2009 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient: Dan Wieden

Dan Wieden grew up in Portland, graduated from the University of Oregon and worked briefly in public relations before trying his hand at copywriting. In retrospect, it wasn’t such a bad career move.  

Dan quickly found himself at a local agency working with his creative partner, David Kennedy, on a regional sneaker account. When the agency–client relationship began to sour, Dan and David seized the moment, scraping together $500 apiece to open their own shop, (fittingly) on April Fools’ Day, 1982. They took the upstart sneaker company, called Nike, with them.

Soon after, their only client introduced himself by announcing, “I’m Phil Knight. And I don’t believe in advertising.” After Dan and David exchanged panicked glances and contemplated the fate of their collective nine children, they set about making some of the greatest advertising that doesn’t believe in advertising ever made.

Three decades later, the agency that started with five employees and a shared pay phone down the hall has offices in Portland, New York City, London, Amsterdam, Delhi, Shanghai, Tokyo and São Paulo and nearly 1,200 employees around the world.

Under Dan’s leadership, the agency has grown to be a global brand in its own right, operating 24 hours a day in dozens of languages on projects as varied as branding international companies, running an experimental advertising school, producing documentaries and TV series and even incubating technology start-ups.

As nice as the growth has been, Dan’s motivation has always been to create a different type of advertising agency, a place “where people can do the best work of their lives.” Dan threw out the structure and bureaucracy that plague larger agencies in favor of a chaos theory that puts the work first and empowers anyone to come to the table with a great idea.

Clearly, something is working.

In 2012 Wieden+Kennedy was named both Independent Agency and Agency of the Year at Cannes, and Dan himself was awarded the Cannes Lion of St. Mark for his lifetime of achievement, further proof that Dan’s vision of an independent, creatively led agency can make meaningful, challenging work for its clients—and that it can be profitable.

Over the past five years, W+K’s annual capitalized gross billings rose 55% to $3.2 billion, working with a diverse client base comprising some of the world’s most recognizable brands, including Coca-Cola, Chrysler, Delta Air Lines, ESPN, Facebook, Heineken, Honda, Nike, Old Spice and Procter & Gamble.

Despite all his success, Dan remains a regular guy. His door is always open to his employees and he is unflinchingly honest with clients. In an age when integrity is seldom found in the advertising business, Dan’s fight to remain independent and provide a place where fellow dreamers can find their voice has resulted in an environment where people and clients alike can flourish and make some of the best work of our time. 

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