What The Locals Think

Wieden + Kennedy is a powerful force in the city of Portland. One might argue the agency is now an institutional anchor, the way a school might otherwise be.
Given the important place W+K occupies in Portland, I’ve been intent on finding out what the “town-gown” relations are like. Do puny men in Nikes tangle with sailors and lumberjacks in dive bars, or what? No, I don’t think so. But there is tension between the camps and I’m not the only one who feels it. Art critic D.K. Row of The Oregonian knows something about it too.

There are several reasons why outlaw-loving Portland holds the outlaw-loving agency with cool remove…
One reason is proximity — you take for granted that which is nearest to you.
Another reason is that despite the legions of creatives in Portland, the city is still culturally provincial. The Rose City reserves its hosannas and boasts for recycling, a Blazers championship or smart bike paths, not world-class art, design and advertising, even with some of the best in its backyard.
But the biggest reason is that in iconoclast-loving Portland, the convention-breaking agency is still, well, an advertising agency.

Row’s portrait of the ad biz and Portlanders is none too flattering, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for a moment. If it was Apple Computer or a well known movie studio taking up an entire city block in The Pearl, would attitudes be different? Hard to say, but it’s not a stretch to realize people gravitate toward companies that make things particularly well–things like clothes (Nau), shoes (Keen), beer (Widmer), software (Panic), etc. Ad agencies–even the greatest ones on earth–don’t make things, they make up reasons to buy things. In Portland there are lots of people who value making things over buying things, and that’s an unusual situation in America.
Dan Wieden and agency partner John Jay are both active citizens and have made large investments of time and money to help the people of Oregon. But what happens at the more mundane levels of interaction? Are W+K art directors polite to their hair stylists? Are W+K account people fun to wait on in a restaurant (and are they good tippers)? Are the agency gate keepers decent to the locals who may aspire to greatness themselves? I think there are a variety of answers to these non-rhetorical questions. Some of them are good answers and some are not. That’s life in the City of Roses.
Ultimately, John Jay and Dan Wieden and the rest may not care all that much what people right outside their agency think. They’ve certainly earned the right to some bravado. But I do think it would benefit all parties if W+K created an Ambassador to Portland position. Maybe all their offices need the same. I don’t know. But in Portland, it might help build support for the company in the larger community, and that sounds like good business to me.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Agency-City/Town ambassadors seems like a good idea. Do you think small cities/towns need this more than big cities? For the agency, would this be more cause related outreach or a pr/media ploy?

  2. @Kenji,
    I have no stunts, ploys or any other shenanigans in mind here. I’m talking pure community outreach, which builds the agency brand on the ground. Why do that? Why not? The community outside Wieden’s doors is pretty damn creative and it makes sense for the agency to build good will there and show a lasting commitment to use its fame, money and power for good. Patagonia is the classic example of the modern day model corporate citizen. My thought is W+K could be more like Patagonia. They could do things because they need to be done. Our government isn’t getting the job done, that’s for sure. So what can business do? In Patagonia’s case they created the market for organic cotton, which was a risky and expensive move at the time. So it’s not all about pro-bono work, not at all. It’s about looking at internal systems and making them better. I’m saying one of those systems that could be better (according to my limited outsider perspective) is community outreach. That could mean a lot of different things. It might mean W+K works closely with the city to move an agenda forward. It might mean W+K works with other local business entities to pursue a common goal. One of the city of Portland’s goals is to become the worldwide hub for sustainable industry. I’d like to see W+K buy into that and help make it happen.

  3. This is a really interesting perspective on something I had never really thought much about. The situation isn’t unique to Portland, but it’s certainly something that W+K needs to think about more than any agencies headquartered in New York, for example, due to both the amount of large agencies in New York and the cultural differences between the two cities.