Though most people wouldn’t describe Wieden+Kennedy’s Amsterdam office as “huge,” some of the work that has been coming out of it lately has been. Heineken’s “The Entrance,” a big, sweeping production that has everything from a martial arts sequence to a dance number and a retro-cool band raises the proverbial bar in a category that (at least in Europe) includes some of the finest commercials ever made. And then there is the epic FIFA World Cup spot for Nike that launched last summer, “Write the Future,” a three-minute film depicting success versus failure with top soccer stars and cameos by Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant and Homer Simpson. The spot is a hugely ambitious and breathtaking ride for a brand that isn’t even the official sponsor of the event.
As a result of all of this, W+K Amsterdam has been beefing up its creative department and from the looks of it, they should be the most awarded agency in the world by this time next year. (We kid, sort of). one spoke to executive creative directors Mark Bernath and Eric Quennoy about Heineken and Nike and the return of the big ad.
Let’s start with Heineken. How did the idea for “The Entrance” come about?
MARK: “The Entrance” is the first film that we made for Heineken based on a new strategy around men’s desire not to be a provincial amateur but to be more worldly. We wanted to flatter our drinkers, opposed to treating them like idiots who will do anything for a beer. The original idea based around portraying this worldly character started with his ability to say hello in different languages at an embassy party. It kind of evolved as we went into production with Frederik (Bond) and just started riffing on ideas of how to make it more fun, and we ended up with him having an eyeball in his pocket and things like that. His general resourcefulness and the ability to be comfortable in many different situations is what we really wanted to bring about with this film. But we always like to inject it with a couple moments of awkwardness to keep it grounded—like his approach to the Shao Lin guy, so he’s not perfect.
ERIC: We had this thing that we called the MOA—the moment of awkwardness. They’re actually using that term internally at Heineken now. It’s that moment where we bring our man down a peg or two. He may speak eight different languages but he dances like a complete moron, so it balances the equation and makes him more likeable and human.
Most beer commercials tend to veer toward the big joke. Did you want to go a completely different direction from the start?
MARK: If there’s a brand that can be a little more clever and witty and play a slightly higher form of humor, Heineken would be one of them. It’s one of the most widely distributed and worldly beers that’s in over 200 countries. It’s the beer version of the man of the world, and I think to give it its premium feel, that extended into our sense of what the tone should be, so that the humor was more clever and subtle than on the goofy side.
ERIC: They’ve got a long history of doing fun, comedic work, so it’s definitely part of their DNA. But it’s much more sophisticated sense of humor with much more wit than slapstick.
MARK: Humor for global work is one of the most difficult things because there aren’t many things that everybody thinks is funny. A lot of the best humor leverages regional sensitivities and cultures, which is why it’s often funny because you get it and you know the reference. But when something has to travel all over the place, especially the irony-free markets, it’s tricky, and that also makes you go for humor in a slightly different way.
Is global the trend right now?
MARK: Well, it’s a lot of what we do in this particular Wieden office, a lot of our clients are the global marketers within the organization. But I think ultimately Heineken would love to have a singular voice around the globe because it’s a more effective way to align people with the brand when there’s a focused message. But it’s not always the case, and that leads back to the humor thing. You could always have a guy who’s running the show in Vietnam or France and he could say, “We don’t get it and it’s not for us,” so they’ll go and make their own work. That’s the constant dilemma you have.
There are also online films that go into more of the backstory of the character.
MARK: That’s what we did with the first film to try to validate his entrance, we allowed consumers to go deeper to understand his relationship with the other characters. It’s a hell of an entrance with one thing happening after the next, and the extra films allowed us to define him better.
ERIC: That whole thing about how you judge a man by the quality of friends that he has was something we looked at during casting. Frederik was great at trying to find really strong characters—within two seconds of screen time you already wanted to know more about them, from the sailor without an eye to the Mexican cowboy. There as something intriguing about them to begin with, and we liked the idea that our man knew these characters from his journeys around the world.
What were some of the challenges that you faced during the production?
ERIC: A lot of it was the choreography, we spent two days in rehearsals just to get the movements through the crowd. It’s a very physical piece with figuring out all these handshakes and learning the karate moves. Eric Monjoin, the actor, rehearsed it and we had a stunt teaching him the actual tricks for two days prior to the shoot. The trickiest part was getting it right in the rehearsal phase so that it would all come together when the cameras were rolling.
MARK: We originally intended to do it in one take, but that presented many problems and was a bit ambitious, so we abandoned that, and I think rehearsal was key to help us wrap our heads around it. Ultimately if we had three minutes then we could have done a one-take but there was no way to condense it and have it give you those interactions between people. So that was a great thing to relieve ourselves of.
And now let’s talk about “Write the Future” for Nike. The word epic is an understatement. Did you set out to make the greatest football commercial of all-time?
MARK: You should have seen us a year ago, we looked young and had all this hair on our heads, but it was a hell of a ride. The brief from Nike for every World Cup is to make the greatest football work of all time—it’s not always a film but it usually incorporates one just by the nature of the beast. But that’s one of those awesomely scary briefs where you just can’t believe you’ve been given the chance to do that but also the responsibility is daunting. We had been running Nike for a while which is great, you kind of have to get into the tone of the voice to get a handle on it. But it was an unbelievable undertaking.
How long did it take to produce it? Was getting all the players involved and shooting it a logistical nightmare?
ERIC: It was definitely a logistical nightmare, the producers didn’t have a day off for three months. I think the whole production itself was five weeks.
MARK: Including post it was more like 10 or 11 weeks. But the hardest about it was when the players change, which happens a lot. Like someone might get hurt over the weekend or if Rubinio leaves Manchester and goes to Brazil and we’re like, well, we’re not going to Brazil, so that’s another problem. So then you have to replace him with another player who might not have been from a country that you were going to shoot, so it was going to be Brazil-England and now it’s going to be France-England. Then you have to move everything around and change the whole puzzle.
ERIC: All of those athletes were at the busy time of their season, so the domestic leagues, championship leagues—their schedules were insane. Just getting the players together was difficult enough, but the sheer ambition of the amount of shots that we wanted to get was insane, but in the end we got every single shot we wanted. There were probably 30 or 40 times when we didn’t think we wouldn’t get half of them, but we persisted and Nike was great in terms of support. At one point we were talking to the Simpsons and maybe that wasn’t going to happen and then maybe it was South Park or Family Guy, but then we got the Simpsons. Everyone had the same ambition, which was incredible, but I still to this day don’t know how we pulled it off.
W+K’s recent work has really set the bar for long-form commercials with very high production value. Are we seeing the return of big commercials with big budgets?
ERIC: In these two instances they’re particular beasts, and we do a lot of smaller stuff around them that are great. But a World Cup spot for Nike is a big investment—while adidas puts a significant amount of money into the sponsorship of the event, Nike chooses to have a deeper conversation with their consumers by spending that money in rich, beautiful communications. And football for Nike is the biggest thing for them—it’s a piece of global business that is their number one priority in terms of taking over adidas.
Similarly, for Heineken, this was a whole new brand campaign for them. Heineken is a premium brand so the production values that goes into something for them is consistent with that.
So much of this lives beyond TV in the online world, so more and more advertisers are looking for things that have a life that can be pored over with great detail and passed on. There’s a greater engagement that makes you want to see it again and say, “Did I just see that?”
MARK: The tools to pick things apart are in everybody’s arsenal as a consumer, so if they’re going to do that you have to give them pieces of gold in there to find. So “Write the Future” is packed with a zillion ideas and “The Entrance” is not too far behind.
ERIC: But we don’t think you necessarily need to spend a bucket load of money either. We did this whole shoot for EA where we shot eight pieces in one day for not much. We did the EA FIFA Street 3 viral campaign a couple years ago that got 30 million hits and was done for very little money. But it had just as great an impact, so it’s horses for courses.
W+K Amsterdam has been on a hot streak. What’s the secret to success?
MARK: I wouldn’t take credit for the Wieden philosophy at all, we work with it and add our couple percentage points to it. But Dan Wieden and David Kennedy originally created such an inspiring place to work in, and I think there’s such a freedom to be creative and fail and, of course, succeed. Out here, we feel so lucky to be in Amsterdam, it’s such an amazing place to live and work.
For Eric and I, our secret is positivity and just having fun. I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s so important to just be enjoying the process because advertising is equal parts frustration and elation, probably more frustration because the percentage of ideas you actually make compared to the ideas that you have is pretty small. For people to do that day in and day out, you have to be in a good environment that supports you that’s positive and fun to be a part of. We try to instill that in the place. We’ve been the ECDs for only six months and we’re learning every day and from the people around us. It’s a lot of fun, although it could rain less here.
ERIC: Everyone that comes here comes hungry and ambitious, this is a place where people come to do the best work of their lives. That ambition is ingrained in everyone who comes here, and to Mark’s point, we want to create the atmosphere and vibe where people can create the best work that they can.
MARK: I think there’s also a little bit of not loving advertising and wanting to make it better and feeling the responsibility to give people something worthwhile because there’s so much shit out there. It drives you to want to do better with your clients and your employees. It’s almost like we owe it to people to entertain them and give them something worth considering, and I think that’s what Wieden has always done.