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Wieden & Kennedy Is Ad Age's Agency of the Year

It's Always Been About the Work -- and Nike. But These Days, the Indie Shop Is Forging Fruitful Relationships With Target, P&G, Chrysler and Others

By Published on . 17

THE WINNING TEAM: (Clockwise from front left): Global Interactive Executive Creative Director Iain Tait; Global Exec Creative Director John Jay ; co-Exec Creative Director Susan Hoffman; co-founder and global Exec Creative Director Dan Wieden; and co-Exec Creative Director Mark Fitzloff.
THE WINNING TEAM: (Clockwise from front left): Global Interactive Executive Creative Director Iain Tait; Global Exec Creative Director John Jay ; co-Exec Creative Director Susan Hoffman; co-founder and global Exec Creative Director Dan Wieden; and co-Exec Creative Director Mark Fitzloff. Credit: Ray Gordon
Call it a two-fer, a double-double, snake eyes. For the first time, Ad Age and Creativity are honoring the same top shop. And for good reason. When it came to bold idea-making and strong execution, nobody did it like this Portland, Ore.-based stalwart. Couple that with its newfound mettle in building strong client bonds and it won the business case, too.

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- "My dad was in this business and I thought it was the most whorish thing a man could do," Dan Wieden said, perfectly seriously. "He was working late at night and trying to be nice to people he didn't like and he'd sell people stuff. It felt like one of the lower callings."

But sometimes, a man must admit his mistakes. In 2010, Wieden & Kennedy did a bit of that, too. The indie network has always been admired for its passion and ironclad hold on the biggest running shoe brand, Nike. But save its founding client, the agency hasn't been known for tight relationships, and it took a hard look in the mirror to realize the shop needed to improve on that important part of the equation.

Not that the shop is suddenly deciding to join the 4A's, or that it would ever consider relinquishing its independent status. Mr. Wieden is firm that he sees no reason to join an agency trade group, and on the subject of acquisition said, "We'll blow this thing up before we sell." But Wieden & Kennedy has found it can remain counterculture and still change course.

"For a long time there, we didn't understand why every client wouldn't come from the same perspective ... we learned that not every client was Nike," said Mr. Wieden. "We have a bunch of clients now that we're really in sync with."

The engine of growth for the Wieden this year was undoubtedly its Oregon headquarters, but it's an exciting time for other parts of the micronetwork too. Late last year, the agency added a crucial dot on the map with the opening of a Sao Paulo, Brazil office just in time for the Olympics and the World Cup. Its Delhi office led Wieden's move into publishing by launching India's version of The New Yorker. Stateside, the oft-rocky New York office has been getting a refresh under new managing director Neal Arthur, and is moving the needle for clients such as ESPN and Delta. Mr. Wieden is again confident about the hub's prospects. "The Delta business has really livened that office up and given us new credibility with really complicated business propositions."

Target 's brand was known for a cheap-chic positioning that led consumers to treat the retailer more like a department store than a go-to for lower priced goods. One problem: When the economy sank, consumers feared the store was more expensive than it actually was. To regain foot traffic, Wieden embraced the low prices but meshed them with a lighthearted, human voice.

The work it produced in 2010 -- which ranged from humorous spots pegged to the series finale of "Lost" to comedian Maria Bamford playing a demented shopper -- hit the bull's-eye. The agency's business with Target has now quadrupled, leading the retailer to officially name Wieden its lead agency. That's historic for a marketer that previously preferred to cherry-pick partners.

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"We have gotten smarter and more disciplined in how we bring clients to market," said Tom Blessington, managing director of Wieden's Portland office. "We challenged ourselves of late, that if we want different answers we have to ask different questions. That's why you're seeing the closeness between Wieden & Kennedy and its clients, and the trust."

As in the case of Target , most of Wieden's big wins last year came from its current roster.

"The success of this agency has always been organic in nature," said Mr. Blessington. "We do not do well in pitches that include pitch consultants. I think it's because when a pitch consultant gets involved, you bring in an intermediary who is engineering a process. And that's not a good thing for an agency that's more organic in its approach ... we are not slick by any stretch of the imagination."

Indeed, slickness is nowhere in the DNA of the agency Mr. Wieden, at the time coming off a freelancing gig at McCann, co-founded in 1982 with David Kennedy. "I went, Jesus, this advertising thing is pretty darn interesting. It was like doing crossword puzzles for a living." When Nike agreed to be the shop's founding client, its total ad budget was $1.2 million, and, astonishingly, the footwear company wouldn't permit any ad to be run more than once.

In 2010 the agency was tasked with helping Nike address the messes created by two of its biggest athlete endorsers -- Tiger Woods' infidelities to his wife and LeBron James' less-than-graceful exit from Cleveland. The TV spots for each generated tons of talk value and millions of media impressions. The all black-and-white "Earl and Tiger" saw the athlete questioned by his departed father, while the more cheeky "Rise" showed Mr. James donning a "Miami Vice" suit and asking the public, "What should I do?"

"It is not about making ads," Todd Pendleton, global director-brand communications at Nike, told Ad Age. "It is about serving the needs of athletes and making a deep personal connection with them. Good work is not good enough. We are our own worst critics and we push each other daily to be better. Taking risks and evolving our creative approach to stay ahead of the constantly changing media, digital and TV landscape unites us as client-agency partners."

A much newer client for the agency is Chrysler, which invited Wieden to pitch work for Dodge that was so well-received it wound up launching on last year's Super Bowl.

Satisfied with the results, the automaker went back to Wieden to handle Chrysler's important rollout of the year, the new Jeep Grand Cherokee. "'The Things We Make, Make Us' has resonated very well on a macro level as well as internally," said Olivier Francois, president-CEO, Chrysler Brand. "The sales have demonstrated the consumer's positive reaction."

"I admire their strategic thinking and they have a strong desire to protect the truth in communicating the brand values and objectives, while keeping a unique voice in a crowded market," Mr. Francois said. "It is unlike the traditional client-agency relationship." "Quite honestly, they're very much like us. They're very honest and can be unpredictable," Mr. Wieden said. "Chrysler is so much fun."

A descriptor like that isn't one that most agencies that have historically worked with Chrysler would use; the carmaker is known to be a notoriously finicky client. But Wieden seems to have found a kindred spirit of sorts. "We're just as crazy as they are and that's one of the reason it works," Mr. Wieden said. "We're both such odd ducks."

And then there was Old Spice, by far the most talked about work of 2010.

Creativity
See work from Wieden & Kennedy on Creativity.

"If you told me six or seven years ago that some of the best work this agency would do would be for Procter & Gamble, I'd think you have a drug problem," Mr. Wieden said.

For its history, the packaged-goods giant has relied on vetting and copy-testing every marketing execution for every brand under the P&G umbrella. But its Old Spice "Responses" campaign that lit up the social-media sphere during 48 hours last July eschewed that norm -- and became the digital hit of the year.

What's different with Wieden is there's no need to hold the agency's hand, James Moorhead, the soft-spoken brand manager for Old Spice, told Ad Age recently at the company's Boston beauty and grooming headquarters.

"Our team has developed chemistry over time together, and trust," Mr. Moorhead said. "One of the best things about our relationship is how strong the trust is between us. When we have a great idea, we can sit down and set parameters and guidelines of how we want to operate as a group, so we can walk into a situation where we can do something like the 'Response' campaign and get really excited about it from both sides; they can create and we can connect with consumers in new and exciting ways. I got up each morning just excited to see what was going to be created every day."

Advertising Age Embedded Player
Videography: Steve Raddock
James Moorhead, brand manager, Old Spice, talks about working with Wieden & Kennedy.

Old Spice is now the No. 1 most-subscribed to brand on YouTube, on its way to 2 billion impressions since its February Super Bowl spot. And since that time, body-wash sales are up 50% -- not without the help of other efforts, like couponing -- but the buzz around the Isaiah Mustafa-starring "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign has had a halo effect on sales of other Old Spice products too, such as deodorant, which is up between 10% and 20% over last year.

"For long, [clients] saw us only as a left-brain solution," Mr. Blessington said. "Clients are seeing the strength of the left brain coupled with the right brain. We weren't the easy option. It's a point of pride that I think we're an easier option now."

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