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.
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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.

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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.