W+K Portland: Behind the Work

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Wieden + Kennedy creatives dissect the agency's best of 2010, including blockbuster Nike spots, Human Chain, Tiger and Earl and Rise, the Levi's Ready to Work campaign that saw the brand pitch in to help a distressed U.S. city, and its work for Target.

Nike "Human Chain"
Jason Bagley, Creative Director and Ryan O'Rourke, Creative Director

What was the brief and the origin of the idea?

RO: On paper, the brief was "celebrate that movement is a shared universal language that connects us all." The actual assignment came directly from Nike's Mark Parker. He wanted to create a commercial that expressed the same message as "Move," a famous Nike commercial from the 2002 Winter Olympics. But he challenged us to communicate that message in a visually new way. It was a challenging brief.
JB: Ryan and I bounced around a lot of ideas, but eventually we started talking about and looking at the original Eadweard J. Muybridge time-lapse style of photography of athletes, which has of course been used a lot in sports, especially skateboarding and snowboarding. But it hadn't really been done for live action, so our idea was to create a beautiful, unbroken chain of human movement using the time-lapse-photography style. At a certain point, Jeff Williams (one of the CDs) pointed out that it needed a story or conflict of some sort, so we decided to make the chain crash and fall apart and then rise up.

Did the song inform the idea from the start?

RO: No. In fact, the original cut of the spot featured an orchestral score. The commercial's narrative was always about overcoming adversity and failure. But when the economy hit and the world changed, the message of the spot seemed to become even more relevant. We started to look for ways to make that message stronger and more prominent. We did a massive music search for songs. Justin Lowe, an editor within the agency, discovered the actual song that was finally used in the commercial.

Clearly, execution was key here–did you look at different ways of achieving the look? What did (director) Brian Beletic bring to it?

JB: We talked to several great directors, and it was one of those things where every one of them was excited but was unsure if it was even possible to do it properly. They all required a couple weeks to think and experiment before they could even tell us how and if they could do it. Ultimately we were just really excited about Brian Beletic's vision for it, and luckily we got along great and enjoyed hanging out because it took a very long time to finish.
RO: We loved how Brian didn't want the spot to feel like a cold visual-effects piece. We liked his approach toward making the spot feel as real as possible even though it was post heavy. And his determination to shoot each sport in the actual environments they are performed in was something that we liked. He had the idea to shoot every iteration of the "Human Chain" as a separate take. So that it would feel organic and human and imperfect. That's why every person is a little bit out of sync with the person in front of and behind them. Each person in the chain has a life of their own that's moving at a slightly different pace. We also trusted Brian to choreograph the seamless transitions from one sport to the next, which often meant that he was reordering and rescripting large portions of what had originally been sold to the client. We knew it was going to be a long process to make the commercial, and we needed a director who would throw his heart into the project. While Jason or I had never worked with Brian before, we could feel his passion for the idea during our initial conversations. In the end, it was a great decision to work with Brian. We couldn't have pulled off this commercial without Brian's vision and his patience and determination to see it all the way through to the end.

Nike "Earl and Tiger"
Hal Curtis, Creative Director

Obviously you were dealing with what looked like an impossible situation. What were your discussions with Nike like after the Tiger situation broke, and what was the mandate for the spot?

HC: One of the fascinating things about Nike as a company is they are not afraid. Not afraid of risk, not afraid of controversy, not afraid of criticism. They move to a different rhythm, and, in this case, they wanted to speak strongly in support of Tiger. That was clear from the beginning.

Did you consider different approaches-or was the Earl speech the core of the idea from the start?

HC: We shared a range of ways to engage around the subject. Nike immediately went to the most aggressive approach. They wanted to be provocative and they knew what they were getting into.

How do you measure success on something like this?

HC: The spot provided a forum for everyone to express what they were feeling. It provoked a collective reaction. And in our view that was a good thing. It was cathartic. It got a huge chunk of the negative conversation over with in one weekend.

Nike "Rise"
Ryan O'Rourke, Creative Director

While not on the same scale as Tiger, you were still responding to a PR issue here. Where did the mandate come from to address the LeBron backlash in a spot?

RO: There are similarities toward the approach. There was already a conversation happening. And both Nike and LeBron wanted to respond to it. As a company, Nike has always had the courage and confidence to face these kinds of hard conversations head-on. They are not afraid of being polarizing. And they trust that people will respect them for standing in full support of their athletes during difficult times.

How did you arrive at the "What Should I Do" construct?

RO: The creative team, Caleb Jensen and Taylor Twist, were inspired by discussions with LeBron James about the critical response to some of his decisions. LeBron spoke in detail about the expectations of others versus the expectations he has for himself. "What Should I Do?" summed up for everyone exactly what LeBron was feeling at that moment. The open-ended nature of the question allowed LeBron James to directly respond to both his critics and fans in his own voice.

What tone were you trying to strike or what did you want the audience to think after seeing the spot?

RO: LeBron is a polarizing figure. And the situation was polarizing. We were not attempting to fix the situation for everyone. That would be impossible. We wanted to use this opportunity to allow LeBron James to speak in his own words about how he felt about his situation. And hopefully, the audience respected this honesty and LeBron's courage to address his critics. We felt this would bring both fans and critics closer to LeBron. Given the sensitive nature of the conversation, the commercial couldn't be too serious or too humorous. We had to find the right balance. The open-ended nature of the commercial was meant to invite conversation.

I'm not sure anyone was less annoyed with LeBron after this spot...but it did become a huge pop-culture phenomenon. Was that an end in itself?

RO: "Rise" was meant to be disruptive and provocative. The world had already given the conversation a ton of emotion–and Nike and LeBron needed to respond to it. We were happy to be able to evoke such a large emotional response from people and contribute to the conversation. There has to be value in having so many people notice what we are doing and want to connect with it. When we got such a huge response, we knew that we had clearly touched a nerve. It was great to watch the conversation unfold.

Levi's "Go Forth/Braddock"
Tyler Whisnand, Creative Director and Danielle Flagg, Creative Director

In a nutshell, describe the brief. TW: The brief from Levi's included a collection of work wear. As one of the original brands of work wear, Levi's wanted to make an impact in this area. They challenged us to maintain the spirit of "Go Forth" while communicating this product line.

What was the origin of the idea (talk about the creative process-who was involved, how the idea surfaced and evolved, etc.)?

TW: The idea originated in the thought that if Levi's is the original work wear clothing, shouldn't Levi's put those clothes to work? Thoughts circulated around an idea that we should rebuild a ghost town or neighborhood of some kind. Put people to work in the Levi's clothing instead of just casting a model shoot. The idea came up to actually collaborate with a town. The team–Nathan Goldberg, Julia Blackburn, Mike Giepert and Antony Goldstein–were working with language and thoughts in keeping with the Works Progress Association (WPA). The WPA was an institution put into effect during the Great Depression commissioning work from Americans. Levi's, as a brand citizen, could also work in this way. Then the team and Sean O'Brien discovered an article about Mayor John Fetterman of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The campaign then came together in a focused effort to collaborate with the town and its people. Levi's took this leap of faith with us.

In terms of execution, what was the inspiration for the look/feel of the spots and other ads?

TW: We definitely looked to the period of the WPA for inspiration for the look and feel of the films and photography. We wanted to find a heroic and proud way of showing the workers of Braddock. Together with WPA-like slogans, the print and out-of-home work was reminiscent of a country getting back to work. These were real people, the real workers of Braddock. We wanted the feeling to be intimate and real.
The film To Work was made with John Hillcoat. We wanted to make this uplifting and inspiring. The morning of getting to work in Braddock. We hoped to get a spirit of determination and hope into the film. Especially with the ending. In fact, the last shot of going through the door out into the street was a tip of the hat to John Ford's film The Searchers. In the film, John Wayne walks out the door into the American frontier that is Monument Valley. In our film, we walk out into the frontier that is Braddock. This coincides with the line of voice-over that says, "Frontiers are all around us."
DF: The team was inspired by documentary film and photography and the honest depiction of like as it is, and how we work within it. Certainly there is a Robert Frank-ness, if you will, to this type of raw-yet-artful documentation...seemingly timeless. And even a reverence for Richard Avedon and the raw respect in his American West portraiture as he crossed the country shooting coal miners, beekeepers and many underexposed workers, etc. in 1979. The creatives worked with Melodie McDaniel to reveal the Braddock people in their real environments with the work wear that reflects their genuine life and "work." And much of this documentation has a modern energy to it, beyond just portraiture, capturing the optimism of Go Forth. Ultimately the work of rebuilding Braddock and the documentation of that, was a really powerful confluence. Additionally the product was looked at in a very honest manner (photographer: Alexandra Rowley). Not precious or perfect, but laid out, full of texture and "tale." The details are pulled out as well. And to see the product in an almost museum style, but raw and rugged, felt really complementary to the documentary black-and-white shots.

What about that voice-over...?

DF: The voice was inspired by the notion of a youthful, open-eyed narrative observer; a child's voice that is so real and uneven and open to possibilities, unaffected by the difficulty of what is, and optimistic about what can be. It felt like a refreshing and objective storyteller in a landscape of often overbearing, preachy voices.

Was the client hesitant to do something this...real? Or was there a "social good" mandate from the get-go? Obviously this sort of bold move opens Levi's up to charges of hypocrisy (in the face of offshore manufacturing, etc.) and puts its business practices under a microscope. Was that factored in going into this campaign?

TW: Levi's was interested in provoking the conversation about foreign manufacturing. The company faces this issue every day and is looking for new ways to approach this. However, the idea of doing something real was always compelling to them. They knew that only Levi's could tackle such a project. It was directly consistent with the ethos of the brand and its history and future. We flew to Pennsylvania to meet Mayor Fetterman. Doug Sweeny and Len Peltier from Levi's came with us. We met with the mayor, and he took us around town and introduced us to all kinds of people living and working in Braddock. It was inspiring as well as shocking. Life was not easy in this town.
Mayor Fetterman explained the need for putting windows into the community center. It was cold in the winter and the center needed insulation and other work. We agreed that this would be the starting point of the collaboration. A community center for the community of Braddock. The relationship started there.
DF: The client was very much on board at the outset. And the process was one where, often, you could not differentiate between W+K people and the Levi's core team, given the level of passion, conviction and accountability. This is a difficult thing to find in an agency/client relationship. Everyone felt very involved and like his or her work/job/vision was at stake, if something was not managed with intention and care. The agency and client also developed an unprecedentedly respectful and powerful connection with Mayor John and the people of Braddock. Levi's separately is very focused on doing good and working to continually be active, on the ground and accountable. It's part of their innovation, as well as their heritage.

What have the response/results been (from a consumer-feedback POV and sales/marketing goal POV)?

TW: The campaign has received a lot of attention. Of course, the first question is, "Will Levi's open a factory in Braddock?" More on that soon. It's a bit too early to judge the results of the sales as yet. The story of the town and Levi's collaboration has brought a lot of attention to Braddock.

Will there be a follow-up campaign?

Yes. We will return to Braddock this summer. Watch this space.

Do you see more clients building social responsibility into their marketing efforts in the coming year(s)?

TW: Companies are in many ways citizens of this planet. Their behavior impacts all of us. When companies, brands and businesses realize that, they can use their resources to improve things. Some companies set up a social responsibility area for some of their work. Other companies, such as Levi's, can put social responsibility directly into their work. They can make it a priority.
DF: Yes. Clients see the need, just as the consumer expects, to be responsible and transparent. People easily "find things out" these days, and if you can't be accountable and additionally strive to make positive change in yourself as a company and in the world, there will be great consequences.

Rob Thompson, Creative Director

The spots in the campaigns vary in approach and tone – what, if anything, unites all the Target work?

RT: I believe the pursuit of honesty is what unites our body of work. Together with our clients, we constantly search for the real connections the brand has with the people who shop in their stores. Lucky for us all, there are as many stories as there are products on Target's shelves, so our work inherently has a wide range of tones and executions. Even luckier, we have clients who embrace our culture of pushing boundaries wholeheartedly. It's a ton of fun to work on a piece of business that lets us be smart, silly, sincere and everything in between with creative partners who enjoy the ride as much as we do.

Target has, in the past, been known for doing some "creative," design leaning work. As mentioned in your entry, an economic downturn made it more important to be more accessible-seeming. Was there a challenge in maintaining that creative legacy (the vibe of Target being just a little nicer..) while creating that more "honest, human voice."? Or did you want to distance the brand from that previous identity?

RT: With a brand as historically successful as Target, the task is one of evolution not revolution. We feel lucky to have such a rich history of great work to use as a springboard to move this brand forward. We especially love Target's legacy as the store that democratized design in America, both as their agency and as consumers. Yes, during the dark days of the economic downturn we all recognized that shoppers had to think of every purchase with a "price first" filter, but I think a large part of Target's success in weathering that storm was the fact that value for this brand means "great stuff at great prices," not "cheap stuff, period."

What was the impetus behind the Xmas soundtrack campaign?

RT: When we began talking with our clients about the 2010 Christmas campaign, we collectively decided that this year we didn't want to just be another brand telling people to be merry. Instead, we wanted to try to actually make them merry. So the idea of Target giving the public a Christmas present was born. The leap from there to making our gift to the world an album of new, original and modern Holiday music happened quite naturally. The Target brand has a decades-long connection with music, so it was a natural fit. Plus, on so many levels it answered a question we love to ask about our work: "Who else but Target would do this?"

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