In 1982, Portland-based friends and colleagues Dan Wieden and David Kennedy ditched their former advertising agency to launch their own, with just one client: Nike. Though it’s tough to imagine, it was a relatively little-known brand back then.
Since then Wieden+Kennedy has become the largest, independently owned advertising agency in the world, with eight offices spanning the globe, and today the agency’s space is a former frozen food warehouse that takes up an entire block in the city’s Pearl District.
Thanks to the thoughtful, considered choices of local firm Allied Works Architecture, the space seamlessly balances the old and new. The original bones of building were left intact, while an original five-story concrete structure rises in the center, like a structure within a structure. Concrete, wood, and metal lend the space a cool, yet comfortable vibe, while skylights ensure that each floor is awash in natural light. The atrium hosts work meetings, lectures, parties, and live music, to help employees feel like they’re part of a family, not just a company.
While Portland may not seem like the most obvious location for an ad agency’s HQ, Wieden+Kennedy view their location as an advantage. According to executive creative director Susan Hoffman, one of the company’s first employees, “Being in Portland, we’re away from most of the industry. So we’re not bombarded with competitors down the road. Our seclusion is actually a good thing.”
Wieden+Kennedy is fiercely committed to independence. While other agencies of similar stature have caved in to corporate buyouts and investors for safety and security, the founders shun it.
For starters, staying independent allows them to “hire wrong,” one of several quirky rules Wieden+Kennedy lives by (“Fail harder” and “Don’t act big” are others). “We’re a bunch of crazies, so we take a lot of chances,” says Hoffman. “We’ve hired misfits who were turned away from other jobs.” (She says they even “hired a person based on his poetry.”) So, what’s the one common trait that binds all the employees together? “Everything here is in service to creativity,” says Hoffman. “No one is really allowed in the building unless they’re creative.”
Independence also means that there’s more room to take risks and make decisions based on conviction, as opposed to what’s expected by higher-ups. Guy Featherstone, creative design director, says: “This is the most self-initiated culture I’ve ever been in. You can become whatever you want to become.”
No matter the client or project scope, the agency first undergoes what Featherstone refers to as an “archeological” process. “We have to understand the brand and go to its roots to understand its DNA.” Once the agency is able to identify what a brand is ultimately about, Featherstone says, “We try to find what’s human about the brand, because we’re designing stories to build emotional connections.” Hoffman adds, “As far as style goes, it can be funny, like Old Spice, or serious, like Nike. But if a story is based on truth, then no one can argue with it. We can be successful with any brand if they will let us dig into the truth.”
While Wieden+Kennedy’s diverse client roster includes some of the most recognizable and influential brands in the world, Featherstone sees an undeniable, common truth: “Every brand wants to stand out, be better heard, and seen more clearly.”