How Wieden+Kennedy Just Did It
For our Heroes special, co-CCO Susan Hoffman tells us her 35-year-long W+K story.
Since it was founded in 1982, Wieden+Kennedy has become synonymous with innovation. Among recent bold work was a bid to create a running shoe with Nike that could enable a marathon run in under two hours – fitting considering the agency’s first ever TV spots were aired for Nike during the New York Marathon.
“Just Do It.” Who knows how many sporting heroes that iconic slogan – coined by Dan Wieden for Nike’s groundbreaking 1988 campaign – has inspired over the years? It’s short, simple, motivational and, 30 years later, it hasn’t dated or lost its punch. No wonder it regularly tops best taglines of the 20th century lists.
Since then, W+K has become known for boundary pushing work that has proved timeless. For Nike (it remains the brand’s primary agency) it has produced such compelling ads as 2016’s The Switch with superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, the Spike Lee and Michael Jordan spots, and its Rio Games Unlimited campaign, which featured an 86-year-old nun triathlete and America’s first transgender Olympian. For Old Spice it made the witty The Man Your Man Should Smell Like campaign. And the agency has also created memorable work for other top global brands such as Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Facebook, Honda, Instagram, Mondelēz, Samsung and Spotify.
Above: Nike's Do You Know
Founded in Portland, Oregon, in 1982, the trailblazing indie has also opened offices in Amsterdam, Delhi, London, New York, São Paulo, Shanghai and Tokyo. It has earned a number of agency of the year honours from leading organisations and publications – this year it was Ad Age’s Agency of the Year and was named in the 2016 Gunn Report as most awarded agency in the US, and the seventh most awarded worldwide.
“I just knew I had to work with Dan and David. They were so honest, so truthful and so real, it spoke to me and just inspired me. To this day I feel that if I hadn’t found them, I wouldn’t have found me.”
Its success story is inseparable from that of Susan Hoffman, its co-chief creative officer. A Portland native, she started as an art director at Pihas, Schmidt, Westerdahl before moving to TBWAChiatDay Seattle, and then finally arriving at Wieden+Kennedy where she’s spent 35 years defining the agency’s culture and applying the lessons she learned along the way. “When you’re starting out as a junior, I think you’re always looking up to who’s doing the most exciting, creative work,” she recalls, “so my heroes in the beginning were Jay Chiat, Tom McElligott and Milton Glaser. ChiatDay was doing brilliant, breakthrough work, and Jay and Tom were the new pioneers in advertising, while Milton was an amazing conceptual designer. After that it was David Kennedy and Dan Wieden.”
Hoffman actually worked with the pair at McCann-Erickson in Portland before joining W+K. “When they formed their own company to do the Nike account, they couldn’t afford to take me with them, so I just waited until they could,” she reports. “And when I got an offer from another agency, I turned it down. I just knew I had to work with Dan and David. They were so honest, so truthful and so real, it just inspired me. I’d had a hard time at school, and to this day I feel that if I hadn’t found them, I wouldn’t have found me. That’s how phenomenal it’s been.”
Above: Old Spice's The Man Your Man Should Smell Like
A crucial part of the creative team, it was Hoffman who was inspired to use the Beatles song Revolution for the iconic Nike spot of the same name, and her unique perspective is present in many of the most memorable ads W+K has produced. Since Kennedy’s retirement in 1993, she’s provided the visual yin to Wieden’s storytelling yang and greatly contributed to the wider global W+K network. She’s worked as a CD; opened the Amsterdam and London offices, serving both as executive creative director; and done ECD gigs in New York and Delhi, bringing a taste of the W+K culture to the global operations. Under her leadership as ECD of W+K Portland, the office rapidly grew to 600 people. She also ran WK12, their experimental ad school and has helped launch the careers of many of the most successful creative directors in the industry.
Marathon men and massive disruption
Since last year the agency’s global management has comprised Hoffman and Colleen DeCourcy as co-CCOs with Neil Christie as COO. The team is committed to pushing the global W+K network to find new and different ways of working and thinking across technology, content publishing and design. Last year, continuing its innovative work with Nike, it launched an ambitious project called Breaking2, documenting Nike’s challenge to build a shoe – Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite – that would help marathon runners break the elusive two-hour barrier. The campaign saw a trio of top runners meet at Italy’s Monza Formula 1 racetrack one May morning to attempt to beat the world record set in 2014 when Kenyan runner Dennis Kipruto Kimetto clocked in at 2:02:57. Though the two-hour mark wasn’t crossed, Kimetto’s time was bested by Eliud Kipchoge who finished at an incredible 2:00:25. A full-length documentary following the quest was produced with National Geographic.
Above: Nike's Breaking2 - The Innovation
W+K and Nike continued to collaborate on product innovation with last year’s Nike Maker Experience, which offers customers a bespoke sneaker in less than 90 minutes. This was one of the projects undertaken by the agency’s tech division The Lodge, which works with AI, VR and CG to push creative experimentation.
"You need some science, but we’re also human and need that emotion.”
Hoffman is excited about the creative possibilities to come and believes the heroes of the future will be “kids who’ve had the tools for massive disruption at their fingertips since the day they were born. They’re so curious and so inventive, and I see all that with my own kids. With all the new technology available they’re really innovative and just naturally want to change things for the better.”
But balance is all and Hoffman cites too much “science” as one of the industry’s anti-heroes: “I’d like to see people rely less on data and research – and put more trust in their own gut feelings and take more risks. You need some science, but we’re also human and need that emotion.”