7 things I learned at wieden and kennedy (portland edition)
by Russell Davies
As I venture further out into the world, away from the 10-year comfort zone (discomfort zone?) of w+k and Nike I realise that so many of my assumptions about the way that brands and communications and people work were formed there. And that many of these assumptions are horrifying and original to many of the people I bump into. So I thought I’d list some here. These are not anything that anyone tried to persuade me of, they’re not ‘the wieden way’, they’re conclusions I’ve drawn, assumptions I’ve made. So don’t blame them if I’m an idiot. (If you want to explore some of what Dan actually thinks you could try this little speech w+k london found on a hard drive.)
1. Hire advertising people, you get advertising
As Dan will admit (claim?), when they started they found it very hard to hire conventional advertising talent. No-one would move to Portland. So they got people who’d failed elsewhere or kids straight out of school. These people didn’t know how to make advertising. Or not in the way it was supposed to be made. They worked out for themselves how to communicate, seduce, persuade, engage, how to make a stunning piece of film or a compelling couple of pages but if often didn’t look much like advertising. Even now, thousands of years later, when some of the habits have ossified and they really, clearly, do know how to make advertising there’s an inclination to push it further, to not make advertising. I think this a lesson for everyone who wants to be the w+k of the future; hire just advertising people, you’ll get just advertising.
2. The key to creative genius; work harder
I know it’s boring but this became so incredibly clear to me. The most exciting, inspirational, talented thinkers and doers just work harder than everyone else. Often they also work more effectively, so it doesn’t necessarily look like hard work, but basically they put in more hours, pay more attention and care more than the regular folk.
3. You can’t divorce the medium from the message
W+K never gave up on its own media people. Media thinkers and media doers were always integral. And often the smartest people in the place. This led to innovative and informed thinking about not just what we’d say and how we’d say it, but also where we’d say it. So w+k didn’t get stuck in that trap of shoveling creativity into a pre-bought schdule. We didn’t fill 30 second boxes with stuff. You’ve got to have media people in the building, it makes life better.
4. Do good work, the money will follow
When I moved from Portland to London I was one of only two people in the London office who’d also worked in Portland. And I think the rest of London management couldn’t quite believe Dan when he’d say this to them. They wanted to believe it, but they’d grown up in big London agencies where the bottom line is all. There’s not a lot to say about this, it’s just true.
5. Hold everyone to the same standard
I moved to Portland to work on Microsoft. It was clear in about 5 minutes that we were the pariah half of the agency. Everyone was either Nike or Microsoft. It was like high school. Jocks and geeks. They did fantastic work every 5 minutes, won all kinds of awards, got to meet celebrity athletes. We struggled to get any decent work through, won nothing, attended three day product briefings on Exchange Server.
And we all knew it would have been so easy to just roll over, give Microsoft exactly what they wanted (which was obvious and do-able) and rake in gobbets of cash. We could have funded a dozen pro-bono accounts which would have made us feel better and won us some awards and life would have been almost sweet. Except we weren’t allowed. Peer and management pressure made it clear that everyone was held to the same standard, however hard our client and our task we were expected to do extraordinary and thrilling work. This seemed divisive and wrong at the time but looking back I realise it was genius. Because if you have multiple standards you have multiple agencies. If you treat some clients as creative opportunities and some as cash cows that’s just what you’ll get. And sooner or later the cash cows will leave the field. Everyone’s seem what it’s like to be the Account Director on the regional retail account that’ll never do good work. It sucks. And it sucks even more when you have to sit and present your work to all the guys who work on the cool accounts. Kudos to Dan, he always expected us to make the work better. And, sometimes, before we got fired, we did some pretty decent work.
6. You can tell from the work if people enjoyed making it
This seems more true to me every time I walk in another agency. The places that are miserable make lack-lustre work (is it chicken or is it egg?). The places with energy make energetic, fulsome, toothsome work, bursting with ideas. If the process is depressing, the work will be flat, if the process has life, the work will connect.
7. Brands that influence culture sell more
This feeling was always in the air. People were trying to build popular culture not piggy-back on it, trying to create new culture, not just repeat old ones. About the worst thing you could say about an idea was that it had ‘borrowed interest’. And it was palpably clear that this instinct led to more effective, more profitable brands. So I remember writing ‘brands that influence culture sell more’ in a creds deck and getting the highly prized Wieden nod of approval. That was a good moment. (Or at least I think I remember writing that, it seems to have turned up in other places too, so maybe I heard it somewhere first, perhaps through some sort of strange wormhole into the future.)