"Being independent provides the freedom to do what you feel is right," says Dan Wieden, "and that includes the freedom to tell a difficult client to screw off."
Wieden is not exactly advertising's bad boy at this point: He's 59 years old, and Wieden + Kennedy, the storied Portland ad agency he co-founded, is 22 years old. But his work is still fresh and powerful enough to give him license to do what he wants. Regarded as "the last independent" in an industry where it's standard practice for entrepreneurs to sell their agencies to holding companies, Wieden has for the past two decades refused the affections of the big Madison Avenue conglomerates that have gobbled up and homogenized much of the ad industry.
He may be a lone wolf in the remote Northwest, but that hasn't stopped major companies from trekking to his door. Last year Wieden + Kennedy produced $873 million worth of advertising (measured in media billings) for clients that include Coca-Cola, America Online, Miller Brewing, ESPN, Avon, and the agency's flagship client, Nike.
Nike was still small and relatively obscure when Wieden and partner David Kennedy (now retired) took it on as their first account in 1982. Wieden set up shop in the basement of a Portland labor union hall, working with a pay phone and a borrowed typewriter. He eventually used the latter to tap out a slogan, "Just do it," that would help turn Nike into a marketing juggernaut while also ushering in a new creative era in advertising.
W+K ads broke new ground by injecting advertising with irreverent humor, sophisticated film techniques, and hip cultural references. The firm put Lou Reed in a Honda commercial, caused a genuine sensation by using the Beatles' "Revolution" as an insurrectionist version of a jingle for Nike, and then introduced, also for Nike, a cinematic, storytelling approach that helped turn Spike Lee, Bo Jackson, and Michael Jordan into pop icons.
Hotshot creative agencies typically fade after a few years, but W+K did not--and that's the result of the environment Wieden creates. W+K's Portland headquarters regularly houses local artists-in-residence, brought in by Wieden so that the agency's staffers can draw inspiration from close contact with the arts. Wieden also encourages and sometimes funds nonadvertising creative endeavors by his own staff, including films, books, and stage plays. This is not just charity on his part: "I want people outside to think, 'Geez, that would be a cool place to work," he says. "And I want the people already here to have a creative outlet--so they won't leave and go off to Hollywood."
Life on advertising's cutting edge is not always easy. Wieden + Kennedy has occasionally had a tough time with larger clients that are accustomed to working with traditional agencies. About three years ago, Coca-Cola pulled back much of its business, and Microsoft cut ties completely. For the first time, Wieden had to lay off a significant number of staffers--and he found the experience "very sobering," given his close relationship with employees. As Nike chairman Phil Knight points out, Wieden's bond with his staff is evident as soon as you walk through the agency's front door. "The first thing you see is a towering wall covered with photos of his employees," Knight says. "This is the place where other agencies usually plaster their trophies and awards."
Wieden maintains that being an independent helped him keep layoffs to a minimum: With no one in a position to make him do otherwise, he opted to keep as many people as possible, take the short-term financial hit, and hang on until better times arrived. As they did, last year.
Wieden sees ups and downs as a fact of life for an agency with a maverick streak. "It seems like people in advertising are always trying to get the money and then get out before the whole thing collapses like a house of cards," he says. "But I didn't get into this business because I was looking for security. I happen to think there's something energizing about having no net."--Warren Berger
Warren Berger is a writer based in Mount Kisco, N.Y.