How Did Dan Wieden Build His Empire? He's Not Quite Sure

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Dan Wieden
Dan Wieden Credit: Nathan Skid and David Hall

The best thing that could have happened to Dan Wieden was when Phil Knight introduced himself with the words, "I'm Phil Knight and I don't believe in advertising."

At first, Dan and his agency partner, David Kennedy, thought they had better keep looking for clients for their new agency when they opened Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Ore., in 1982. But they soon realized that Knight, the founder of Nike, was really saying, "I don't want anything that tastes or looks like advertising," Dan told me in a video interview before he was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame. "Phil said, 'I want to make an honest, powerful relationship with good people.' That's what we've tried to do."

Nike and W&K grew up together, a duo that went on to make some of the country's most enduring ads.

But it wasn't so at the beginning. Dan laughed that he and David "did some really bad advertising in the early days. Kennedy came from this group of rascals in Chicago. They would get fired from every agency and keep going onto the next one. They would only do good work. That was also a really helpful thing for me to have, a partner with that deep experience and that rebel inside of him. I felt very much like that myself."

Dan, who has handed day-to-day operation of the agency to Colleen DeCourcy and Dave Luhr, told me that back then he "really didn't give a shit where the advertising business was going. I was trying to figure out where we were going. … When we first started off, we couldn't afford to hardly get anyone that was experienced, or if they were they were people that had been fired everywhere."

Most of the people they hired "were fresh out of school, and so it was kind of a bunch of crazy people. ... It was a ship of fools, and we … were not going to be like anyone else out there. That was the promise we gave clients."

What happened, I asked Dan, if clients thought they were going to get a different kind of advertising than you gave them? Dan said they've been forced to fire clients.

"When there's not a relationship that's healthy for either side, it's just painful, and it doesn't help the cause for either one of us. But we don't wear it as a big badge of honor that we've fired clients."

Do clients support great advertising as much as they once did? Dan said you don't sell more products "by just explaining all of the nice things about them. People want to fall in love with something. Once they fall in love, then they have a relationship, and they'll keep coming back. If the client's smart, he'll keep making things provocative himself. We just play middleman."

W&K has become the industry's biggest independent agency and employs about 1,400 people in eight offices around the world. It's likely a tempting takeover target, but Dan was never interested in selling—or buying.

In fact, he signed a legal document saying that he will never sell.

If there's one thing that drives Dan "crackers," it's the lack of diversity in the business. "It's a shame. It's a bloody damn shame that people of color are not more involved in-depth in this industry." Dan said Wieden & Kennedy has increased its diversity quite dramatically, "but we are not there yet. I'm not raising a flag on that. It still bothers me to this day."

Dan started Caldera, a program to hire minority young people including African-Americans and Native Americans. When the agency moved into its current building in Portland, Dan said he realized it was employing a lot of white middle-class kids who were kind of dipping into the culture of the inner city, wrapping it around some products and selling it back to the inner city. "That just seemed fucked up."

That's when he became devoted to getting people of color into the industry, and also realized that "there's a bunch of kids living in the inner city of Portland, and also back on the reservations on the other side of the mountain, and the small towns, where there's a lot of poverty."

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Caldera. The program has brought in creative people and environmentalists, and "these kids have just blossomed." The kids go on to college, and W&K hires some of them when they graduate.

"Part of our big push is to make sure people in the inner city, especially people of color, understand this is a game they should be playing. This is a lot of fun, and you can make a lot of money and you can do a lot of good things."

I pressed Dan one more time on why he says he will never sell his agency. I reminded him he could make a jillion dollars.

"It's not about money."

What is it about then? "It's about creating a place where people could live up to their potential. You and I know what happens when somebody sells. It's no secret. What they do is come in and give a big chunk of money to about five people who walk off with a gazillion dollars. In order to do that, they come in and they cut the staff, and you've just killed an agency."

Not that he's afraid of failure. "We have a wall about as big as this room that says 'fail harder.' This isn't like it might be good to fail. It's like a mandate. You have to fail. You're not good to me until you've completely screwed up."

Dan says "the most satisfaction and what I'm most proud of is the culture we all have created at this place. That's just not in Portland, Oregon. It's in New York and it's in Europe and it's in Asia, South America and India. If you go into any one of our offices, you will find there is something going on that is very similar. I don't know how that happens, but there's a sense of freedom and really a stretch just to do something wonderful."

And Dan added: "Just between you and me, I do not understand how this happened. I really truly do not."

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