Still Just Doing It -- Wieden And Kennedy Are Off The Beaten Track But Still On The Mark
IMAGINE IF DARRIN HAD STAYED home and Samantha ran McMann & Tate.
Pig-headed clients of the sitcom advertising agency would go POOF! into thin air. Really, really bizarre stuff - like a woman reincarnated as a dog to sell women's clothing - would hit the small screens in millions of homes faster than you could wiggle your nose. Rules would be tossed out the window. You could stroll into the bosses' meeting barefoot and decorate your office with anything, anything at all - even a urinal.
Welcome to Wieden and Kennedy, the Portland-based advertising agency whose commercials for Nike have bewitched an entire generation into believing that "Just Do It" referred to exercise, not sex.
Most advertising agencies are stress factories built on hustle, schmooze and art. On television, Darrin was the stereotypical uptight ad man who pandered shamelessly to clients, and Michael on "thirtysomething" was the creative genius whose delicate sensibilities were offended by doing so.
In real life, the stress of pleasing and keeping clients has grown more intense and competitive. For the first time in 16 years, the advertising industry is shrinking. There were 6,300 fewer jobs in June 1991 than in June the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Dozens of agencies have folded. Insiders say Madison Avenue is desperately trying to re-create itself in order to stay competitive. In an industry of hyperbole, it would be an understatement to say the ad biz is on shaky ground.
Three thousand miles from the sea of pink slips, Wieden and Kennedy is making its own small concession to the recession: Art director John Boiler is trolling for free feet.
The feet are featured in a print ad for outdoor volleyball shoes, a new product introduced by Nike this month. Armed with a camera, Boiler, 26, makes a "podiatric cattle call" throughout the office, seeking male employees who don't have "an unusual amount of toes."
He wanders past the lobby, where employees - including the janitor - are pictured on a 25-foot-high wall in such flattering poses as brushing their teeth; past the receptionist, who is baring her teeth at the head of the art department as the two compare braces (hers are clear, his green); upstairs past the producer, who is swinging a baseball bat and chewing red licorice; to the sales offices, where Boiler's downturned eyes light up at the prospect of well-turned toes.
"Straight on or profile?" obliges account executive Jeff Noble as he sheds his socks.
Boiler got the idea of featuring an array of bare feet after a champion player jokingly complained that the new shoes gave him an odd suntan. "We could have casted for feet (paying professional models), but that would have gotten very expensive," Boiler explains.
THE AGENCY THAT MADE ITS NAME getting people to focus on their feet is leaping ahead of the competition. Not that there haven't been bloopers - expensive bloopers - but confidence is so strong that Wieden and Kennedy has been turning away business.
For instance, when former client Miller beer tentatively tried to venture back into the fold last fall, the answer was a firm forget it. Despite the lifestyle portrayed on television commercials, executives say the folks behind the bottle just weren't fun. Which is the agency's most oft-cited reason for turning down a potential client. "We look for people who are like us," says management supervisor John Russell, whose office contains a Pee-wee Herman doll and lunchbox. "Are they smart? Are they fun? Do they have an open mind? If not ..." Clients range from KINK radio in Portland to Pacific First Federal Bank to Subaru and, of course, the mainstay, Nike.
In 1982 advertisers paid Wieden and Kennedy $1.2 million to popularize their products. Last year, that figure shot up to approximately $250 million. Advertising analysts consider W&K one of the country's top creative agencies, but caution it has yet to demonstrate a broad range of abilities.
The secret to W&K's success isn't witchcraft, but something equally alien to American industry: creativity.
Not the lip-service, we-want-you-to-feel-free-here-but-if-you-do-anything-other-than-the-w ay-it's-always-been-done-we'll-change-it-and-soon-you'll-give-up-and- become-bitter-and-frustrated-just-like-everyone-else.
But the real thing.
Creativity isn't a frog to be dissected, or a recipe easily duplicated, but it is evident in Wieden and Kennedy's television commercials and print advertisements. Those ads could come into being only in a certain type of environment.
Think about it. Some of the best business ideas surface outside the typical office environment. W&K not only makes sure the working place is nothing predictable (e.g., the third-floor basketball court), it also encourages folks to rope in brainstorms wherever they occur.
GEOFF MCGANN KNOWS THIS.
While other feet spend their workday stuck under a desk, McGann's feet skip over the chilly Willamette River behind a water-ski boat. Some of his best ideas come while he's water-skiing. One day early last fall, the 26-year-old copywriter was thinking about how to best capture Nike's new Air Flight basketball shoes. He dropped into the water, swam back to the boat and reached for the tape recorder he had installed for brainstorms such as this. He spoke only two words: "Twilight Zone."
The connection between sneakers and Rod Serling wasn't yet clear, but TV viewers could be sure of one thing: The ad would be entertaining, and they wouldn't catch more than a glimpse of the product being sold.
One of the golden rules of advertising is that people need to see lots and lots of whatever it is you're selling. Let the camera zoom in on a bowl of dog food, even if nobody, least of all Fido, is fooled by the supposed resemblance to beef.
Wieden and Kennedy knows how to break that rule and plenty of others, which may be why the agency doesn't have to peddle pet food. Rather than an overt sales pitch, the agency has an irreverent style that plays to consumers' intelligence and sense of humor.
A commercial for Subaru, a $70-million account clinched last year following a brutal national competition, mocked traditional automobile advertising by showing unglamorous footage of a car being assembled in a factory, while narrator Brian Keith intoned that a car "won't make you handsome or pretty. ... If it improves your standing with the neighbors, then you live among snobs with distorted values."
Not all clients appreciate an irreverent style.
W&K has earned a reputation among some clients for arrogance, what some privately refer to as a "hipper than thou" attitude.
The Gallo Winery, for instance, chose not to air an expensive commercial portraying a very hoity-toity party at which a man makes a beautiful and very public proposal to his girlfriend, who sweetly answers: "No."
"Gallo. It never disappoints."
A Gallo spokesman called the agency "highly creative" but declined to comment as to why the winery chose to sever relations with Wieden and Kennedy at that point.
Those at the agency say winery executives just didn't get the joke.
STEP INSIDE THE ONETIME department store in downtown Portland, and you get the first hint of business as unusual. The city's workaday uniform - a conservative blue suit - is conspicuous by its absence. Instead, New York and Los Angeles transplants defy Northwest conformity with torn blue jeans and avant-garde get-ups reminiscent of a funeral on Mars.
The executives get their own coffee and do their own Xeroxing, and everyone, whispers one secretary, is "a little weird."
Employees take their lead from Dan Wieden and David Kennedy, who opened shop in the basement of a labor-union hall on April Fools' Day 1982. Kennedy is tall, trim and soft-spoken. His office is very messy.
The son of a Texas wildcatter (someone who drills wells hoping to find oil), Kennedy is the antithesis of the pretentious, glad-handing ad man. His grandfather owned a store on an Indian reservation, and Kennedy grew up with a strong attachment to Native American culture. He is currently creating ads based on Indian folklore for the agency's first national pro-bono account, the Native American College Fund, patterned after the American Negro College Fund.
Kennedy worked as an art director at various Chicago agencies before moving to the Northwest in 1978. At the annual holiday party, a lavish affair with live music and a fully stocked bar, Kennedy, 50, showed up in Levi's 501 jeans and a blue-jean shirt - his uniform for the past eight years.
Dan Wieden is Kennedy's taller, trimmer, outgoing partner. (In advertising, everyone is trim and attractive.) The native Oregonian and onetime aspiring screenwriter is 45 years old, has four children and lives in a house in the woods.
His father was president of a Portland advertising agency and was named Advertising Man of the Year in 1970 by the city's ad club. About 20 years ago, Dan Wieden began writing copy for wood-products manufacturers until he worked his way up to a large Portland agency, where he met Kennedy.
Wieden's office resembles a den, with books including Gore Vidal's "Hollywood" and an autobiography of Miles Davis. One day Wieden would like to write a book on advertising. There's a shelf of CDs indicating an eclectic taste: Bob Dylan, Todd Rundgren, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. The latter group is admittedly not for everyone. The music sounds like a band warming up, and the lyrics are haiku on acid.
Wieden says he and Kennedy wanted an agency that was different from all the others.
"What's wonderful is to watch people come here and grow and heal," he said.
Many employees who came from repressive agencies - in some cases, where they weren't even allowed to decorate their offices - say they've done just that. They also like being able to dress the way they choose. He tells of an advertiser who demanded that agency representatives visiting the client's office at least put on a sports coat. Some employees who didn't own jackets borrowed them. "The others stayed behind," Wieden says.
The fashion clash was indicative of a philosophical difference; the client is now a former one.
"You don't judge a restaurant by what the cook's wearing," he says.
"The real thing David and I value in the agency is the quality of the work we're doing. The worse thing you can do is perpetuate advertising slop," Wieden says. "People respond to our ads because they see them and think, `That guy understands my culture.' "
Last year, Wieden and Kennedy installed a basketball court, complete with bleachers, on the third floor. It is here that staff meetings, noon aerobics classes and creativity seminars are held. During the seminars, everyone from internationally noted advertising gurus to James DePriest, conductor of the Oregon Symphony, discuss the creative process for the entire staff, even the sales people, who traditionally have been considered the "noncreative" side of the industry.
Wieden installed the court to provide employees a release from what has to be one of the most stressful businesses around. And like the Nike commercials, the hoops disrupt expectations and make you smile.
A GATHERING OF STAFFERS IN DAN WIEDEN'S office is discussing a few small problems with the Twilight Zone spot.
Geoff McGann is, predictably, barefoot. His colleagues tease that they don't give him back his shoes until 5, or else he'll sneak out early. Tom Blessington, the account supervisor, is wearing shoes but no socks. "Saves on laundry," he shrugs.
Everyone helps himself to jelly beans from a giant candy jar Wieden keeps in his office.
Then it's time to roll tape.
The new, ultra-light basketball shoes are used by agile athletes who try shots most people can't do. McGann felt playing in them was almost like playing in the Twilight Zone.
The commercial opens much the way the old television show did, only the door being shattered in the beginning is a locker-room door.
A narrator welcomes you to ATE LESS AND FIRE NET.
Oops. First snag. That's weightless environment, but the words are spoken so hurriedly, they're hard to understand.
Michael Jordan's teammate, Scottie Pippen, is about to "discover the power of his flight shoes, by way of a time warp."
As he ties the laces, he's transported to a basketball game in the 1950s, where his agile moves stun the other players.
The pace is rapid-fire. We see 26 separate scenes in 30 seconds. There's barely a glimpse of the shoes themselves. In the end, the narrator moralizes, as Serling always did: "And so, the laws of basketball are rewritten in the higher court of the flight dimension."
Second oops. There was another ending that Wieden and others favored, but the agency had accidentally shown both to Nike executives, who preferred the moral ending.
McGann returns to his office and rests his feet atop the Fred Meyer shopping cart someone has deposited there and which he plans to keep. ("In case I get kicked out of my house, I'll have someplace to go.")
McGann was hired when he was 24 years old. That's young even by advertising standards, but his bold style fits in well here.
If he feels strongly about an idea, he's given the freedom to try it out, even if the bosses are skeptical.
"If you're happy, you do your best work," he says. "And I'm happy here."
CREATIVITY FLOURISHES IN AN atmosphere in which people take risks, something most companies aren't willing to do. "If you're not nervous about something, it's not worth doing," says Scott Bedbury, director of advertising at Nike. "When you're playing it safe, you don't set yourself apart from anybody." (Nike, like Wieden and Kennedy, appears recession-proof, with record second-quarter earnings posted in December.)
The closest parallel to Wieden and Kennedy is the phenomenally successful Microsoft, where employees have the power to make their own decisions, set their own work hours and dress as they darn please.
Why don't more businesses give themselves the freedom to succeed?
"When you take a risk, you throw away what you've been successful at in the past," says University of Washington finance professor Rocky Higgins. During a recession, business becomes even more wary of taking a gamble.
Mediocrity comes not from lack of ideas, Higgins said, but from an inability to turn vision into reality. To break through the barriers, management - and Higgins admits risk-taking is easier from newer, smaller companies with less to lose - must not be afraid of failure.
Wieden and Kennedy expect to fail every now and then. Triathlete Joanne Ernst was one of the first to say "Just Do It," in an abrasive Nike ad that managed to make every other woman in America feel like a lazy pile of flubber when she added: "And it wouldn't hurt to stop eating like a pig, either."
Dan Wieden had no idea women would react so violently. He did some research and found that while the commercial appealed to triathletes, the average woman does not aspire to be Joanne Ernst. Women exercise because it makes them feel good about themselves, and brings a sense of order and balance to their busy lives, Wieden says.
That piece of knowledge helped launch one of the most successful women's fitness campaigns of all time. Nike received thousands of calls on its toll-free line from women asking for reprints of the ad, said Nike spokeswoman Liz Dolan.
Wieden had replaced the two men working on the account with two women. Unlike most agencies, there is little bureaucracy here. Like Microsoft, employees here work in teams. A copywriter and art director are paired on an individual account and come up with a concept and copy. Wieden likes to team younger employees with older ones, matching the "brashness of youth" with experience.
If Wieden and Kennedy themselves like an idea, and the client is willing to risk it, the ad is produced almost immediately. There are no middlemen to blanderize an idea until it becomes a carbon copy of what everyone else is doing.
In traditional hierarchical structures, many good ideas are quashed because each person along the chain constantly frets over how the person above him will react.
The copywriter on the women's fitness account is 32-year-old Janet Champ, who started at the agency five years ago as a receptionist and in two years worked her way up to writing ads full time. She has a faux urinal hanging from her ficus ("I couldn't put it on the door, because there are a lot of guys here and you never know what would happen") and children's books, including "Alice in Wonderland," on her office bookshelf for inspiration.
Champ wanted to appeal to women who weren't hard-core athletes. What struck her was how women always took responsibility and time for everyone else but themselves. She wanted to get the message across that women needed to take care of themselves, preferably in Nikes.
She decided to write the life story of a woman: an eight-page ad, which read, in part "You wanted boys to notice you. You were afraid the boys would notice you. You started to get acne. You started to get breasts. You started to get acne that was bigger than your breasts. ... You became a significant other. You became significant to yourself."
Nike worried that there was too much to read, Dolan said. A cardinal rule of advertising is to keep the copy short. So Nike and Wieden and Kennedy took a big chance.
Oprah Winfrey read the advertisement on television and cried.
Ironically, some of the controversy stirred by some of Wieden and Kennedy's riskier ads has generated free publicity for the products.
A recent ad for Anne Klein proved too racy for prime-time TV. While the narration itself was deliberately innocuous - "Earlier this evening, Sally was wearing an ivory-and-black buffalo check jacket over a black sequined bodysuit, a black miniskirt and black tights ..." - the accompanying image is of a couple in bed and the woman flinging off her brassiere.
The ad has been stricken from prime-time TV, creating a flurry in some advertising journals. An ad with near-identical narration but a different image - that of a dog, suggesting Sally's reincarnation as a canine - made it past the censors.
Several other risks have paid off, from using the Beatles' song "Revolution" to promote the fitness revolution, which resulted in a copyright lawsuit, to the slogan "Just Do It," which U.S. News and World Report criticized as encouraging ghetto youths to hold up other kids to steal their shoes.
Dan Wieden says he doesn't stir up controversy deliberately, but enjoys a good fight. He's like one of those guys in high school who always played pranks on the teacher, but never once got caught.
Maybe that's why when an expensive ad goes belly up, he doesn't fret. Take "The Big Swing," for example, now known as "The Big Slice." It aired once during a golf tournament last year, and then Nike dumped it.
The commercial had too much action, and the concept didn't work, Bedbury said. But he also shrugged off the $375,000 Nike paid to have the ad produced. "It's a price we pay for giving them (Wieden and Kennedy) the freedom we do," he said. "We're going to get some breakthrough advertising, and some ads we don't particularly like."
But Jim Riswold, the idea man behind "The Big Swing," wasn't discouraged; nor was his work disparaged. To this day, Wieden says he considers "The Big Swing" some of the agency's best work.
Despite an occasional financial faux pas, skyrocketing business made it possible for Wieden and Kennedy to dole out an 8-percent year-end bonus to all employees.
This year, the agency doubled in size to 210. Sixty people were hired in Portland, and a staff of 50 was recruited for a new office in Philadelphia.
The East Coast office primarily handles the Subaru account, and, predictably, has plans for a basketball court.
SEVERAL THINGS HAPPENED WHEN the Twilight Zone ad aired in October. First, it became two commercials instead of one. Second, the words "weightless environment" were easily understandable. Third, the basketball shoe featured became the highest-selling athletic shoe in the country that month, Bedbury said.
And predictably, there was controversy. According to Bedbury, several white supremacists called to complain that a black athlete was being portrayed as superior to white athletes. Those callers failed to recognize that Pippen was transported back to an era when basketball was a white man's game, and that the commercial was poking fun at what was once a less-graceful sport.
They didn't get the joke.
Actually, there were two jokes. The ending Wieden liked best of all, the zinger at the end that speaks to the athlete in everyone, did make it to the screen.
The 1950s basketball coach leads Pippen out of the locker room advising, "Son, you could make hundreds of dollars a year in professional basketball."
Somehow, Rod Serling would have approved.
Christy Scattarella is a Seattle Times reporter. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.
Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.