On September 3, 2018, at 2:20 p.m., an image appeared on Instagram: a tightly cropped black-and-white close-up of a face, eyebrows, and chin bordering a resolute gaze, and the message “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” You know what I’m talking about. That ad.
Nike’s Colin Kaepernick spot was more than just an ad. By centering a campaign around the controversial quarterback, the company was making a bold statement in defense of the banished NFL star’s career-ending protest against racial injustice. The reaction was explosive and immediate. Celebrities, consumers, pro athletes, activists, and the president of the United States all weighed in. Welcome to Hot Take City, Population: the Internet. Brand suicide! Brand bravery! Buying more Nikes! Lighting Nikes on fire! Even those skeptical of Nike making a social justice claim, given its own issues regarding gender discrimination and factory conditions over the past year, had to admit this was marketing at its very best. Advertising as agitator, the popcorn of pop culture.
This moment may have felt like an instance of spontaneous combustion, but the seed for it had been planted 30 years earlier, when the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, working for Nike, galvanized a consumer/social movement with the phrase “Just Do It.”
Founded in 1982 by Dan Wieden and David Kennedy, in Portland, Oregon, as a boutique shop with a single client (Nike), W+K is now the world’s largest remaining independent agency, with offices in New York, Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Delhi, São Paulo, and Shanghai. W+K aims to deliver what’s been demanded of ad agencies for decades: traditional, high-impact advertising for big brands. Clients include Bud Light, KFC, Old Spice, and Ford. At the same time, W+K continues to adapt its skills to modern storytelling tools, ranging from AI to podcasting. This agility has helped the agency win business from 21st-century brands like Airbnb, Instagram, Lyft, and OkCupid. As the advertising industry continues to struggle to balance quarterly results, client demands to be faster/cheaper/better, competition for talent, and the attention of an increasingly ad-fatigued public, W+K offers an alternative—an old-school commitment to inspired, attention-grabbing creative.
Because if the work is good, it gets shared, and people talk about it forever. Or at least a few weeks. Which in 2019 feels like forever, right?
“We don’t try to be a one-stop shop,” says W+K copresident Tom Blessington. “And that is what publicly held companies are all about. Growth. When you’re founded by two hippies, you still have to run a business, but it was a simple philosophy that if you do good work, the money will follow. As simplistic as that sounds, that’s the mantra.”
Shortly after the Kaepernick ad appeared, Nike shares hit an all-time high, and sales were up 31%.
“We pretty much have two forms of success here,” says Colleen DeCourcy, W+K’s other copresident. “One is if it was a great idea, and the other is whether anyone cared about it. That’s our P&L.”
When media was more or less TV, print, and outdoor, the massive advertising holding company made a lot of sense as a one-stop shop for big brands. But as the landscape has gotten infinitely more complex, these Wall Street–beholden behemoths too often produce work that makes you want to gouge your eyes out. “What I think has helped us is that we’re small,” says DeCourcy when we chat in her window-lined corner office, which overlooks Portland’s Pearl District.
W+K has undergone a transformation in the past half decade or so, from a founder-led company to a second-generation organization that’s increasingly diverse in terms of staff and geography, and DeCourcy, 53, is a key figure in this evolution. After starting her career as a receptionist at a boutique Toronto agency called Saffer Cravit & Freedman, she went on to assume creative leadership roles in holding company agencies such as TBWA, JWT, and the indie digital shop Organic. She also started her own agency, Socialistic. Since joining W+K in 2013, she’s risen from co-global executive creative director to agency partner to copresident, the first woman in W+K history to hold that title. She’s a single mom. She rides a Triumph. She wears a lot of black. Her personality style might be called No-Bullshit Friendly, the kind that comes from being a Canadian with a career forged between London and New York.
DeCourcy believes W+K’s ability to come up with resonant ideas stems from maintaining some distance from the minutiae of a client’s business. “There are ways you can control or maintain the voice of a brand without creating corporate infrastructure or financial systems around it,” DeCourcy says. “We don’t have to start a shopper marketing division to be sure that Old Spice looks great in Target. We just need to know how to be small enough, personable enough, passionate enough, communicative enough, and trusted enough to protect that [core brand] idea through all those layers.”
Neal Arthur, managing director of W+K’s New York office, says that the agency’s creatives aren’t versed in, say, the volume decline in Bud Light sales. “Account and planning people are a bit closer, but even then we ask them to have some separation. You need to be able to say, ‘I get they want to talk about the Chrysler 200, but let’s be honest, it looks like a rental car.’ ” This is not a random example: Such frankness may help explain why W+K and Chrysler split up in 2016.
The drawing board
Sometimes that strong point of view “rubs clients the wrong way,” says one senior big-agency exec who requested anonymity in discussing a rival, “but it’s probably the reason why their work hits more than it misses. Most other work today is made to keep clients happy, and that’s why most of it is forgettable.”
Wieden’s track record of ending dysfunctional partnerships has further secured its reputation for toughness. In 2017, the agency split with both ESPN and Verizon. The former was a 25-year client, for whom it created the long-running “This Is SportsCenter” campaign, and the latter was a massively lucrative account. These decisions hit the agency’s bottom line enough to force layoffs, but they were made to protect its culture. “Without real independence, an agency can never truly be creatively led,” says Bill Davenport, who worked for W+K for 28 years before joining Apple in 2014 to help develop the company’s internal production department. “[The] biggest challenge is to protect the creative product.”
And sometimes the brands appreciate being stood up to. “They really push us to take risks,” says Bud Light’s VP of marketing, Andy Goeler. “I love being in that space of walking out of a creative meeting and having butterflies in my stomach about what I just bought.”
Case in point: Bud Light’s “Dilly Dilly” ads. “You’ve got guys talking in Old English accents, reading the scripts, yelling ‘Dilly dilly!’ And I’m thinking, What are these guys smoking?” says Goeler, who couldn’t quite picture the public’s response.
Since the campaign launched in August 2017, Goeler says that Bud Light’s brand metrics and social mentions have been “staggering,” a pop-culture coup that no Bud brand has pulled off since the “Whassup?” campaign two decades ago.
What newer W+K clients say they value most is the agency’s ability to intuit a truth about the brand, then figure out the best way to communicate that. Airbnb cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky signed with W+K in 2017. “What stood out was how they really understood that Airbnb’s soul is in our host community,” Chesky says. “The central message of their pitch was about how to bring out the magic of travel through our hosts and enable them to realize their potential. It was so compelling that I’ve saved that original pitch deck on my desktop and still turn to it for inspiration.” The Airbnb ads will begin rolling out in the first half of 2019.
Ford recently awarded W+K a piece of its massive $4 billion annual advertising account because W+K “had a way of zeroing in on the brand voice and not thinking about what the next campaign from Ford should be,” says Matt VanDyke, Ford’s director of U.S. marketing. “It was about the essence of who we are and who we’ve always been. That’s what made us decide to work with them.”
The agency’s first ad for Ford debuted in October. It featured actor Bryan Cranston extolling the brand’s legacy and its renewed commitment to innovation. The gist being, while many talk about the future, Ford is busy building for it.
Meanwhile, W+K has also been busy reshaping itself. The company expanded its leadership team in 2016 from nine agency partners, based primarily in Portland and London, to a more diverse set of 24 stakeholders spread across the agency’s seven locations around the world. Nearly 70% of department heads in W+K’s Portland office are people of color or women.
DeCourcy says that in order to attract diverse emerging talent, W+K has continued to expand the paid internship program that originated in its Amsterdam office. The current class of the six-month program is overwhelmingly made up of women and people of color.
The agency is also fostering diversity through different kinds of creative projects. Last year, the agency launched On She Goes, a digital travel platform aimed at and run by women of color. It also helped one of W+K’s former producers, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, get her idea for a short film off the ground, and that project eventually became the show UnReal, which debuted on Lifetime in 2015 and is now streaming its fourth season on Hulu.
DeCourcy is particularly focused on fixing one pernicious and systemic issue in advertising: that credit too often rolls up overwhelmingly to a white male with a fancy title. That’s why, at an all-company meeting in the two-story atrium of W+K’s Portland office this past November, she encourages the crowd of agency staffers to put some questions to the reporter who’s been lurking in the hallways the past few days. Since every person in the building is responsible for the work, every person in the building should have the opportunity to inform the W+K story.
They talk about the state of the industry and ad work they admire. For all its self-image as an outlier and band of creative misfits, W+K is an agency awash in industry accolades, most recently Adweek’s 2018 U.S. Agency of the Year. DeCourcy says that while peer recognition is nice and does serve a purpose, the real prize is GQ writing about KFC swag, The New Yorker think-piecing the hell out of the Nike Kaepernick ad, or Black-ish star Jenifer Lewis rocking a Nike sweatshirt at the Emmys and telling every reporter along the red carpet that it was in support of Kaepernick. To illustrate her point, DeCourcy turns to the gathered staff and asks, “How many people here can name what won the Cannes Lions Grand Prix this year?”
“See? Zero shits given. All that matters is the work.”
A brief history of W+K work
Get thee to YouTube to see these ad spots.
1988, Nike,”Is it the shoes?:” When Spike met Mike. ‘Nuff said.
1995, Nike,”If you let me play:” An anthem for female athletes, as young girls describe the positive power of sports.
1995, ESPN,”This is SportsCenter:” Pro sports meets The Office. This long- running campaign made the cubicles of ESPN look like the funniest workplace around.
1998, Miller,”High life man:” Directed by Errol Morris, these ads are still considered a high-water mark in wry copywriting.
2003, Honda, “Cog:” A Rube Goldberg machine masterpiece that became one of the most awarded commercials of all time.
2005, Heineken,”Beer run:” Director David Fincher presents an action-packed vision of what might happen when a Hollywood superstar like Brad Pitt runs out of beer.
2006, Coke, “Happiness factory:” Created by W+K Amsterdam, the Emmy-nominated spot became one of the company’s most successful ads ever.
2010, Old Spice, “The man your man could smell like:” A silly, faux manly sense of humor pro- pelled a struggling brand into the heart of pop culture.
2010, P&G,”Thanks, mom:” For the 2010 Winter Olympics, W+K gave us an emotional, Mom’s- eye view of the world’s greatest athletes.
2012, Chrysler, “It’s halftime in America:” A Clint Eastwood–narrated Super Bowl spot praised by Democrats and Republicans and parodied on SNL—a cultural hat trick.
2016, Secret, “Raise:” This simple spot somehow made a deodorant commercial feel like an anthem for equal pay.
2018, Nike, “Nothing beats a Londoner:” A frenetically paced short film that dou- bles as an ode to the city, its culture, and everyday athletes—not just the superstars.