At the top, there’s nowhere to go but down. So says conventional wisdom, and Wieden & Kennedy topped Ad Age’s Agency A-List last year, thanks to strong work for legacy clients and a massive expansion of agency stakeholders.
But W&K has spent more than three-and-a-half decades thumbing its nose at conventional wisdom. It’s independent, based far from the global ad hubs and willing to resign huge clients, as the agency did with Verizon in 2017. And this year was perhaps even more impressive than last.
W&K has proven it does more than survive: It thrives when competing with big holding companies that increasingly lure clients with bespoke creations that assemble talent from multiple agencies. Others in the industry raised eyebrows late last year, for instance, when W&K won a major piece of the Ford account, which had been parked at WPP for many years. Although BBDO, a 2019 A-List Standout, was named the automaker’s lead global agency, so far, most of the high-profile work in the all-important North American market has come from W&K. And with Accenture’s announced acquisition of Droga5, there’s now no doubt that W&K is the nation’s highest-profile and most widely respected independent creative agency.
Within the last year, it’s completed culture-leading work for OKCupid, KFC and Bud Light. But W&K’s best-known campaign of 2018 was for Nike. The shop worked with the sportswear maker to position Colin Kaepernick as the face of the brand, explicitly taking a stand against police violence in communities of color despite his blacklisting by the National Football League, a move that made Wieden’s name known beyond the industry.
The company also landed 52 new business wins, including RXBar and Tinder; media for KFC and “League of Legends”; and social media for Bud Light, which longtime client AB InBev handed off without a review.
It hasn’t all been good news, though. This year, the shop lost Procter & Gamble’s Secret and last year it parted ways with Spotify, Impossible Foods, Equinox and Chiquita. U.S. revenue growth sat at under 2 percent. But for the second consecutive year, the New York office had its best financial performance in history, approaching double-digit revenue growth.
“You’ve got to approach every year like it’s the first,” says Colleen DeCourcy, co-president and chief creative officer. “I don’t know how else to not freak out.”
In September, the world watched as Nike firmly sided with Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, whose kneeling protests during the national anthem divided fans almost wholly down political lines. “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” he tweeted, as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of “Just Do It.” (Kaepernick had remained unselected by any NFL team since the end of the 2016 season. The league settled a lawsuit with him earlier this year for an undisclosed amount.) The tweet was soon followed by “Dream Crazy,” a two-minute spot featuring Kaepernick and other Nike athletes.