CREATIVE HALL OF FAME
A proud history
David Kennedy and Dan Wieden
A foreigner who has the great good fortune to spend quality time inside the Bedlam known as Wieden & Kennedy gradually comes to three conclusions regarding its eponymous founders: They are outsiders; they are teachers; and they are kids. From April Fools' Day, 1982, when David Kennedy and Dan Wieden fled the constraints of a tiny Portland, Oregon boutique to open their even tinier novelty shop in the GranTree Rental Furniture Building, that combination has proved momentous. For of the handful of men and women who have contributed to the punctuated equilibrium of advertising's evolution, all boast one, or a pair, of these qualities. But few if any can claim all three, and none, perhaps, will ever again possess the transfiguring force of these childlike pedagogues from somewhere west of Laramie.
Portland is not just far in miles. It is a galaxy away from the emotional center of an advertising industry that, by its nature, is steeped in the new and the now. Founded by taciturn New Englanders who thought northeastern Puritanism was a tad too libertine, Oregon's LARGEST CITY developed with what one historian termed "a preference for isolation." Big ideas were as unwelcome as strangers; in the second half of the 19th century, Portland citizens voted to exclude blacks, and at one point drove Chinese residents away. To this day, says one longtime advertising executive, Portland remains "difficult to penetrate."
Dan Wieden and David Kennedy were aliens to this isolationist culture, just as they were to the culture of advertising, which both grew up despising - paradoxically, because both were, in their way, born into it. Dan's father, Duke Wieden, was the chairman of the Gerber agency, known as "the Grey Advertising of Portland." Enormously popular, an amateur volleyball player of some note, Duke was simply unable to instill in his eldest son any love for his profession. Driven by the spirit of beat rebelliousness that underlay Portland's dominant conservatism, Dan tried everything possible to flee the life, trying his hand at poetry, short stories, and screenplays. Unable to make a living, he finally landed at the age of 33 at McCann-Erickson's Portland office, where he survived, he once said, by treating copywriting as "science fiction."
At McCann, he was teamed with an art director five years his senior named David Kennedy, who shared his complete disdain for advertising, but had built a curiously traditional career inside of it. The son and grandson of itinerant oil drillers, he'd gone to college to study geology, only to gravitate, out of a love for drawing, into fine art. But his artistic predilection conflicted with early-onset marriage and children so, soon after graduating, he found himself in Chicago, working for Young & Rubicam, Leo Burnett, Needham and Benton & Bowles. He flirted with various countercultures - at one point, he even helped produce the TV show "Soul Train" - but REMAINED unhappily tied to advertising. "There was no way I could get out of the business, and I just hated it," he once told me. Finally, fearful of the corrupting influence on his children of affluent suburban life, he uprooted his family for the Pacific Northwest.
From the start, Wieden and Kennedy complemented each other. While they shared an abhorrence for the conventional, they differed in correspondent ways. Dan was voluble where David was contemplative. Dan was wild, David disciplined. Dan was always seeking the untried and unknown; David would find the precedent that could anchor it in a comprehensible reality. Most importantly, David - a man who was known to rummage through his office for, and yelp in excitement at finding, the exact right typeface for a comp - taught Dan that advertising could be fun.
That attribute has been the root and branch of Wieden and Kennedy's system of advertising. Fun lies at the heart of the way their agency has produced advertising and in the center of the product itself. As arduous and painful as it is joyous and memorable, fun is a trait these two pre-Baby Boomers have in no small measure taught to the hundreds of ironically more conservative Boomers and Xers who've passed through their Northwestern realm. And fun, whether accomplished through the violation of pitching protocols, or by the employment of an untested independent filmmaker, or via the re-purposing of an outlaw graphic designer has kept Wieden & Kennedy confusing and incomprehensible, removed from an ad industry mainstream that values "brand-speak," military-like efficiency and tough marketing cojones.
But make no mistake: Dan Wieden and David Kennedy have molded that mainstream in their image. In their appropriation of cultural fragments from the edges of design, art and film and their winking invitation that the audience disbelieve their every claim, they forcefully pushed advertising into the postmodern period. They made advertising safe for entertainment - no small feat in a time when commoditization was rendering "reason-why," product difference-oriented marketing moot. They helped godfather the era of attitude, in which the brand itself spoke with a voice neither palatable nor intelligible to a mass market they knew no longer existed, anyway.
Along the way, of course, they grew and grew and grew - not by merging or moving or acquiring, but by persuading some of the largest corporations in the world that, in an era of fragmentation and disaffection and uniformity, it was worth trekking to Portland. To the outside. To the kids.
So it's quite fitting that The One Club close this second millennium (after Christ, or the destruction of the Second Temple, or whatever) by inducting David Kennedy and Dan Wieden into the Creative Hall of Fame. There, they will join the other grandees of this industry, whose lessons they've largely ignored. Which is only appropriate because, teachers though they be, Wieden and Kennedy know the only advertising dictum worth heeding is this one: Just walk in stupid every day.
Would that we could all be so stupid.