Last year, Wieden Kennedy topped Ad Age’s Agency A-List for the second year in a row thanks to impressive account wins and ever-expanding work for legacy clients.
But taking the top honor for three consecutive years—the first three-peat since Ad Age first began naming an Agency of the Year in 1974—requires a certain kind of magic. In addition, Wieden Kennedy has received the honor five times—in 1992, 2011, 2018, 2019 and 2020; no other agency has won more than three times.
This past year, the agency doubled down on its previous successes, proving that it can build upon even its best work with longtime creative partners while still drawing some of the most recognizable brands on the planet into its fold.
The Portland office turned its Nike ads featuring Colin Kaepernick into a full-brand platform that celebrated women in sports. In New York, the Ford account grew from project work to one of the agency’s largest clients, and the shop killed off Bud Light’s titular mascot in a gruesome Super Bowl spot, only to resurrect him later.
All told, the agency landed 21 new business wins, including work with Facebook, Fisher-Price, HP OMEN, Magic Leap, Michelob Ultra, Trolli, media for Quibi and, in a move that stunned the industry, nailed the U.S. creative account for McDonald’s, just three years after the fast-feeder’s last industry-shaking review. Perhaps even more amazing, it won McDonald’s while still maintaining its long-running relationship with KFC, a move that is turning old notions of client conflicts on its head.
At the same time, the agency lost ABC Media and Instagram due to restructurings at Disney and Facebook, respectively, and parted ways with RXBAR and Lyft post-IPO. After an award-winning campaign for OKCupid, parent company Tinder opted to move the account to Mekanism.
Nonetheless, W K’s global revenue was up 14.1 percent in the U.S. and 8 percent globally. Portland notched its second-best year ever, and New York had its best year for the third straight time.
“The world right now isn’t really set up for a company like ours. The contracts aren’t written for a company like ours. Non-competes weren’t created to help a company like ours. Media infrastructure, none of it has been set up to be in our favor,” says Colleen DeCourcy, co-president and global chief creative officer. “And I think that there are a set of clients in this business who see the value of what we bring, and they really want to help us face those headwinds. And so rules get broken.”
A steady hand
Account wins get the glory, but no agency can survive on new business alone. After the pitch, there is always the work, and few agencies have shown that they can iterate and reevaluate and continue to deliver culture-leading creative better than Wieden.
To follow up on the Cannes Lions-winning “Dream Crazy” work for Nike, the agency expanded the campaign’s purview. In February, “Dream Crazier” highlighted the challenges that female athletes confront and overcome to be the best in their sport with a spot narrated by tennis champion Serena Williams. “Dream With Us” followed Team USA to the Women’s World Cup, where it shifted from celebratory to inspirational after the U.S. won the tournament, lobbying for equal pay for the winners, who earn only a fraction of what their less successful male counterparts do. By the end of September, Nike’s women’s business was growing at double digits.
The KFC team in Portland continued a seemingly never-ending stream of new Colonels, tapping more celebrities, exotic dancers, a robot and virtual avatars to don the starched whites and goatee.
“With KFC, we made more big bets in spaces outside of film,” says Eric Baldwin, executive creative director at W K Portland, who heads creative in the office alongside fellow Executive Creative Director Jason Bagley. “When we do TV, we do it in a bigger way, like the ‘Rudy’ work with Sean Astin.” Another KFC campaign offered “Seasoned Tickets,” a delivery of chicken wings for every football game of the season in a partnership with GrubHub.
“Over time, you can win a client’s trust, because the risks that they take with you pay out for them,” DeCourcy says. “I’m always shocked when someone can do something really great and then it never happens again. You always wonder what the client was thinking, because it’s like, you just did something great and it really worked out for you. So why wouldn’t you continue to let your agency do good things?”
The new(ish) kid
The 2019 star of Wieden Kennedy, however, was the New York office. Founded in 1995 as a media shop before going full service in 1997, New York spent years focused on its primary client, ESPN. “The dominance of Portland as the home office was always the bane of New York’s existence. No matter what work you did, no matter how celebrated that work was, it was always attributed to Wieden Kennedy Portland, so it just lived in that shadow,” says Tom Blessington, co-president and chief operating officer at W K, who served as managing director of New York from 1997 to 2000.
But the New York office began to break out about four years ago, Blessington says, under the joint leadership of Managing Director Neal Arthur and Executive Creative Director Karl Lieberman. “They’re not under the scrutiny of Portland, not under the legacy of Portland,” he says. While the management teams coordinate at a high level, the creative teams rarely interact, usually working with completely different clients.
“If Wieden Kennedy New York burned down, Portland would be fine,” Lieberman jokes.
That’s less true than it used to be. In addition to Bud Light, the office expanded its work with HBO, leaning into narratives that help soften the shop’s bro-y, sports-centered pedigree. A campaign for International Women’s Day featured strong female characters from the channel’s lineup, and the “It’s OK” initiative aims to destigmatize mental health issues. “When we first started working with HBO, we were trying to figure out great commercials for them, and we just realized they’re not interested in that type of content,” Lieberman says. “So that allows us to make work that’s actually not just running during commercial breaks, because HBO doesn’t have any.”
Cracking the conflict nut
McDonald’s came looking for ideas, citing the Nike and Bud Light work as emblematic of what it wanted. What began as project work grew until it became a full-blown review. “There were tons of conversations making sure that first and foremost it was above board for KFC,” Arthur says.
McDonald’s, too, was at first wary of working with an agency that had a strong relationship with a competitor. “At this point, it doesn’t concern us,” McDonald’s U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Morgan Flatley told Ad Age in September. “We wanted to make the decision around getting the best work.”
Internally, the McDonald’s creative is handled solely out of the New York office, and KFC is handled out of Portland. “I’m not familiar with the piece of business in the New York office,” Baldwin says dryly. “We’re very focused on fried chicken in Oregon. And there are firewalls. When certain words are spoken about other brands, we have little Babel fishes in our ears, and it sort of scrambles those words.”
The road ahead
Until 2019, Droga5 was Wieden’s primary rival/sibling in the world of independent agencies. Droga5 is now forging a different path forward after its acquisition by Accenture, and time will tell if it can continue its past glories under a new regime. But in its 38th year, Wieden Kennedy still has the cachet of an upstart and still approaches the conventions of traditional advertising with an active indifference that continues to pay dividends both creatively and financially. The world—and the industry with it—is changing, and if the last decade belonged to Droga5, the next one might well belong to Wieden Kennedy.
“Regardless of the model—whether it’s consulting plus creativity, data plus creativity, media plus creativity—the independence part of it is truly the thing that we have found that makes the difference,” DeCourcy says. “So does it wake me up in the morning thinking, ‘Holy shit, I’m going to have to up my game if this is where the world’s going’? Sure, but we can bob and weave because of our independence. And I wouldn’t trade that for all the consultants in the world.”