Wieden's horizons

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[portland, ore.] On behalf of then-client Microsoft Corp., Dan Wieden and his agency asked the world, "Where do you want to go today?" Ask that question now of Mr. Wieden -- stretched out on the couch in his new office where glass walls show off Portland's skyline, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helen's in the distance -- and his answer, in effect, is to change the world of advertising. It's a world he sees as stuck in pretense, self-consciousness and a tired, old relationship with the consumer.

The marketplace, he says, is "a microcosm of what it means to be human . . . fundamentally where people define relations," and the Internet is shattering that marketplace and how relationships within it are defined.

Mr. Wieden this week officially takes the first step in developing that new relationship, as he stages a party for the opening of Wieden & Kennedy's new offices, a block-square building in Portland's trendy Pearl District. Here, he and his partners invested $20 million-plus to turn a former fish and vegetable cold storage warehouse into the creative hub of the global agency network of the future -- one intended to be on the creative cutting edge not just in traditional media but also in new media.

LABOR OF LOVE

The new building, a labor of love for the past three years, is a metaphor for the direction in which Mr. Wieden is taking the agency -- toward more openness, exposure and input from the outside world. To that end, the space has as its hub a womblike "genesis center," a 275-seat amphitheater where the agency regularly brings in artists, celebrities and other noontime speakers. The building's atrium also is used for performances by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. The group rents a portion of the building under a subsidized arrangement with Wieden, which donated more than $1 million to the institute for art exhibits and other installations.

"It's a platform to take off from," Mr. Wieden says, referring to the building and to Portland itself as a kind of creative hothouse away from the trendy influences of other, more cosmopolitan centers. Although Mr. Wieden has been praised by Portland's mayor for moving one of the city's high-profile businesses to an emerging district, Mr. Wieden says, "I don't think we're driven to this with some sense of civic duty. I just want to be left the f*** alone and do our own thing," he says, putting a new spin on Garbo.

NOMAD COMPANY

To ward off the corrupting influences of the creative agendas of others, the space lacks a display case for awards. What is displayed, Mr. Wieden says, is real art, including a 24-foot totem pole.

From this space, Mr. Wieden will build his new independent global agency, one he says he doesn't want to sell. His plan is to manage its hub-and-spoke system of expansion and client management, working globally for clients such as Nike and search engine AltaVista Co. while also adding clients in each of the company's five markets.

The offices in Amsterdam, London, New York and Tokyo work well as a recruiting tool, offering employees the opportunity to work in far-away locations for two or three years. "We are a company of nomads," says Liz Hartge, director of public relations.

For most of its 18-year history, Wieden & Kennedy was located in a 19th century building -- which originally had housed a department store -- that grew into a meandering labyrinth of offices overlooking a six-story atrium. There, the agency's billings blossomed to its current $782 million with a handful of big, name-brand clients including Nike, Coca-Cola Co., ESPN, Miller Brewing Co. and Microsoft (all but Microsoft remain clients).

But the place itself began to grow old. Nike executives felt the agency was not as sharp as it needed to be, and in recent years Wieden lost some major accounts. Microsoft -- under fire for monopolistic practices and reeling from a public persona that borders on cold and arrogant -- pulled its $100 million-plus account from Wieden in June 1999, giving it to McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York and San Franciso. Two months later, Miller moved a $60 million piece of its Miller Genuine Draft business to J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago.

The events set off layoffs; a restructuring; and focus on an activity Wieden previously never really needed to master -- new business.

"They're in a new place," says Catherine Bension, president of Select Resources International, referring to the agency's physical location as well as its outlook.

For the first time, the agency has a coordinator for new business, Ms. Bension says, and its traditionally casual take on new business has been replaced with a more button-down approach.

The new-business venture was well timed with the Internet revolution, with the agency picking up wireless communications company Scout Electromedia, a $25 million account, and a handful of dot-coms, such as home delivery service Homegrocer.com, as well as a couple that came and went: Stamps.com and eVineyards. Wieden this week also picks up the $25 million account of San Francisco investment management company Robertson Stephens.

Mr. Wieden says he clearly sees the problems with Internet clients. "They are so market-sensitive, they put incredible strain on themselves and us when it comes down to creating a brand," he says. "Creating a brand takes some degree of patience."

Still, the agency is looking to innovate in the Internet space, Mr. Wieden says, by integrating the Internet into mainstream campaigns, rather than solely through acquisition of dot-com clientele. Its whatever.com campaign, for example, asked viewers of Nike spots to go to a Web site to select a series of scenarios depicting how they wanted the spot to end.

While Mr. Wieden appreciates the openness of the new space, he grumbles that to fill the building, he needs about 200 new employees (there are now 450 globally) and the clients to support them. Still, Mr. Wieden acknowledges that his shop is not for every client. "We're looking for a partnership of like-minded individuals," he says, adding that wouldn't necessarily involve a brand name client.

BRAND SEDUCTION

"Sometimes you can get seduced by a brand name," Mr. Wieden says, noting a brand's power often is "merely testament to what some group of people did some time ago, and may not be true today."

With Wieden hunting -- not just for new business but also for talent -- creative competitors are watchful. "It is still looked at as one of the coolest places," says Jeff Goodby, principal and co-creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco.

TBWA/Chiat/Day's Carisa Bianchi, president-CEO of the San Francisco office, says "Wieden is still one of the top three" creative shops.

But other agency executives aren't as positive about Wieden.

"If the pitch is a creative shootout, they should be feared," says an executive from a competing shop, but not necessarily "when it comes to a well-thought-out, cover-all-the-bases pitch."

Wieden's achievements for Nike might not necessarily benefit the shop, said another. "Wieden is built just for Nike," says the executive. The agency organization, and its advertising solution, "doesn't necessarily work for anything else."

A former employee notes that the agency didn't make Select Resources' finalist list on two recent pitches, Iomega and DirecTV. "They're in the process of reinventing themselves as they gear up for the inevitable," the ex-Wieden creative says.

That inevitable: How to plan for the succession of Mr. Wieden, 55, described as "a `renaissance man' kind of guy, interested in so many things. He'll quote the Koran or talk about extra-terrestrials or Indian philosophy." That's not the kind of creative leader who can be easily replaced.

Mr. Wieden doesn't buy that. Michael Jordan, he says, was the greatest basketball player of all time, and nobody thought he could be replaced. Then came Vince Carter.

"Here's a kid who comes out and starts playing," he says.

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