My reporting for the article Who Do You Love? led me to Dan Weiden, co-founder of Weiden + Kennedy, one of the world's largest independently owned ad agencies. From its base in Portland, Oregon's Pearl District, W+K has launched unforgettable campaigns for Nike, Coca-Cola, ESPN, Honda, Miller Brewing, and Old Spice, among many others. In an interview in his corner office, Weiden conceded that while he rarely thought about authenticity per se, the attribute was at the core of all of the agency's work. Some excerpts from our talk:
FC: What's driving our hunger for the authentic?
Weiden: As our relationships become increasingly complicated and superficial, our longing increases for things that are really genuine. Much of it has to do with the overabundance of marketing—every flat surface is trying to sell us something. And with the Internet, there's so many voices vying for our attention.
FC: So in world that's saturated with marketing messages, how does a brand demonstrate that it is, in fact, authentic?
Weiden: Authenticity comes from having a real passion for the thing. When we first started working with Nike, we didn't bother with focus groups and planning. We were just a group of people who were absolutely turned on by sports and athletes, and what Phil Knight was creating, and we just wanted to turn other people on. We weren't trying to manipulate anyone. We were trying to share something that we loved. It was that simple.
FC: What must marketing folks absolutely get right to create an authentic brand?
Weiden: In our business, creative people have to internalize the brand. They have to almost channel the brand, so some part of the organization can come through in a human way. The whole issue with authenticity is that it has relatively little to do with technique, and everything to do with honesty.
FC: Why, then, does The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, with its fake newscasts, come across as authentic?
Weiden: Fiction is often more authentic than fact, because fact rarely reveals anything of import, whereas fiction is fully capable of showing us fundamental human truths. Jon Stewart delivers a fake newscast, but he is authentic. His humor strips away all the phoniness of politics and the pomposity of the network news.
A genuine, unscripted moment is so rare in politics. I remember when Richard Nixon met Mao, he was asked what he thought of Mao. Nixon replied that Mao's fingers were really well manicured. Reporters lambasted Nixon for what many claimed was a shallow and trite observation, but I thought it was so human. Nixon made the mistake of saying what he genuinely thought.
FC: How has Nike managed to continue to be perceived by many as authentic, even though the brand is so ubiquitous?
Weiden: I don't know why companies do this, but they like to list attributes that describe their culture. And the one attribute that consistently shows up on Nike's list is the word "honesty." Nike's values are the values of an athlete. It just embodies the athlete's heart and soul. No matter what the sport, the athlete comes first. When Nike talks running, it talks runner to runner. They are who they say they are. And they're not afraid to use language that only a runner—or a skateboarder or a golfer—would understand.
In the early days, Nike wouldn't allow a print ad to run more than once. When I pointed out that that was incredibly inefficient, the reply was: You wouldn't continually send the same letter to a friend, would you?
I once put a picture of the great long-distance runner, Lasse Viren, over my desk, in an effort to write a piece of copy that would make him laugh or at least respect what was said. I really think that honesty comes out of talking to some one, rather than some group.