Arati Rao
Jul 03, 2012

W+K Unplugged: Insights into the making of a successful independent

Arati Rao caught up with Dan Wieden, co-founder and global executive creative director, Wieden + Kennedy, and recipient of the Lion of St Mark award at Cannes Lions 2012; and Dave Luhr, chief operating officer of the independent. Edited excerpts:

W+K Unplugged: Insights into the making of a successful independent

Campaign India (CI): There is an independent agency wave in India at the moment. What are things to think about before putting your name on the door of an agency?

Dan Wieden (DW): My advice is that you don’t necessarily have to go in alphabetical order.
On a serious note, though, things to think about are that you’re going to have very long hours, and not necessarily a lot of money for a while. But if you really have a passion for it and you put your whole self into it, you’re going to have a lot of fun.

CI: How do you get people to walk into that agency and give you business? For instance, Nike?

DW: Well, Nike used to spend a total of one million dollars a year on advertising and most of their ads were in really small running magazines and newspapers. So, they didn’t have a lot of money, we didn’t have any, and so we just grew the business together.

CI: How do you get clients to stay with you for the long haul?

DW: I think we’re pretty good as an agency at making strong relationships. Because we’re an independent, we don’t have to answer to margins and all that kind of stuff, so I think our relationships are very honest.

Dave Luhr (DL): And you hopefully, do great work and (get) great results - because clients won’t stay for relationships alone. If your first effort for the client is good, it paves the way for a great relationship. That’s why it’s important to hit the ball out of the park that first time.

CI: So once the clients are in, how do you get people to walk into that agency and help build the business?

DW: In the beginning, it’s kind of difficult because you have to build a reputation for yourself. But if you’ve been doing remarkable work, people will start wondering, “What’s going on in there?” That’s the real secret. It’s like moths around a light bulb.

CI: How do you keep those people with you, especially those who may want to put their names on doors of their own agencies?

DL: The magic of our agency is that Dan has created a culture where people want to work with us. Most people in this business have worked at multiple agencies. When they come into our shop, they feel a sense of relief - a sense of “Aah, this feels like home, I can do good work.” They feel like they’re respected and everyone shares the same values. As long as you’re doing that, people will stay. We have had a lot of people leave and come back as well. The stickiness of our culture helps that and it’s also really good for the agency, because they go out and get more experience and when they come back, they’re different for that as well.

CI: It’s easy to keep the paint on the door fresh. How do you keep everything behind it fresh as well?

DW: The minute you’ve done a good piece of work and taken bows for it, you have to realise that it means nothing now. You have to move on and do something new. You’re always trying to outdo what you’ve already done, because you’ve never done it exactly the way you wanted to do it. You have to be basically dissatisfied with life.

CI: Wieden + Kennedy Delhi releases a magazine called Motherland. How does being independent help agencies to do many things, and not just advertising?

DL: I think that’s one of the things that’s great about our network, especially in some of the emerging markets like India, Brazil and China and Japan. In the US, there’s a really tight definition of what an advertising agency is; we’re trying to extend that, but there is a defined marker placed. You go into some of the emerging markets, and that definition isn’t there. So we’re allowed and encouraged to do things in those markets that are much more difficult at home.

We aren’t entirely focused on profits, but we do run a business. We want to do some things for creativity’s sake, but it needs to be balanced out by a few things that do make money.

CI: How do you take the door sign of your independent to different countries and make it work?

DL: When we extend the brand beyond Portland, we want to make sure that there is a cultural feel of our offices, but we don’t necessarily want to have a cookie-cutter approach.

I always say the offices are one-third Wieden + Kennedy culture, one-third is the city we’re operating in, and one-third our leadership. For business, you do a couple of things – you look at your global clients and see if you can get some of that business for the local market, so that’s the low-hanging fruit. Then, you’ll begin to add business locally as well. We always like a mix between global and local businesses; we don’t want to be a 100 per cent of either.

DW: As Dave said, what we try to do is create some consistency in the culture, so that you know when you’re there that you’re at a Wieden + Kennedy office. But each office has a lot of different attributes to it. You just let that individual office figure out what it wants to do, how it wants to integrate into the community that it is operating in, and how it can help the country that we’re in.

DL: I would say that it’s a chain reaction – if you hire really well, then that chain reaction continues. We feel really good about Mohit Jayal and V Sunil because they adapted to our culture really easily and then they spread that out. It’s when you don’t hire so well in the beginning that it can get difficult.

CI: Wieden + Kennedy has stayed independent for 30 years. What should an independent agency think about before letting someone else put their name on their door?

DW: First of all, selling out is not happening for Wieden + Kennedy.

For other independents, you can make some money by selling your agency. For agencies that haven’t seen much money, you can feel really good after doing that for a year - or maybe a year and a half. Then you’re going to realise that you aren’t necessarily running your office, you’re answering to somebody else. Their concern isn’t culture or the quality of the work - it’s about whether you’re meeting your quotas.

CI: For young creatives: how can they get a Lion Of St Mark someday?

DW:  My advice is it will come to you if it’s supposed to come to you. Except in my case, it came to me, and I’m not really sure it should have. You just need to concentrate on the work, and life will take care of you just fine.

Campaign India

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