Wieden & Kennedy (W+K) is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year with a new leadership team. BrandWagon’s Shinmin Bali catches up with W+K’s global COO Neil Christie at the agency’s London office about assuming his new role, W+K being a lean agency among the big networks, key accounts and awards losing their sheen. Edited excerpts:
You recently moved into your current role. How have the last few months shaped up?
The early stages are about making sure that I visit the network, meet people running the offices, see how they are doing, talk to the management teams to make sure they are focussed and supported to be able to do great work, and also to establish a direction as to where we are going with the agency. The other thing we have done is to confirm the global leadership team. Recently we announced that Susan Hoffman has joined alongside Colleen (DeCourcy) as co-chief creative officer. So, the three of us form the global team now.
We want to be the world’s most provocative maker of branded everything. When we say branded everything, it is a recognition that these days advertising comes in so many channels, shapes and sizes; we might be making a mobile game, a virtual reality experience, a TV commercial or an Instagram post or all of these together as part of a single campaign.
Does it make working for Nike easier or harder given that the brand’s competitor Adidas has chosen to go digital-only in terms of advertising?
We do not develop our strategies looking at what our (client’s) competitors are doing. Nike has always been an innovator and leader. It is not about looking at Adidas’ strategy and thinking how we can respond to that. It is about staying cutting edge and keeping Nike in the forefront.
I have no idea what Adidas is going to do in the future. Clearly, advertisers like the idea of not spending much money on television because it is expensive. However, it is still in most cases, for most advertisers, the most cost effective way of reaching a mass audience. The way we look at communication is, if you want to reach a mass audience it is not about doing things instead of TV but about doing others things as well as TV.
W+K won the Sainsbury’s account recently. This came soon after the success of the Christmas campaign created by the previous agency, AMV BBDO. How did this come about?
The brief that Sainsbury’s gave was to recognise that the brand had a history of great Christmas campaigns but what it found difficult was to extend that success over a long period and to develop ongoing, consistent campaign assets that it could run through the year. It had individual campaigns for Christmas which were very successful but very distinct from each other. But it didn’t flow into the work it did at other times in the year. It was getting harder to get a cumulative effect. So what Sainsbury’s was looking for was a new campaign approach that could run throughout the year and across multiple aspects of its business, and to give it a sense of fresh energy in the modern UK.
What advertising trends do you spot in the UK market?
There is a lack of appetite for taking risks. It is not a golden age for creativity; that is partly because agencies and clients are under pressure. The other things that are going on are the increasing importance of media efficiency, accountability and transparency of the new media platforms and how the value of those is evaluated; the increasing rise of consultancy firms acquiring advertising agencies and other communication businesses; and an increasing domination of the advertising market by Google and Facebook. You have got the consolidation going on. As with many other businesses, the market goes to the two extremes — the big consolidated holding companies on one end and on the other, you have people like us that work with big clients but have a relatively small operation… we are not selling ourselves on scale.
How does the existence of big, consolidated agencies in the same market/s impact you?
I think it is fantastic. I love it! The more those agencies become bigger and their work more alike and worse, the better it is for us. I like that we have a totally different proposition to them. We are not even competing with those agencies.
What is W+K’s outlook towards awards?
Awards to us are like the cattle feed that the brewing industry makes out of spent material; in the sense, that they are a by-product.
Winning is a good thing, we recognise that it is an indication of the perception of our work by our peers. We don’t confuse them with what is important to our clients — which is the success of their businesses. What we find is doing the best possible work for our clients is also the work that wins.
Are there too many awards?
Oh, definitely. There could be an award for best socks worn by an actor in an ad for plumbing contractors. There is not an agency in the world that is not an Agency of the Year (AoY) in something.
But at the same time you have more and more categories being introduced, even at festivals as huge as the Cannes Lions…
The last thing the world needs is more awards shows and more categories, in my opinion. The other thing that everyone is conscious of is that awards shows are a business at the end of the day. More categories means more entries, especially at Cannes where most of the revenue comes in from big networks. Big networks want to accumulate not just the big prize but the AoY or Network of the Year. The more the number of categories, the greater are the chances for agencies to gather enough points to be an AoY. It becomes a numbers game. The more there are, the less value they may have. That is why, in the upper echelons of the creative circle, if I may, what people covet the most is the D&AD, because that is what we have the fewest of.