network and developed an expanded client list, including U.S. accounts Miller Brewing Co., America Online, Belvedere, ESPN, Powerade and Starbucks. Its overseas offices also grew, with London handling Honda U.K. and picking up top creative honors for its "Cog" spot.
In 2003, Wieden & Kennedy ranked No. 38 among the world's top marketing organizations, with $78.6 million in worldwide revenue, up 11.4% from 2002, according to Advertising Age. It was No. 43 among U.S. agency brands with U.S. revenue of $40.5 million, a 5% increase over 2002, and $450 million in billings. It also was the fifth largest independent agency in the U.S. as ranked by worldwide revenue.