Wieden+Kennedy promotes Karl Lieberman to chief creative officer in leadership shakeup
Independent agency Wieden+Kennedy is undergoing some significant leadership changes in the new year, seemingly placing more responsibility into the hands of its not-so fledgling New York office.
Effective Jan. 1, W+K New York Executive Creative Director Karl Lieberman and Managing Director Neal Arthur, who are both also agency stakeholders, are moving into larger roles. Arthur will become chief operating officer and Lieberman chief creative officer of the entire eight-office global agency. They will lead W+K alongside Colleen DeCourcy, who retains her global chief creative officer title but will go forward as the agency's sole president.
DeCourcy has been serving as co-president alongside Tom Blessington, who will take over from Dave Luhr as chairman. W+K said Luhr will retire at the end of the year.
Portland, Oregon-based W+K operates offices in Amsterdam, Delhi, London, New York, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Tokyo. The agency reported 1,522 worldwide employees at year-end 2019, according to Ad Age Datacenter, but laid off 11% of its staff in July due to client cutbacks from the pandemic.
"Neal and Karl have been both disruptive and respectful in the way they have pushed on the agency, and that kind of friction puts energy into this place," DeCourcy said in a statement to Ad Age. "They are obsessed with building an internal culture that supports everyone in their pursuit of great work and personal growth. They’ve brought enormous value to marketers and brands through trust and true partnership. Their work breaks through in culture, repeatedly. It works in this very real world in which we live. This change is not just about these two. Neal and Karl represent our desire to do more with this culture than just make ads. Because It’s not about what it is; it’s about what it can become."
DeCourcy and Blessington were named co-presidents of the agency in 2018, at the time absorbing the chief creative officer and chief operating officer roles, respectively. Blessington had returned to W+K from YouTube at that time, having worked at W+K on and off since 1990. He has served in various leadership roles at W+K, including managing director of the Portland office for 11 years before he left briefly to lead brand, media and experiences for YouTube in 2017.
When DeCourcy and Blessington became co-presidents, Luhr, as well as Susan Hoffman, moved into chairperson roles. A W+K spokesperson said Hoffman, who also once was chief creative officer alongside DeCourcy, has since transitioned to global creative director.
Luhr meanwhile has been with W+K since 1986, when he joined to run its flagship Nike account. At that time, the four-year-old shop had a staff of just 30 people and a single office in Portland. Luhr would later serve as managing director of Portland and became one of the agency’s first partners and stakeholders.
"It’s time to hand over my chairman seat to Tom," Luhr said in a statement. "He has been instrumental in W+K's growth across the decades and has never failed to put the company's needs before his own. I lured him back from YouTube to W+K knowing that I could eventually retire and leave things in his capable hands."
The rise of New York
The leadership shifts seem to recognize the growing dominance of W+K's New York office, which no longer operates in the shadows of the Portland hub. Ad Age named W+K its 2020 A-List Agency of the Year in large part because of the 2019 success of its star New York office.
The New York office was founded as a media shop in 1995 before going full service in 1997, and spent years focused on its primary client, ESPN. That changed about four years ago, under the leadership of Arthur and Lieberman.
It is unclear who will take charge of the New York office, with Arthur and Lieberman stepping into larger agency-wide roles. A W+K spokesperson says that "for the forseeable future," the duo will remain in New York and be "just as involved" in that office's business "as they have been."
It is unclear how Lieberman and Arthur's new global responsibilities, while concurrently managing the New York office, will impact the supposed church-and-state separation of the New York and Portland offices. W+K maintained that separation was key when its New York office won McDonald's U.S. creative account in 2019, which would otherwise have been at odds with its Portland office's KFC client. The W+K spokesperson insists Arthur and Lieberman "won't cross over the firewall."
Lieberman joined W+K as a copywriter in 2008, in its Portland office. While there, he helped create acclaimed campaigns like P&G's tear-jerker “Thank You, Mom” Olympics work and “The Return of the Colonel” for KFC. He was moved to New York as executive creative in 2016.
Before W+K, Lieberman spent time at TBWA\Chiat\Day, Mother and Euro RSCG (now Havas), where he co-created the iconic "Most Interesting Man in the World” character for Dos Equis.
"Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t even get an interview at Wieden, so to find myself in this position is as surreal as it is awesome," Lieberman said in a statement. "This place has always pushed me. When I came to Portland, they made me switch from art direction to copywriting. When I finally got comfortable with the idea of being a copywriter, they made me a creative director. When I finally settled into Portland, they moved me to New York. Now it’s my turn to help give more people the opportunities, inspiration, and confidence Wieden has given me over the years."
Arthur came to W+K in 2005 and was the head of strategic planning in New York before becoming managing director of that office in 2010. W+K credited Arthur with doubling the office's revenue since joining, significantly expanding its client roster and attracting global talent to build it out to its current headcount of 300 people.
Over the past four consecutive years, Arthur and Lieberman are credited with leading the office to deliver record revenue growth and adding major brands—Ford, McDonald’s, Michelob Ultra, Kraft Heinz and Duracell—to the client roster. They also helped New York expand ts relationship with Bud Light and HBO in 2019. Notable work out of the New York office includes Bud Light's popular "Dilly Dilly" catchphrase; OkCupid’s provactive “DTF" work; The Atlantic's "Question Your Answers" campaign that has gotten involvement from HBO as well as actors Jeffrey Wright and Michael K. Williams; and McDonald's order partnerships with music artists Travis Scott and J Balvin.
"W+K has played a huge role in our lives because it's not just a place or a job," Arthur added. "It's a culture that has allowed us to be ourselves, to speak up, and use the work to say something. We feel incredibly lucky to be in a position to help others do the same."