Embracing diversity to add value and perspective to the work is another big talking point in the industry in recent years—though again, Hoffman would say that’s been W+K’s approach for a long time.
“Having a variety of voices—I know we call that diversity now, but I’m going to say variety—that was important to Dan and David,” she said. “They wanted Janet Champ because she had a female point of view. They wanted Jim [Riswold], because he’s a messed-up sports guy, crazy knowledgeable. Dan said something once—‘Susan, when this agency reflects the consumers we’re talking to, then we’ve done it.’ Whether it be culture, whether it be gender, whether it be personality, the more you mix things up, the more interesting the work becomes.”
As it’s grown, W+K also has developed a geographical and cultural diversity of its own. It’s one reason Hoffman never left—she loves to travel, and the W+K network offers lots of opportunities, all with the W+K DNA at the core. She’s spent significant time in most of the W+K offices and just returned to Portland this spring after two years in London.
“The ideas and the craft around the world are all very different, and I really love that,” she said. “I remember when we moved to Amsterdam, that first new office we opened, all of us were like, ‘How are we going to do this? This is so foreign.’ But that foreignness wakes you up a bit. It’s a huge change, totally different people, even if the culture feels similar. We need to do more of that as an agency.”
As for the current great industry obsession, AI, Hoffman again sees parallels to W+K’s evolution in the past—though she acknowledges it’s hard to know what AI’s full impact will be going forward.
“There’s OK writing and there’s terrific writing, and hopefully the robots never get to terrific writing,” she said with a laugh. “We talk about it as a tool, but maybe our biggest challenge is, how do we actually use it well as a tool? I remember Kennedy was never able to transfer to a computer because he was such a craftsman—he did everything by hand. So maybe that’s the challenge here. How do you use that tool so well that you’re doing things better than before?”
Back to the future
Hoffman isn’t the only steward of W+K’s brand and culture. Even as she continues to inspire the network globally, she points to the current leadership team of Global CEO Neal Arthur and Global Chief Creative Officer Karl Lieberman as execs who also deeply understand the agency—setting it up for future success.
“I don’t want to be 150 in this business,” she said with a laugh. “[Arthur and Lieberman] feel more right to push this agency forward than I think we’ve seen in the past. And if I were to say one thing specifically about them, it’s they really understand the culture of this place—and they understand business. The combo of those two things is great.”
Culture, in any agency, is a mysterious thing. There’s no book on it—people get it or they don’t. And so, as Hoffman takes the stage this week to be honored in Cannes, she hopes people can see what the award really reflects—the critical task of keeping a culture alive, nurturing and protecting it, so the work can follow. Because culture, in any business, is never guaranteed to survive.