Lee Clow and Dan Wieden on independence and creative leadership, Part 2

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From left: Lee Clow; Colleen DeCourcy, global co-executive creative director of Wieden + Kennedy; and Dan Wieden. (Photography by Margarita Corporan)
From left: Lee Clow; Colleen DeCourcy, global co-executive creative director of Wieden + Kennedy; and Dan Wieden. (Photography by Margarita Corporan)

"The companies that lead the industry into the future should be led by creative people, not by management types," says Clow

Lee Clow and Dan Wieden took the stage at the 2016 International Andy Awards earlier this month for a candid chat with jury chair Colleen DeCourcy, global co-executive creative director of Wieden + Kennedy. After the Q&A, Clow and Wieden sat down with Campaign US for a brief interview.

After taking questions together all night, do you have any questions for each other?
Clow: I’ve been watching what he does and interpreting what he does. So it's not like, ‘How do you do it?’ Maybe the only question I've got is, ‘Why are you still doing it?’

Wieden: I actually want to kind of drop it. One, because I think it's important that I'm alive to see the agency operate without me. Because we're independent and I want to make sure that this is going okay, I'm just shutting up for the most part.

I'm trying to find some other things — maybe theater, it may be poetry — but I want to start trying to do something different in the last days. I never thought I'd do advertising, period, let alone for 33 years, or whatever it is.

Dan, you mention Wieden’s independence. How does that continue to affect the business? And Lee, how is TBWA benefiting by being part of Omnicom?
Wieden:
We fire clients quicker than most people would. Usually it's because either we can't get good work out or that they beat our people up. I just won't stand for that. We want to go into a relationship that's productive and exciting and maybe very difficult. I like difficult clients, but I want them to respect us, and we'll respect them. It's a human thing. It's not a business thing for us.

Clow: Independence, the idea of not being encumbered by anyone telling you what to do, becomes more and more valuable as you see that it could be taken away in all kinds of different ways. Dan’s got it. I'm never going to have it by virtue of [Chiat/Day co-founder] Jay [Chiat] going down a path that ultimately made us part of this holding company. That can't be undone, so that's one of the things I admire. That freedom - you get to make a decision and nobody can tell you that you can't – it’s a pretty intoxicating thing.

Dan’s done some really brave stuff that isn't even in my wheelhouse because of our work structure. To declare or put into writing that your agency can never be sold, and then stepping back and seeing if it can thrive without you — it’s probably almost a requirement of making sure that that edict is realized or appreciated.

Read highlights of Clow's and Wieden's Andys Q&A

So why are you still doing what you do?
Clow: I’d like to be around for one more good idea. Maybe it's the insecurity of saying I don't know if I've done my best thing, yet. Maybe if I hang around, I'll do something a little bit better.

Which of each other’s work made you think, "Damn, I wish I had done that"?
Clow: I sent him a note just recently for the "Short A Guy" Nike spot that they just did. I mean, every year Nike does something that makes me wish I did that. It's got this portfolio of stuff that I admire.

Wieden: What he's done, some spots like "1984," you cannot get out of your mind. What's so interesting is, this piece of work that is so memorable is about something that's changing every split second. That spot somehow manages to keep it whole in some way. There's a personality even though the body’s changing like crazy. There's a proposition there. There's a sensibility that comes from Steve’s [Jobs] genius about this thing.

Clow: I'm not sure we had specifics other than just trying to understand Steve's passion. It was so prophetic, that idea of democratizing technology. [The technology is] in our fucking pocket now, and that's what that whole spot was about 30 years ago. It's prophetic as opposed to just being entertaining. How exactly we got to that high ground is a little bit of the art and the magic of what we do.

You both collaborated with CEOs who believed in advertising. How much of the job today is continuing their vision versus creating something new?
Clow:
In the case of Apple, Steve's not here anymore, and now we have a big company with a lot of people trying to fill the huge space that he took up. It's not going to be the same. The job right now is helping Tim Cook and that company keep the passion and the soul and not just the marketing that sells the products.

There are people there that want to hold onto that passion. But when it comes to a big company, it gets a lot harder with different people making different decisions on different levels. It's very different than having one person who says, "Yes. No. I hate that. I love that. Do it."

Dan, you would probably agree that the people at Nike, unlike any other client I've ever really touched, they really know their own brand.

Wieden: Oh, God yes. The sense of beauty and innovation was as important to Nike as it was to Jobs. The authenticity of the design changes very, very rapidly. There's a creative sensibility there that is built on and slightly adjusted. That's what makes it work for so long. It’s the authenticity.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
C
low: The companies that lead the industry into the future should be led by creative people, not by management types. The companies that have somebody at the head who believes in what we make. I think it's why 72 and Sunny is coming up. Too many companies are led by either technologists or marketing types. Every ad agency should be led by a creative person.

Wieden: Be brave and be wild.

Clow: You might get that if you have a creative person in charge.

If you could go back in time knowing what you know now, would you do things differently?
Clow:
I just think it was a very different time. The opportunity, the motivations and even the role models were all different back then. We were really motivated. Because you saw that good, interesting ideas could actually be a business, and that having exciting ideas could be a way to make a living and satisfy your creative ego and energy. They used to call us Chiat/Day and Night, but people didn't work weekends because Jay said you had to. I worked weekends because I was having fun and doing something I really like.

Today, unless you can create a more pure kind of idea culture, a company where that kind of freedom and fun and energy exists — It's not in the big agency model. It’s a lot harder to achieve today because it's a lot more hard work and a lot less fun.

You said earlier that advertising is getting smaller. Can you still create big brand icons?
Clow: I think we're in a cycle. I don't see nearly as many iconic, great, "I wish I did that" pieces of work out there. I think it's because everything's off its axis right now. Everything's almost tilting toward the technology. That's changed everything.

There's going to be a cycle where it finally comes back around to a place where the idea is the epicenter and the media isn't the darling of the clients or the frustration of the creative people. It'll just become plumbing for ideas again.

How so?
Clow:
When the camera was invented, every painter in the world didn't say, "Oh, fuck it," and threw their brushes away and every writer in the world didn't throw their quills away and say, "I got to go get one of those." The technologists evolved it for years making it better. Pretty soon, artists started saying, "Well, I can do something with this technology. I can use it now."

It evolved into an art form from technology, and I think we're halfway through the cycle of technology becoming another art form creative people can actually take advantage of. Right now it's still kind of stuck in the middle, it's not artistic enough for artists to want to grab onto it with both arms.

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