ICONOCLAST WIEDEN SEEKS ADS THAT COMMUNICATE HONESTLY

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For a man who has presided over work admired by agency creative people around the world -- and has, in turn, helped make Nike a truly global brand -- it's somewhat surprising to learn Dan Wieden, one of the most publicity-shy people in the business, has spent his entire career in Portland, Ore.

Mr. Wieden, 52, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is a second-generation adman who, by several accounts, is unmoved by the trappings of fame and largely unconcerned with how the industry judges him.

PURITY OF PURPOSE

"There's always been a purity of purpose around Dan and his agency," said Geoffrey Frost, Nike's global advertising director. Mr. Wieden's goal has been to "create an agency where it was about the work and the ideas, not about titles or politics."

To a great extent -- and sometimes, it seems, to the agency's detriment -- he's succeeded.

"He's an iconoclast with clients, not a schmoozer," said Larry Frey, an associate creative director at Wieden & Kennedy. "That's what I love about him and hate about advertising; that is, his complete disinterest in bullshitting people as a substitute for knuckling down and cranking out great ads."

"Money, ego, self-promotion, that's not what drives him," added Joe McCarthy, currently a creative consultant and Mr. Frost's predecessor at Nike. Mr. Wieden, he said, is a man who loves his trade "and would do it if he was cobbling ads off by himself somewhere."

FIRST CLIENT: NIKE

Mr. Wieden, a copywriter, formed the agency in 1982 with David Kennedy, an art director with whom he was partnered at the Portland office of McCann-Erickson Worldwide. Their first client was Nike, an account they shared initially with Chiat/Day before taking over the business exclusively in the mid-1980s.

Mr. Kennedy retired from the agency in early 1995.

It's hard to get a fix on what kind of philosophy Mr. Wieden brings to his work, but creatives who have worked for him said he puts great importance on finding messages that resonate with genuine honesty, either in terms of the information they convey or the attitude they embody.

Mr. Frey recalled a recent meeting during which Mr. Wieden described an exercise he used to do as a young writer, imagining himself as an actor getting into a role: "He said, your character represents a company. Now, how do you speak in a convincing, honest way so that people would believe you or be moved by you?"

Despite its creative reputation, Mr. Wieden's agency faces challenges, particularly with Nike. Mr. McCarthy believes Mr. Wieden is struggling with where to take the shop, how to make it grow with its big blue-chip clients -- which now include Coca-Cola Co. and Microsoft Corp. -- and how the culture is going to have to change as a result of that.

A MORE PUBLIC ROLE?

Mr. Wieden was in London recently, interviewing potential creative partners for Art Director Susan Hoffman, who will head up the London office. Some believe the agency's expansion plans will force Mr. Wieden to assume a more public role in the industry.

He'll do that "only if he feels there's a reason to do it, not because other agency heads do it," said Mr. McCarthy, adding that Mr. Wieden only went to the International Advertising Festival in Cannes in 1994 when Nike boss Phil Knight was named advertiser of the year because he wanted to raise the agency's profile there. "He wanted the best young talent in Europe to want to work for the agency.

"Being in Advertising Age or on the cover of Fortune is not important to him," Mr. McCarthy said, "unless it can help make the agency a better creative resource."

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