WKE Is A Pure Entertainment Play. My Advice: Dirty It Up.

Aaron Mesh of Portland alt weekly, Willamette Week, spent several weeks putting together a cover story on Wieden + Kennedy Entertainment (WKE), the division of the agency that sees itself as a budding north-of-Hollywood studio.
It’s a long story, but here’s the heart of the matter:

What it lacks is a business model. The project turns upside down the calculation that guides most advertising production: Instead of doing work at the behest of clients, WKE will make an entertainment product and hope it becomes popular enough that clients will clamor to underwrite it.
This is nearly unprecedented at the agency.
“We don’t know if it’ll be funded next year,” says Aaron Rose, WKE’s creative director. “Nobody fucking knows who we are.”

I feel Rose’s pain, but he’s also giving voice to the conundrum. To be a person of importance at W+K, you need to be a creative director on Nike, Target, Coke, etc. If WKE’s mission was to serve those clients with branded entertainment solutions, then everyone would know who Rose and his cohorts are. Guaranteed.
Here’s what Dan Wieden has to offer the newspaper on the project’s future:

“We’re in a place where we don’t need permission to do this, so we’re just hauling ass,” he tells WW.
But does he think the WKE project be funded in 2010? “Do you think you will?” he replies to the reporter. “Where it succeeds, it will get funding. It’s that amoeba kind of thing. Where it gets traction, it moves.”

Okay, so where is this amoeba of a content department moving exactly? Aside from seeking to produce films–a subject not taken up by Willamette Week–WKE’s current focus is a DIY Internet radio and TV station. Naturally, such a station needs shows and hopefully the better ones surface to become hits.
Yes, there is a better way.
Solve marketing problems with original content for Coke, Nike, Target and the rest. Then the projects will be funded properly, and of equal importance, the people inside the building who make ads can also help make the agency’s entertainment product. If there was a Coke-sponsored program on WKE’s daily Webcast, the best writers and designers in the building would be hungry to take part.

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. Good insights, and a fair assessment of the landscape, but I think there is room for multiple models when it comes to the now overused term ‘branded entertainment.’
    While there must be an underlying business model fueling efforts that make entertainment production viable while providing value back to the brand in continuing to fund it, there is no ‘one size fits all’ template for this category.
    In some cases, it makes sense for a brand to develop original scripted content that drives a specific action, and my company is experimenting with branded transaction-based experiences like this that unlock bonus content for some desired behavior. In that manner, while entertainment may be the driving force/benefit, it is still a piece of marketing geared toward the audience and intended to move a measurable objective.
    In other cases (and what W+K’s new venture appears to be centered around), sponsoring entertainment that resonates with a brand’s core audience makes sense in creating a halo association between a memorable experience and the brand, and demonstrating that the brand understands the lifestyle of its consumers and is mostly a top-of-mind awareness play. This scenario makes the brand benefactor of a purely [unbranded] entertainment experience as opposed to an entertainment experience developed specifically as a promotional tool with product integration. This harkens back to the old days of branded entertainment where brands bankrolled entertainment geared toward their key demo — ie consumer packaged goods companies who developed soap operas to get their brand in front of head of household women who purchased their products with resonant content.
    Obviously, the latter is more difficult to measure and requires a larger investment up front before the brand sees any return, but in an oversaturated space where brands are tripping over each other for attention, entertainment can be extremely powerful in rising above the clutter. All things being equal, a consumer is more likely to support the brand bringing them their favorite show than the one who isn’t. The underlying message is that if you continue to [financially] support the brand, they will continue to bring you quality entertainment. It’s a worthwhile value exchange if the content is compelling enough. The trick is always to find that winning balance between developing the stories audiences crave while delivering the ROI that brands demand.
    I look forward to seeing the evolution of W+K’s latest venture, and am certain at the very least, they will uncover key learnings for pushing this concept forward.
    Gennefer Snowfield
    Founder and Branded Entertainment Specialist
    Space Truffles Entertainment

  2. Amen, Dave.

  3. @mason – thanks bro
    @Gennefer – Rockin’ commentary! Thanks.
    You say:

    In other cases (and what W+K’s new venture appears to be centered around), sponsoring entertainment that resonates with a brand’s core audience makes sense.

    I hear that, but I don’t think that’s what is going on inside Camp Wieden’s Pearl District compound. The reality is these people are some confident SOBs (and they’ve earned that right). Anyway, WKE doesn’t care about resonating with a brand’s core audience at all. They care about making a worthy entertainment product that can stand on its own merits.
    I think it would be so much easier to see where WKE is coming from if it wasn’t a unit housed inside a world-famous ad agency. Because WKE is where it is, I see the need for synergy between the ad makers and the show makers. But they don’t, and there’s little need to question them (even though I enjoy doing so).