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W+K London’s Neil Christie on clients, awards and why the agency will never sell out

Wieden + Kennedy was the agency cited by the bosses of the big marcoms companies at the recent 4As conference as the agency they most admired. Neil Christie, managing director of the Portland agency’s London outpost, explains what makes the agency tick.

1/ W+K now has a worldwide network of eight offices (Portland, New York, London, Amsterdam, Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, Tokyo and Sao Paolo). Is this going to be the extent of the network? Does this give you enough coverage to compete for any worldwide business against agencies with more extensive networks?

We have no plans to open additional offices. With our current network we’re able to create and deliver global campaigns for clients on the scale of Coca-Cola, Nike and Nokia, so our size isn’t a barrier to working with some of the world’s greatest brands. We’re not in competition with conventional networks – if a client wants a local network office in every territory, we’re not the right agency for them.

2/ W+K is famous for its creative work. What are the agency’s other main attributes?

The work is definitely the most important thing – it’s what we’re all here in service of.

Other attributes are mainly to do with attitude and values: a culture that pushes people to fulfill their potential, a willingness to take risks, and a bunch of smart people who treat each other and our clients with respect.

3/ Does the agency always intend to stay independent? What is the succession plan?

Yes, W+K will always stay independent. In the words of Dan Wieden, “We are never gonna sell this fucker.”

In relation to succession, Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth, the ECDs of W+K London, are the only global partners outside of the Portland office.

4/ In the Campaign/Nielsen table for 2010 of the biggest UK agencies W+K is not among the top 20. Is this a worry?

No, it’s not a worry. You’re referring to the UK ‘billings’ table, which is a relic of ye olde days when agencies’ revenue was derived from commission levied on UK media spend.

In those days, the more you billed, the more you earned. These days, looking at billings is pretty much useless as an indicator of agency performance.

If you look at the UK rankings by revenue (money actually paid to agencies by clients), you’ll see that figures published by Campaign in December 2010 put Wieden + Kennedy at number 12 in the UK, a rise of 8 places on the previous year.

5/ Many of the world’s big clients these days seem to allocate briefs to roster agencies (or a combination of roster agencies and newbies) on a kind of rotation system. Is this less preferable for agencies? A case of clients hedging their bets?

I can’t speak for other agencies. It’s an arrangement that generally works for us. We don’t necessarily want or need all of a big client’s business. We just need to be able to plan ahead for resource allocation and to have enough business to make it worthwhile to decline conflicting opportunities.

6/ What is the most challenging client you or the agency as a whole has handled? Are there any current or recent campaigns you think are under-estimated by the advertising community?

We aim to do the best work of our lives on all our accounts. That’s a tough standard to live up to and it means that each of our clients is challenging in its own way.

I think in general our work gets a pretty good press and we can’t grumble about being ‘under-estimated’.

7/ W+K doesn’t have its own media operation. Is this something you intend to add in the future?

We do have our own media planning/buying function in the USA. And we have strategists with media planning expertise working in our planning department in London. But we don’t currently plan to add media buying to our offering in the UK.

8/ Which of your competitors do you most admire?

The ones who build a strong business through an original approach and uncompromising creativity: AKQA, Mother, Crispin Porter and, via time machine, Doyle Dane Bernbach and Chiat/Day in their heyday.

9/ How important are awards?

Winning awards is a by-product of what we do. It is not the goal.

Awards are a factor in motivating staff. They help to attract creative talent. Winning awards tells you that advertising people like your work. It doesn’t necessarily indicate whether anyone else does.

10/ You began your own career as a graduate at the (now deceased) Allen Brady & Marsh. There could hardly be a bigger contrast than barnstorming ABM and W+K. Which individuals have had the biggest impact on your own career?

With its singalong jingles, boozy lunches and coup-de-theatre pitches ABM was already something of a dinosaur when I joined. It truly was a different world.

People I’ve worked with who have influenced me, for good or ill, include Messrs Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty, Carl Johnson, Simon Clemmow, Dan Wieden, Dave Luhr and, of course, my partners in crime for the last seven years, Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth.

Then there are the people I’ve never met who have inspired me: Werner Herzog, Joe Strummer, Jack Kirby, Brian Eno, Steve Jobs, David Byrne, Jim Woodring, John Updike, Leonard Cohen, Captain Beefheart, Mark E. Smith, Paul Theroux, David Lynch, and many more.

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