For an agency like Wieden & Kennedy, it's tempting to get complacent, maybe even a little lazy, and sail along on past glories. But the shop didn't just rock the boat in 2017, it damn near tipped it over. Leadership reinvented the Portland, Oregon-based creative powerhouse for a new era of marketing when beautiful, eye-catching TV ads are no longer enough to win clients and grow brands. The new W&K is gutsy, nimble, digitally innovative, collaborative and fiercely independent as it navigates an industry dominated by massive agency holding companies, proving that big isn't always better.
"It wasn't just a willingness to rock the boat. It literally was a douse-yourself-in-gasoline-and-set-yourself-on-fire," says Colleen DeCourcy, global co-chief creative officer.
The ad world is feeling its heat: W&K landed 19 new clients in the U.S. in 2017, fueling $35 million in new revenue, it says, including brands like Airbnb and Lyft at the forefront of the sharing economy. As big consultancies scoop up agencies, W&K doubled down on its independence, backing a new agency in Austin called Callen on the condition that it remain independent. W&K's New York office had the best financial year in its 23-year history, it says, winning clients including The Atlantic and Fox Sports while steering the massive Bud Light account into the pop-culture zeitgeist with the viral "dilly dilly" catchphrase.
There were setbacks: The agency was touched by the #MeToo movement, and swiftly parted ways with London strategy director Paul Colman earlier this year after HR complaints. It also took a gutsy step in resigning a prestige account in Verizon, for which it did not see a cultural fit. At the same time, however, W&K cemented relationships with partners such as KFC that have bought into the agency's "branded everything" ethos. Just ask Colonel Sanders. He, or she, is everywhere.
It's for these reasons that Wieden & Kennedy is Ad Age's Agency of the Year.
The ascent began with a little soul-searching. W&K had become a victim of its success, seeking perfection in every ad or campaign. "Magic happens when there is a little bit of chaos, when everybody's a little bit not sure," DeCourcy says. "We had begun to qualify the ways in which things got done … be it from the way it was made to … who got to do it or touch it. That becomes an insular world. It took longer and longer to get into production and we were making fewer things than we used to."
Adds DeCourcy: "Our people needed to be willing, and feel permission, to not have every single thing they did be stellar, to not have everything be epic and untouchably perfect."
A key moment came in 2016 when the agency expanded its leadership team, moving from a nine-person partner model to a 24-person "stakeholder" group that expanded the power base beyond Portland and London into its other offices.
W&K also overhauled its Portland leadership team for the first time in nearly 10 years. Karrelle Dixon, former global account director on W&K's Nike account, became managing director. The agency reunited Eric Baldwin and Jason Bagley (who returned from a stint at Deutsch) as new executive creative directors. Baldwin and Bagley are pushing the "branded everything" approach that inserts brands into pop culture in unexpected ways, using everything from Reddit to comic books. The ethos energized an agency that sometimes suffers from being pigeonholed as a maker of TV ads.
For Old Spice and KFC, W&K pumps out roughly 300 pieces of content a year each. "It's constant experimentation," Bagley says.
The shop's work for KFC has helped fuel 13 consecutive quarters of U.S. same-store sales growth, the agency says. (The streak ended in the fourth quarter when sales dipped 1 percent.) It did so by creating a brand world around the Colonel character, who has been played by a rotating cast of actors, most recently the first female Colonel, Reba McEntire. The Colonel pops up everywhere, from a comic book made by DC Comics to romance novels and, most recently, meditation films pushing KFC's potpies.
KFC is blessed with historical assets like the red-and-white-striped motif. "What Wieden has done is take those assets and say we can basically apply them to everything and become a part of culture everywhere," says Kevin Hochman, KFC's president and chief concept officer. Recently, W&K held an all-agency brief on the KFC business, allowing everyone to weigh in. "When people start feeling confident that ideas can come from anywhere and they can be anything, then people have a tendency to share more," says Susan Hoffman, W&K's global co-chief creative officer.
The shop's creative technology unit, called W&K Lodge, was behind "Nike Live Design," a high-tech retail installation allowing people to custom-design sneakers in less than 90 minutes. Its editorial and entertainment arm produced an interactive music video for rock band Portugal. The Man's "Feel It Still" track. It contained hidden Easter eggs that revealed social resistance tools: Clicking on an image of a woman dancing with her face and mouth covered generated a "Save the EPA" message and information on how people can get involved. It earned more than 70 million views, says W&K.
The agency's 100-person design studio rebranded Chiquita as part of a campaign that visually linked bananas to last summer's solar eclipse. The result: "Banana Sun." The agency also regained traction on Coke, which had been giving more work to Fitzco/McCann, by winning assignments for the Super Bowl, the Olympics and beyond.
W&K's New York office, long overshadowed by Portland, broke through with several creative hits. The office in August birthed the medieval-themed campaign for Bud Light that is leading to 1.1 million monthly Google searches of "dilly dilly." It has yet to spur sales, but the campaign has the elements to become a sustainable force for the brew, which has cycled through agencies and campaigns in recent years. Often, creatives "can be protective or defensive," says Bud Light VP Andy Goeler, but "I find this team to have a culture of collaboration."
The office also made waves with "Question Your Answers" for The Atlantic, a provocative video that featured four different versions of actor Michael K. Williams asking questions about whether he has been typecast to shine a light on racial stereotypes.
New York also did the first national campaign for Lyft, which included an ad sending Tilda Swinton and Jordan Peele to the moon. "If you choose to ride with the right people, who do things for the right reasons, you'll always end up in the right place," Swinton says in the ad.
It's also a metaphor for W&K, which had a great ride after a year of change.