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Independent agency Wieden & Kennedy, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, has a reputation as one of North America's finest creative agencies, originally as a result of its superb work over the years for key client Nike. During the late 1990s, the agency opened a clutch of international offices but was initially hit by a series of staff problems, as well as fickle clients. It had recovered from these by 2002, and has steadily broadened its global reach, initially to service Nike but subsequently adding other global clients such as Heineken (until 2015, when bizarrely that account moved away despite a series of uniformly excellent ads). As a result, Wieden & Kennedy's reputation is arguably as strong in Europe as it is in the US. Its offices in Amsterdam and London rank among the region's most creative agencies. Showing no sign of slowing down, the agency scored numerous successes during 2010 including landmark campaigns for Nike and Old Spice, which became the year's most talked-about ads. It has maintained that momentum ever since with a series of high-profile ads for a broad portfolio of clients both big and small.
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The last remaining privately owned agency to operate a multinational network, W+K is greatly admired for its creative work, but in the past it had seemed at times to have a problem going after big new accounts. As a result it was traditionally dependent on a handful of high-profile clients, but especially Nike, a labour-intensive account which has served the agency well (and vice versa) over many years. However, 2005 represented a breakthrough year for W+K, in which it added a string of additional multinational giants to its roster, trading up from Coca-Cola's niche Powerade to the main Classic Coke account, and from regional projects for Electronic Arts to lead position on the global account. It has continued to perform wonders on the new business front, since then, not least in 2015 with the capture of three massive US accounts in Bud Light, KFC and, for a while, Verizon.
Until comparatively recently, W+K's biggest weakness had been the lack of a dedicated interactive division. That shortcoming was responsible for a loss of part of the Nike account in 2007, prompting the agency to rapidly strengthen its offering. The Nike business was later won back, and the agency's digital abilities have continued to improve exponentially. That was amply demonstrated in 2009 by the Chalkbot campaign for Nike, in which customers were able to use a dedicated website to write their own message on the racetrack of the Tour De France cycle race via a remote controlled robot. The campaign won W+K the Cyber Grand Prix (as well as the top award for Film) at the 2009 Cannes Lions Festival. W+K's digital skill was demonstrated once again during 2010 by the agency's masterful use of social media to support the hugely admired Old Spice campaign, in which almost 200 of the brand's Facebook followers and other bloggers were individually targeted with their own personal ad featuring pitchman Isaiah Mustafa. As a result, W+K is now firmly established as one of the world's top digital agencies.
Yet that expansion has in no way affected its work for Nike. The epic (and expensive) Write The Future ad which launched during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, was arguably W+K's finest to-date for its flagship client. That ad, created by Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, was the world's most awarded during 2011, according to Gunn Report rankings, just ahead of the same office's The Entrance spot for Heineken. As a result, Wieden & Kennedy's two offices in Amsterdam and Portland topped the Gunn rankings of the world's most awarded agencies for that year, and earned the network 5th place among the most awarded networks. In 2012, Wieden & Kennedy won both Agency of the Year trophies at the Cannes Lions festival, as both the top independent and the top agency of all by prizes won. In addition, founder Dan Wieden took home the special Lion of St Mark award, honouring his career in advertising. It has continued to maintain a strong presence among the winners in successive years.
Wieden & Kennedy is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, but also maintains a significant presence in New York. The Portland office also houses W+K Entertainment, a content development unit, and sustainability consultancy W+K Tomorrow. The group also has its own substantial media planning and buying operation.
Advertising Age estimated global revenues of $330m for the group in 2016, including $223m in the US, just behind Saatchi & Saatchi. The agency's skill at developing an international network while also maintaining its independent spirit and exceptional creative standards earned W+K the title Global Agency of the Year for 2007 from Adweek. It took that title once again in 2010 from both AdAge and Adweek, and among numerous other accolades was also named as Network of the Year by the UK's Campaign. An exceptional run of outstanding ads during 2012 earned the agency the title of Adweek's Global Agency of the Year for the third time.
Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam was the agency's first international outpost. It was originally established simply to service Nike, but has steadily built up a roster of other major accounts, and now serves as the main hub for continental Europe. Wieden & Kennedy London launched in 1998, and now handles a small portfolio of other accounts. In a bid to bolt on further global business from its key client, W+K opened an office in Tokyo in 2003 and in Shanghai, China, in 2004. In 2007, following the capture of the global account for Nokia, W+K announced the acquisition of a stake in "A" Creative Agency of India, which becomes the shop's first outpost in the substantial Indian sub-continent. In 2010, Brazil became the agency's new frontier, with an outpost in Sao Paulo.
W+K played an enormous part in the transformation of Nike from sneaker brand to global cultural icon in the 1990s. The agency was formed in 1982 in Portland, Oregon, by McCann-Erickson staffers Dan Wieden and David Kennedy. The sportswear company was their first client, and it was Wieden himself who coined Nike's legendary "Just Do It" slogan. Initial spend was just $1.5m annually. But as Nike's success and marketing budget grew, so did the amount of creative work it demanded; by 1996, W+K was delivering as many as 60 or 70 creative executions a year for the company when most advertisers would settle for around 10. In 1994, fast-expanding Microsoft picked W+K to create the ad campaign for Windows 95, which went on to become one of the most successful software launches ever.
The agency was famed for its obsessive approach to business. The company slogan was "The work comes first", and creatives were renowned for occasionally getting involved in shouting matches with clients who didn't sufficiently appreciate their work. This idiosyncratic approach seemed justified as W+K's ads propelled its clients into the upper reaches of corporate America. But as they got bigger, the clients began to experience their own shift in priorities. The passion still championed by W+K was less important than hitting quarterly sales targets, especially when all that meteoric growth began to plateau. Always a tough client, Microsoft became even more demanding, specifying endless revisions and insisting on an adherence to deadlines which didn't really sit with the agency's loose way of working.
There were also strains on the relationship with Nike. At the end of the decade Nike, along with all trainer manufacturers, began to see sales fall. Meanwhile after a long series of ads shot by film director Spike Lee and starring Michael Jordan (a campaign known in the industry as Spike and Mike for Nike), the agency had to find ways of doing Spike for Nike without Mike, because the basketball-turned-baseball superstar was no longer playing. In 1998, the sportswear company moved around a third of the account to rival agency Goodby Silverstein, and was said to have threatened a full account move unless W+K strengthened its presence in Europe.
W+K had opened an office in the Netherlands to service Nike at the start of the decade. Mid-1998 this team picked up a $35m account for merged German bank HypoVereinsbank. But a few weeks later a scandal erupted when it was alleged that three agency employees were working on a pitch for Nike's arch rival Adidas. (The staff members in question were dismissed, but later cleared of any wrongdoing. They set up on their own as 180 Amsterdam.)
All in all 1998 was not a good year. Reduced spend from Nike, as well as a shift of part of the account to rival Goodby Silverstein, knocked billings down to $800m, from a high of $875m in 1997. The agency laid off around 10% of staff. Meanwhile it had to work even harder to service Microsoft, embroiled in the first stages of its run-in with the US government over Netscape and other anti-trust issues. Some welcome good news came in the shape of the Diet Coke account, worth around $60m. But 1999 threatened to turn out even worse after Microsoft moved its entire account to McCann-Erickson. A month later Miller Brewing moved its Miller Genuine Draft account as well. After a mammoth effort, W+K won back the Goodby Silverstein portion of the Nike account at the end of the year.
After that, W+K's fortunes remained volatile. In 2001, the agency's London office finally hit its stride, winning the prestigious Honda account in the UK. A few months later, however, the US agency was virtually booted off the prestigious Coca-Cola roster, losing all but the Powerade brand. US billings continued to tumble and W+K slipped out of the magic Top 50 in Advertising Age's US agency rankings for the year. Even so, the agency vowed it would not succumb to the temptation to sell out in order to win additional business, and clawed its way back into the 50 for 2002 and 2003. Performance has steadily continued to improve. In 2005, Wieden + Kennedy achieved two major new business wins, taking clawing its way onto the Procter & Gamble roster for the first time, but more significantly taking control of the North American Classic Coke account, worth an estimated $150m in billings. At the same time however, the agency has struggled to keep other clients entirely satisfied, especially its demanding flagship account Nike. In 2007, the sports shoe giant transferred part of its creative business out of W+K and into Crispin Porter & Bogusky. Just over a year later, in June 2008, that decision was revered and the whole account was consolidated once again in W+K.
Last full revision 7th February 2018
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