Words from Wieden

I was looking for something on the public drive and I came across the text to a speech by Dan Wieden, made – I think – a couple of years back when they were about to move to the new building in Portland. I’d never seen the speech before and, as I read it this morning, I thought, ‘This is pretty inspiring stuff’. And it seemed very pertinent, because here and now in London we’re going through a growth spurt and we’re about to move to a new home. As we embark on the next stage of the Wieden + Kennedy London adventure, it’s useful to reflect on where it is we came from.

So here’s Dan’s speech:

When we started, no one in their right mind wanted to come to this weird little city on the banks of the Willamette (Portland, Oregon), cut off from the cultural mainstream, hell, cut off from culture, period. A city with virtually no nightlife. No history. I mean, the first house here was a log cabin built in 1844. That wasn’t that long ago, guys. The only ad people you could get to even consider moving here were people who had been fired from every legitimate and illegitimate agency in the country. Or kids fresh out of school, who didn’t know any better We started as a ship of fools. And that, I firmly believe, is why we have succeeded. We were struggling to figure out what an advertising agency actually was. And our one and only client, Nike, was trying to get a grip on what a client was supposed to do with one. We were both incredibly stupid. That was the key. See, when you don’t know, you try desperately to find out. But the minute you think you know, the minute you go – oh, yeah, we’ve been here before, no sense reinventing the wheel – you stop learning, stop questioning, and start believing in your own wisdom, you’re dead. You’re not stupid anymore, you are fucking dead.

Well, in 23 days, we are going to leave home. And in 36 days, when we land in the Pearl (new building), much of what we thought we knew – like where the bathrooms are – we won’t for sure. Good luck with the phones, the Xerox, the ability to ship and receive, to get your shirts laundered, to find a pool hall, a pencil, a friend, that approved script, or a moment of peace and quiet. What used to come easy will take work. All the little shit that you weren’t even aware of, but that made your life comfortable, will have vanished. Life will become a little less routine, our actions a little less unconscious. I can’t wait. See I have this addiction to chaos. I love it when I’m a bit anxious. It’s a sickness, okay. But it works for me. And the older I get, the more I need what upsets me, shocks me, makes me squirm, or get angry. The older I get, the more I value what forces me to take a second look. The more I respect people who don’t automatically respect me. I love this agency the most, when it’s off balance. Moving at 7,000 miles an hour, trying to take a sharp left turn, everybody holding their breath, laughing like hell, occasionally throwing up but smiling, and leaning right to make sure the fucking thing doesn’t trip over. Chaos does this amazing thing that order can’t: it engages you. It gets right in your face and with freakish breath issues a challenge. It asks stuff of you, order never will. And it shows you stuff, all the weird shit, that order tries to hide. Chaos is the only thing that honestly wants you to grow. The only friend who really helps you be creative. Demands that you be creative. Now, clearly, there are some disciplines in this organisation that don’t really need to have chaos as their operating policy. I’m thinking finance. I’m thinking traffic. But even in those departments that need to operate with Germanic precision, even there, we need enough uncertainty that we are forced to question how we do what we do so efficiently. And maybe, why we do it all.

The other thing chaos does is challenge authority. It cares more about truth than power. Political figures are fascinated with the agency and some have come by on a fairly frequent basis, just to share a meal, get our sense of things. I remember the first time a certain senator spent a couple of hours in our conference room with about a dozen freaks from the agency. He wasn’t there to lecture, or press the flesh, but to listen. It was a fascinating meeting, very frank, wide ranging. When I drove him back to the airport, he said, “what an amazing group of people. So young, so bright, so well informed. But I gotta tell you what was most astonishing was the complete lack of deference …. To you, to me, to anyone.” He wasn’t complaining, he was just mesmerized by the informality, the absence of authority.

I’m trying to get at something here that is very difficult to put into words. But it is the foundation upon which this agency is built. It is difficult to express, because it isn’t exactly a business philosophy. I’m not sure anyone here is smart enough to have a working philosophy. It is more an experience. Something we felt early on, and that we have tried to be true to as we have grown. For me, personally, it happened when the agency was maybe two years old. There were 11 of us. I was listening to a voice tape one night, late, or early, and fell asleep. When I woke up, the old reel to reel had run out and the tape was going flop, flop, flop, flop. And I had this existential crisis, I guess you could say. I was a young father of four children. Who I seldom saw. All my time being poured into this stupid set-up. All our finances tied up in boxes of pencils, copy machines, chairs, telephones, glazed donuts and coffee. To make stupid ads? What was the bloody point? Well, the point was not Dan or Dave (David Kennedy). The point was for Dan and Dave to create a place where people could come and live up to their full potential. Where they could do the best work of their career. Because that place relished freedom, diversity, and unpredictability. A place with very few rules. In case you haven’t heard ours, here they are. These rules David actually found in an empty file drawer when we were exiting our previous place of employment.

Don’t act big. No sharp stuff. Follow directions. And shut up when someone is talking.

The only other thing essential to know is our priorities. They were arrived at after a fifth of Cutty Sark (we couldn’t afford the good stuff):

1. The work

2. The client/agency relationship

3. Yourself

This has been summarised into: The work comes first. And while it served as a great compass for many years, it has become the focus of much discussion and dissent of late. Well, it ain’t the holy writ. If you want to junk it, we can junk it. But here’s what insight the thing is based on. In big agencies, the client/agency relationship is the most sacred thing. The difficulty seems to be that the work then serves the relationship, and everything becomes political. And when things get political, the work suffers. And when the work suffers, the business suffers, then the client agency relationship suffers, and you suffer. In creative boutiques, the ego is supreme. The work is there to enhance personal reputations. If I said the work is wonderful, the work is wonderful. Shut up and sell it. Problem here: again, the work slip is, the client agency relationship goes south. When we say the work comes first, we are saying that things work best when everyone – client and agency alike – are focussed on whether or not this is great damn work. Politics aside. Egos aside. Is this hot shit, or not? There is this revisionist history that says in the old days, Wieden + Kennedy didn’t compromise on the work. If the client didn’t buy it, we’d say goodbye account exec or goodbye client. Oh, really? Actually, the idea was that if you had a client that let you do great work, then you could always find a way to pull it off. If they were so blind they didn’t get your idea after hours of argument and pleading, you simply went back to the boards. But you didn’t compromise. You always would come back with something as good, or better. Because you knew you could. Even when you didn’t know, you knew. Or someone knew. And when we say the client/agency relationship is second to the work, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Because the work is a direct reflection of the quality of that relationship. If it is strained, the work shows it. If people are having fun, it shows. If people are bleeding, it shows. If people are just trying to turn other people on, it shows. And that’s when it’s most effective. And when we put the individual last, it’s simply because of that weird old paradox in life that you serve yourself best when you serve others first. You might note, that while we say the work comes first, we don’t put it up in our lobby. And we don’t showcase our awards. What we honour are the individuals, in all their wackiness, that make Wieden + Kennedy what it is.

All very interesting, Dan. All very idealistic. But, dude, let’s talk about money. Money is a very seductive thing. I never expected to have any. I never entered the business with the goal of making great gobs of it. But I like having money. And apparently, judging from some conversations I’ve had at year end, so do you. So, this agency is committed to securing big, healthy portions of it. I can tell you, however, that we wouldn’t have made a lot of the decisions we have, if maximising profit was the primary goal of this organisation. To me, money is like oxygen. You can’t live without it. But is not the reason for living.

Have we sold out? I don’t think so. But it’s a question we must continually ask ourselves. Because I don’t think we’ll necessarily see it coming. And this, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t just my issue. Or the partners’. It is everyone’s. If we want Wieden + Kennedy to remain Wieden + Kennedy we gotta keep each other honest. Nobody ever got fired around here for being a confrontational asshole.

So, so ….. where to from here ? Just about anywhere our heart desires. I mean it. Look at us now. We are new again. New people, I mean totally new. Some percent of us just got here in the last 24 months. We got a new home. A list of new clients. A healthy balance sheet. Offices all over the globe. A creative reputation second to none. We are independently owned. And fuckin’ crazy as hell. It is interesting to hear talk about the good old days, but that agency no longer exists. All I need is that weird thing that seems to hang around in the ether here. That wacked out affection for letting go of the handrails. For throwing yourself off a cliff. We are making this up as we go. All of us. It is a joke, I know. But this is the most plastic of organisations. It needs you to realise itself fully. But I’ll try my best to tell you about the dream I’ve been having.

I see images of chaos and sometimes barbarism. Images of wildness and fury. Images of people entangled and separate. Images of people yelling at each other; they are so mad they are spitting nails. And I see images of people kissing each other, out of lust, friendship, insanity or maybe because they’ve been offered sufficient amounts of money. This is a garden of earthly delight-type stuff I’m talking about here. I see images of the future and rapid change, the kind that make your head spin and sucks your breath away. I see creativity in other people that surpasses my own wildest imaginings. And in addition to this blurry, exotic, high-volume stew of images and emotions, I see four corny, sappy, overly sentimental, trite, Norman Rockwellian images very clearly:

STEADFASTNESS, COURAGE, FAITH AND ABIDING LOVE.

2005 so far

We’ve had a busy few days here. At the start of last week, after a pitch against CHI, DDB and Y&R, we picked up the account for Sky One, the UK’s main satellite TV channel. Two days later we pitched for the Pizza Hut business and we heard on Friday night that we had beaten CHI (again), BBH and WCRS to win that one. These are both significant accounts for us, with a combined billing of over £20 million. The whole agency worked terrifically hard and we’re knackered but delighted. There were some tired and emotional scenes on Friday night, as you can imagine.

As if that wasn’t enough, yesterday we were named ‘Creative Agency of the Year (small/medium)’ in the IPA  Best of the Best Awards. These awards are designed to recognise outstanding creativity and commercial effectiveness for clients.

With a start to the year like that it’s bound to be all downhill from here.