And then, of course, there was the Old Spice "Response" campaign,
the universally lauded and envied social-media phenomenon that
featured Isaiah Mustafa, "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,"
speaking directly to web commenters both famous and anonymous. The
campaign combined core W&K competencies -- great storytelling,
a flair for execution and a sense of current culture -- with the
kind of modern grasp of media behavior that comes with fresh eyes
and new skill sets.
Like all of W&K's best work of last year, it embodied the
agency's character, yet it surprised.
Given the enormous success of that campaign, the choice of
W&K, Portland, doesn't feel particularly original this year,
but it does feel overdue, and earned. What follows is a look at how
Mr. Wieden and other agency leaders thought about W&K's digital
imperative, and how they went about evolving the shop for a new
THE OVERNIGHT TRANSFORMATION
When cornerstone client Nike moved its running business to CP&B
in 2007 for reasons directly related to the agency's relative
digital acumen, W&K became the industry's favorite cautionary
tale of creative calcification.
Unarguably, the shop had a monster legacy of spot storytelling,
and its culture of traditional ad excellence did act as a kind of
ironic roadblock to evolving for a changing media landscape.
But it should be remembered that W&K also had a streak of
originality and innovation that was a significant part of the
shop's M.O. and that made the shop's narratives seem consistently
fresh. Many of the wider network's efforts over the past 10 years
demonstrated an understanding of how to engage audiences beyond the
ad. The agency was an early innovator in branded content, creating
the MTV show "Nike Battlegrounds" in 2001 and the well-received
Nike site whatever.com in 1999.
The New York office created one of the earliest and best
brand-backed alternate reality games with "Beta 7" for Sega. More
recently, the agency won kudos for its integrated campaign for the
film "Coraline," and, pre-Mustafa, the Swaggerize Me site for Old
But all acknowledge that there were false starts, failures and
just a general lag in evolving the creative culture, process and
output to remain the creative beacon the agency had been for most
of its 28 years.
As "the guy who was reluctant to give up my typewriter," Mr.
Wieden admits that it took him, and the agency, a long time to
really understand change that the digital age represented.
"You think of these things as incremental and suddenly you wake
up and say, it's not an incremental change," said Mr. Wieden. "It's
a complete psychological shift in the way people relate to one
another." It made Wieden start thinking about the digital
revolution in terms of the agency's historical strengths. "I
thought, that's what we're good at -- one of the things we've
always brought to the marketplace is the ability to form amazing
relationships between clients and their customers. We have an
innate ability to get at what drives a company and capture that and
create that personality so it's vivid not just to the outside world
but inside the company. So when we started looking at digital as
not just a medium but as a whole different way of creating
relationships, that's when I think for me personally, I understood
the impact of what was going on."
Mr. Wieden's agency of the year challenge was a clear directive
to the shop's creative leadership to find solutions, said Executive
Creative Director Susan Hoffman. "It was the beginning of our
starting to wake up in terms of how do we really change this place;
how do we put the Wieden take on the digital world."
John Jay , the global executive creative director who moved back
to Portland in 2005 after running the agency's Tokyo office, boils
down the mandate for change as one of relevance. "Whether or not it
was about the technology, we would have to evolve," Mr. Jay said.
"It all comes down to being relevant-for people, agencies and
The overnight transformation that resulted in creative
milestones like Chalkbot and Old Spice "Response" didn't happen
overnight, of course.
Wieden had brought on Renny Gleeson as global director of
digital strategies in 2006 and at the beginning of 2010 recruited
Poke London co-founder Iain Tait as global interactive executive
creative director. In between, there was trial and error.
The agency had been recruiting digital talent all along, but
early efforts didn't always gel. "I don't think we quite understood
how difficult it was going to be," Mr. Wieden said. "We brought
digital talent into the place at various levels and tried to figure
out how to integrate them, or keep them separate or what was the
right way to do it. We struggled for quite a while. People came in
and then would leave, which wasn't helping our reputation."
An agency like W&K, known for its creative rigor and
sky-high standards, doubtless breeds ... let's' not call it
arrogance, but perhaps a healthy self-belief. Senior creatives had
to work to redirect the agency's culture and creative energy.
"If you're known for being really good at something you've got a
lot to lose by leaving that or expanding your horizons," said Mr.
Fitzloff. "Also, from a PR perspective, when we did have
[nontraditional] hits I don't know that we got enough credit for
them, because there was always other stuff we were going that got
There was a culture of skepticism at the agency, and the
creative leads felt some of the work that was being lauded in early
days of digital wasn't up to standard. "We saw a lot of gimmicks
drive digital ideas in the early days," said Mr. Fitzloff. "If
you're thinking about your job, in the simplest terms, as creating
two-way communications, if that's your filter, and you look some of
the early digital executions, they required so much time to respond
to it or to download, or to get the software on your computer so
you could interact with it; all those things that were so
completely at odds with easy two-way communication. To us those
things were sort of a waste of time."
Ms. Hoffman says it was that essential shift in approach --
seeing advertising as a conversation rather than a one-way
broadcast -- that really, finally ushered in the new era at the
agency. At that point, Ms. Hoffman said the agency started finding
new people and finding a new dialog.
"It was getting enough people speaking the language and
understanding it," Ms. Hoffman said. "When there were only a few
people speaking that language it was frustrating for them."
To Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Fitzloff, it was critical that existing
"traditional" creatives felt at least conversant in that new
language. "I think what helped was a little window of time where
people who were already there with a traditional media background
got to have a few experiences on their own that were successful,"
said Mr. Fitzloff. "I don't think it would have worked for an
outsider to come in and just preach about the right way to do this.
It was about learning the tool box ourselves and then bringing
That process unfolded before the agency added some of its most
significant digital leaders, people such as Seth Weisfeld, an
interactive creative director who joined from Bartle Bogle Hegarty,
and, of course, Iain Tait.
"Those earlier projects have us self confidence so we were more
open to hearing what they had to say," Mr. Fitzloff said.
That confidence has meant the agency has developed a digital
mindset, but can look at the larger media picture, what Ms. Hoffman
calls "democracy of media." "It's important now that we have more
confidence that digital isn't the only part of the equation. We
look at all brands in a 360-degree sense; what's best for brand and
It's no coincidence, Mr. Fitzloff said, "that of our two biggest
digital campaigns this year, one of them -- Old Spice -- was
dependent on a TV spot, and one of them -- Chalkbot -- was
dependent on paint."
W&K's particular culture was such that models and standard
operating procedures couldn't be counted on to provide a road map
for a new era. "One of the things we're not necessarily great at in
the creative department is creating formulas for things," Mr.
Wieden said. "One of the hallmarks of the place has been
experimenting. Now there are a lot of different kinds of
relationships between digital and traditional folks. "
Ms. Hoffman said the biggest change has been the re-imagining of
the creative team. Before, of course, the idea rested solely with a
writer and art director. Now, as with most agencies, the
composition of teams varies, but there are more people involved in
what Ms. Hoffman has taken to calling the "platoon" rather than the
One major structural shift saw creatives unmoored from single
accounts and allowed to contribute to multiple teams. "Before, you
were put on an account, you sat with that core team on that
account; creatives, media, accounts, everyone," said Mr. Fitzloff.
"We were at that extreme end." Then the agency switched to a
bullpen approach; talent was pooled so that a writer or a
technologist or media person or interaction designer might work on
any number of accounts, as team leaders pulled from the pool to
create bespoke teams for each account.
That shift made hiring a broader range of nontraditional talent
more practical, said Mr. Fitzloff. "If you're a creative director
and you only have three people working on your account, it's harder
to get your head around hiring someone who's more of a specialist
or has a different background. In the bullpen approach, hiring a
digital designer or an art director from the fashion world or a
photographer who can act as an art director, it has less of an
impact on each team."
While the executive creative directors say the pendulum is
swinging back toward the dedicated team model, pooling talent made
a difference in the composition of the agency's creative staff. "We
have talent that doesn't fall into any of the formats we always
had, people who do things that none of us did," said Ms. Hoffman.
"Those combinations are going to get us more surprising work."
Messrs. Fitzloff and Wieden also both emphasize the importance
of WK12 -- the in-house ad school/creative lab/mini-agency founded
in 2004 -- in the evolution of the shop's creative mindset.
"We started to use [WK12] as a lab to see how people came
together to work," said Mr. Wieden. "And the partnership thing is
not necessarily how they like to do it. Sometimes they'll have a
group of five or seven folks who'll bat ideas back and forth. It's
more of a fluid thing."
"It's played a huge role," said Mr. Fitzloff. "I'd recommend it
to any agency."
In experimenting with departmental structures and adding new
roles, the agency also created a digital studio, now headed by
creative technology director Igor Clark and staffed with digital
designers, developers and other interactive specialists. Mr. Clark
joined the agency last fall after working as technical director at
Poke London and then head of digital delivery at Guardian Media.
Mr. Clark says he moved on from his last agency job to "try and get
away from the constant campaign bubble," the idea of working on one
finite ad campaign after another.
Further to hiring Mr. Clark and others with technical chops, Mr.
Fitzloff said the agency tries to ensure that those roles don't
feel marginal to the creative process or like a lesser career path.
"We tried to build new opportunities for people to be creative
here," he said. "We wanted to provide the opportunity to build a
longer career without feeling like you're on a funnel path to
copywriter or art director."
Another key, Ms. Hoffman said, was to not relegate digital types
to execution and to make ideas and execution a more collaborative,
holistic exercise. "In the past we've been accused of passing
things off to the interactive department," she said. "Now, we don't
use different departments as our executors; we're all collaborating
and ideas can come from anywhere."
The agency's creative renaissance wasn't restricted to the
creative department; Managing Director Tom Blessington says the
agency also worked over the last few years to ensure its planning
approach was equal to the creative task at hand.
"We had the epiphany that if we wanted different answers we
needed to ask different questions," said Mr. Blessington. "We
re-engineered our communications planning approach and made sure
that it reflected not only planning insights but media insights and
digital insights and brought them all together to ensure we were
encouraging creatives to develop that conversation with
Among its many experiments with content and new structures, the
agency has devoted resources to exploring tech-driven IP. In 2009,
the agency built a tech-focused business incubator, PIE (Portland
Incubator Experiment). Housed in the Portland office, PIE employs
tech entrepreneurs and hardcore nerds who experiment with new
platforms and business models, both on behalf of W&K clients
and independently. Mr. Gleeson oversees the operation from the
W&K side. "Portland has a large base of digital talent and we
thought this was a good opportunity for them to find ways to
collaborate with them," said Mr. Blessington. "Giving them space
seemed like an easy way to do it."
Mr. Wieden says it's hard to pinpoint when things started to
change at the agency. But with Mr. Tait in place, "there was an
infiltration of new thinking at all levels," he said. "We were
working both from the ground-level position up to the global
management position. It wasn't a second cousin to what were were
doing anymore. And to have people like Renny who were talking not
only inside the agency but to clients, that helped move the work to
interesting places. Suddenly it swept through the agency fairly
The agency isn't a finished product though. "I think we have a
lot of new ground to cover because the whole economic model is
still up in the air," Mr. Wieden said.
But digital agency of the year or not, he said he's proud of way
the agency pulled together and how it "found a way of evolving
without throwing overboard the skill set that made us unique."
"In any company you go through a period of thinking, this is not
like the good old days," Mr. Wieden said. "Well, the good old days
were never s good as this last year."