How Dan Wieden Learned to Fail -- And Other Advice For Small Agencies

Says Creative Firms Are Poised to Succeed in Uncertain Times

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Dan Wieden remembers the moment in his life that he stopped being afraid of failure.

It was early in his career and he had tried for five years to get kicked out of Georgia-Pacific, the conservative paper-products company. When they finally obliged, he said he felt like his life had collapsed.

Dan Wieden speaks to attendees at Ad Age's Small Agency Conference
Dan Wieden speaks to attendees at Ad Age's Small Agency Conference

He recalls sitting in his car in the parking lot afterward, being ashamed that he had worked so hard to create problems in a company he wanted to leave because he didn't have the guts to make that choice himself. He had two kids and one more on the way and thought, what have I done? "I felt worthless and professionally embarrassed," he said.

When he went home and faced his wife, who was in the middle of folding diapers, she looked up and said, "Well, something will turn up."

Those five words changed his life, he said, giving him permission to fail.

After he started Wieden & Kennedy in 1982, he sought to inspire others to do the same. He shared a story about two young creatives he had hired who had great talent but were intimidated by office life -- to the point that they were afraid to come out of their office. He said to them, "You ladies are no good to me or anyone else until you make three gigantic mistakes, so let's get on with it."

Today, 119,000 plastic pushpins tacked to a wall at Wieden's Portland headquarters spell out the mantra: "Fail Harder."

Another icon at the office? A life-size mannequin with a blender for a head. A sign on its briefcase reminds employees as they enter the agency: Walk in stupid every morning.

Mr. Wieden explained: "While you were sleeping, the world you're now inhabiting has changed somehow. It might be a big change, a small change, but don't assume anything. ... Find out what's going on with your partners, with clients."

The problem, he said, isn't not having a point of view but rather that most people have a point of view that isn't based on reality -- and the reason we become so attached to our point of view is because we can't stand uncertainty. "It means feeling lost," he said, then quoted a piece of wisdom from Colin Powell, who often told his people: "Tell me what you know, then tell me what you don't know, only then can you tell me what you think."

He emphasized that it's a time of great uncertainty in the marketing space.

"Giant agencies are wobbling like drunkards… the rest of you should be sharpening your knives," he said.

He likened the current cycle of change to the effect the birth of TV was had on the industry back in the "Mad Men" era, with digital upheaval is unleashing typical pattern of technological change: resistance, acceptance and innovation. And creative people are poised to take advantage of it, Mr. Wieden noted.

"Our most valuable assets as individuals and agencies and society is our ability to lead a creative life and a life that can not only adapt to change but that can influence change," he said.

The secret to Wieden's success is its creative culture, which has been enhanced by everyone who ever worked there, he said. And then recalled how that young creative, once so afraid to fail, on the occasion of the Wieden's 10th anniversary described her time at the agency as a dream. "...I see images of future rapid change, the kind that makes your head spin and sucks your breath away. I see images of creativity that surpasses my own wildest imagination. And in addition to this blurry exotic, high-volume stew of images and emotions, I see four corny, sappy, overly sentimental, trite, Norman Rockwellian images very clear: steadfastness, courage, faith and abiding love. I can't describe my memories of Wieden & Kennedy any better than that."

"Oh, how I wish this agency was 10 years old, small once again. Oh how we wish we were you," he said to the audience, in closing.

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