Center Stage With Portland’s Most Successful Communicator

PORTLAND–It’s only 5:30 but already Jimmy Mak’s, the Pearl District jazz club, is full of people eager to hear from the silver fox.
Before Dan Wieden ever takes the stage, it’s a standing room only affair. So much for the idea that people don’t like advertising, or the men and women who dedicate their lives to the practice.
Tonight’s event is hosted by Portland City Club and Portland Monthly magazine. Portland Monthly’s editor-in-chief, Randy Gragg, with mic in hand welcomes Wieden and starts into his round of prepared questions about his relationship with David Kennedy, his work at Caldera, his work at the agency and how to brand Oregon.
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Wieden says Kennedy was wearing a three-piece suit when he met him at McCann in 1979. He also says Kennedy was the only one who knew anything about advertising when the agency started. “Back then we thought maybe we’d have 12 people, we’d do our jobs and that would be cool,” says Wieden. “But we had Nike and ESPN and did good work for them,” which led to many more opportunities, he adds.
At this point, Gragg halts his questions to show W+K’s Super Bowl spots, one for Coke and one for Dodge. There is muted applause after Coke’s Simpsons spot, but the Dodge spot receives hearty approval. Wieden says he’s “really proud of this one. It’s hard to do a good car spot.” Later he reveals that he has a big hand in new business and he’s “staying close to Dodge” at the moment.
Wieden says the best client relationships become deeply personal. “You go to games, you eat and drink. You have a social relationship and a business relationship.” It’s easy to imagine how clients warm up to this man. He’s comfortable in his own skin, confident without being cocky, and unassuming in his Levi’s and a black Nike jacket. And with a head full of ideas and stories to recount, he’s entertaining.
One of his management ideas is independence. “We encourage people to be completely themselves. We deeply believe in the individual voice. And we believe in the voices coming together to make something damn magical.”
When Gragg turns his questions to Caldera, the camp for at risk youth that Wieden built and funds, the man gets fiesty. “The racial issue drives me crazy about our business,” he says. Wieden says he’s working with experts at the camp to determine how best to release the creativity in at risk kids. Clearly his heart is in this one. “I’d take a bullet for that fucking camp,” he emphasizes.
Gragg follows up with questions about W+K’s work with the state of Oregon. “Tourism is really important to the state right now,” he declares. A question comes from an environmentalist in the audience about ancient forests being logged and the agency’s greenwashing on behalf of the state. Wieden doesn’t like it. He curtly offers, “I’m in marketing. The focus (of that old campaign) was to get people here.”
Another question, this one from a city official, also draws a withered response from Wieden. Asked how the city can help support W+K and other creative businesses, Wieden only says, “That would be a good idea.” After a deliberate pause, Wieden mentions that Mayor Sam Adams asked him a similar question recently and he told him the best thing to do is nothing. Wieden believes the creative class’ fascination with Portland is based on the fact that there’s no creative establishment here. “It’s explosive and unpredictable,” he says. “You could fail or succeed.”
Wieden is certainly responsible for bringing hundreds, maybe thousands of so-called creative class workers to the city. His most recent catch is Iain Tate from Poke. Wieden calls him “one of the most brilliant minds in social media,” and says he will assume a leadership role at the agency, working closely with John Jay, Dave Luhr and himself on the global team.



About David Burn

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. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.