Wieden+Kennedy pushes the boundaries of creativity as it evolves
When Wieden+Kennedy helped Ford resurrect the Bronco after a 24-year hiatus, the agency’s work did not stop with TV ads and social videos—it even contributed vehicle design elements, like an outdoorsy image for the instrument panel. For KFC, the shop’s marketing went way beyond unleashing yet another celebrity colonel; it teamed with Crocs to make chicken-themed “bucket clogs.” And for Fisher-Price, W+K constructed an elaborate “Toy Museum” on Instagram that breathed new life into classic toys like Chatter Telephone and Granny Doodle.
The outside-the-box moves—which had as much to do with breakthrough products as stellar ads—show how the independent, 39-year-old agency that was built on a legacy of making great films keeps pushing the boundaries of creativity as it evolves to fit the needs of modern marketers.
Karl Lieberman—the shop’s former New York chief creative who was promoted last year to oversee creative for all eight W+K global offices—succinctly summarizes the shift: As recently as five years ago, pitches were pretty standard, involving “a handful of spots, three print ads, out-of-home, and then a stupid digital idea that no one was ever going to make but they thought they needed to have it in there.” Now “they can start with a product, they can start with a change of what the brand is doing or how it will behave,” he adds. “The runway has just gotten so big for us.”
“We used to make five things a year, now we make five things a day,” adds Neal Arthur, who ascended last year to the chief operating officer job.
While W+K was not able to extend its A-List Agency of the Year streak for an unprecedented fourth year in a row, the shop still proved itself to be an industry standard-bearer. It cranked out eye-catching campaigns and won big-name clients, including Kraft Heinz, Visa, Uber and Samsung. The agency was also behind one of the biggest hits of the year—spearheading McDonald’s Travis Scott Meal as an extension of the “famous orders” campaign that helped the fast feeder reclaim its place in popular culture, while selling so many Quarter Pounders that it led to an ingredient shortage at some locations.
Jennifer Healan, McDonald’s VP of U.S. marketing, credits the idea for bringing a huge amount of attention to a simple concept: “It doesn’t matter how big or famous you are, everyone has a McDonald’s order,” she says. And the platform is, in her words, “repeatable,” alluding to the just-announced BTS meal that pays homage to the K-pop supergroup.
W+K has kept pace with culture by transforming its hiring practices, drawing talent from a variety of backgrounds rather than focusing on what ad school they might have gone to or what their ad portfolio looks like. “The biggest change has been moving away from ad people who make ads … into people who are great creatively in every space we touch,” Lieberman says.
That shift is embodied in Bodega, a new unit the agency launched last year out of its New York office that in W+K’s words is a “social-first, internal creative group, focused on working cultural moments into brand storytelling, versus trying to turn brand storytelling into culture.”
Bodega is led by John “JP” Petty, head of social at Wieden New York, who is constantly scouring social media for promising talent. Rather than obsessing over industry creative award winners, Bodega looks at Twitter, “and who was creating the dopest memes, or who was creating the best [Instagram] Reels and TikToks, looking at comedians to be copywriters,” Petty says.
That includes Travonne Edwards, a former elementary school teacher and podcast host for The Athletic; and Drew Ruiz, who has written for Slam magazine. W+K lured them after noticing the meteoric rise of a Twitter handle they helped run called @NBABubbleLife that curated content showing how National Basketball Association players quarantined at last year’s Orlando bubble game site were spending their time. Now they are part of the agency’s McDonald’s creative team, along with Courtney O’Donnell, who has a side gig as a stand-up comic.
Bodega has helped transform McDonald’s brand voice from being corporate-sounding to one that, in Healan’s words, is a “voice that has a sense of wit, it’s self-deprecating, it’s thoughtful.”
W+K also grew its relationship with Ford, helping the automaker generate buzz for the Bronco’s return by positioning it as more than an SUV—but a lifestyle brand with the tagline “Built Wild.” The shop created merchandise like sweatshirts and flannels months before the vehicle debuted, along with a dedicated Instagram page, culminating with a YouTube vehicle reveal—all of it helping Ford amass 120,000 orders before the Bronco hits dealers this month.
Wieden “has been connected at the hip with us,” says Mark Grueber, Ford’s consumer marketing manager, noting the agency even helped design the so-called camo that automakers use to cover early versions of cars while driving them in public before they are revealed. Instead of generic-looking covers other brands use, Bronco’s camo included branding cues like outdoor scenery.
Wieden, he says, “just started with the question of … ‘Everyone is going to be looking at these vehicles, can we do something different?’”
And asking those questions has made all the difference for W+K.