W&K's Susan Hoffman: 'You always want awards, but you don’t want to stand up on a pedestal about it'

W&K's Susan Hoffman: 'You always want awards, but you don’t want to stand up on a pedestal about it'

The Wieden & Kennedy stalwart and creative powerhouse is about to receive yet more plaudits, picking up the Lion of St Mark from Cannes. But for W&K's chief creative officer, Susan Hoffman, producing quality work will always take priority over filling awards cabinets.

Susan Hoffman is far from relishing the prospect of collecting the Lion of St Mark at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

The long-time Wieden & Kennedy creative director says that her career has never been about winning awards but about creating work. Something that the founders of the agency, Dan Wieden and David Kennedy, instilled in her when she joined the shop in 1984 as its eighth employee.

“We were brought up to not kind of centre our career around awards,” she says. “I think a part of me says, ‘Yeah, stay humble.’ I am not complaining at all [but] it makes me a little nervous.

“I never kind of fashioned my career off of that. It’s always been about the work. I’m just shy about those kinds of things. I think you always want awards, but you don’t want to stand up on a pedestal about it.”

Yet Hoffman is no stranger to a trophy. She is behind some of the most well-known ads that this industry has produced, including Nike “Revolution”, Old Spice “The man your man could smell like” and Levi’s “Go forth”. A fitting reel for someone set to pick up what is essentially the lifetime achievement award in Cannes this year.

When Campaign spoke to people who have worked with Hoffman, they all agreed that she always wants to make the work better. “Never a human uttered the words ‘fuck it up!’ more than Susan Hoffman,” Freddie Powell, director at Drool, says. Powell worked at W&K for 12 years.

“She is the perfect embodiment of the founding fathers’ spirit. She made you feel it was OK to fail. She appeared to be reckless and wild but I think it was all just a ruse to make you feel free to break
all the rules.”

Hoffman attributes a lot of her learnings to Wieden and Kennedy (who died in 2022 and 2021, respectively). She first met them at William Cain, the Portland-based shop they worked at before setting up W&K in the same Oregon city in 1982.

“It was a fluke”

She explains that her entry into adland was a coincidence. She went to the University of Arizona but only because it was a “party school”. When she arrived, she realised there was a lack of courses on art and ended up on the only one on offer: commercial art. “It wasn’t very good,” she recalls. “It was a fluke. Otherwise, I never would have gotten into advertising. I did fall in love with it. It was not just art, it was also a business thing. It wasn’t very good at that time, to be honest with you.”

She didn’t finish the course but after a couple of years working at a ski resort and then at a publishing house alongside some night schooling, Hoffman managed to work her way into the agency Pihas, Schmidt, Westerdahl in Portland. “I took a really long time to get there because I had to teach myself,” Hoffman explains. “But I ended up loving it after that silly course called commercial art.”

Hoffman was the first female creative and art director at W&K. She was later joined by Janet Champ, Kristi Myers Roberts and Charlotte Moore. 

“There were a lot of women comparatively with other agencies,” Hoffman says. “[Dan and David] didn’t make a conscientious effort to [hire women], nothing like that. It was like, ‘I want these different voices in our agency.’ It’s weird how natural it was for both of them.”

This diversity in thought perhaps shielded Hoffman from the gender inequalities of the ad industry. She says that it was 15 years into her career in the mid-1990s when a journalist questioned her about being a woman in adland that she realised her fortunate position.

“I’m not gonna say W&K has been perfect but I did start sensing what the difference was,” Hoffman says. “I felt a little bit guilty that I hadn’t promoted women and diversity. I was just unaware of it. At that time, I didn’t recognise how my female voice was different. When I started realising that, I understood what Dan and David were always talking about when it came to diversity. I realised that there actually is a difference in voices… because the work is different. It’s not better, it’s different.”

Global aspirations

As W&K expanded into a global network, Hoffman helped launch some of its offices. She says that one of the highlights of her career has been having the opportunity to run and work in all the offices. The network operates in 10 locations: Portland, Amsterdam, New York, Tokyo, London, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai, Sao Paulo and Mexico.

The first office outside Portland was in Amsterdam in 1992. Nike had asked for the shop to have a base there because it was opening a European headquarters. Hoffman recalls: “I can remember we were in a room and Dan and David were like, ‘Well, Nike’s asked us to open up an agency in Amsterdam.’ I’m like, ‘We don’t need to do that.’ And it was funny – when we moved to Amsterdam, it was like, ‘Oh, I see why we need to be here, the culture is different.’”

Hoffman’s most recent travels found her in London, where she was the interim chief creative officer. She moved over the pond to run the creative department after the departure of Tony Davidson and Iain Tait in 2021. Ana and Hermeti Balarin, Mother London’s former executive creative directors, joined W&K Portland in the same role in 2022 but moved to the London office as CCOs at the start of 2023 after industry speculation about their compatibility with the mothership.

“I really like to travel and I really like different cultures,” Hoffman explains, speaking to Campaign from Portland where she is running the creative department on an interim basis alongside Azsa West. “People ask me what’s my favourite office and I’ve got to be honest, I don’t have one. I’m a little partial right now to London because I was there for a while.”

Helen Andrews, chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB, worked directly with Hoffman at W&K London in 2021 and spent 13 years at the network. She recalls that Hoffman took the bus to and from the office.

Andrews says: “The best way to describe Hoffman is a force, who is super enthusiastic about the work. She was good at mucking in despite her status and experience. She never really acted like the big I am. I love it when people are consistent in their behaviour and Susan is the same when talking to creatives and clients. She is genuinely interested in people.”

Helen Rhodes, executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London, worked at W&K’s Portland office between 2013 and 2019. She tells Campaign a story about Hoffman inviting her and fellow new joiners from overseas to her house for a “drinks and pizza” party. “She was really open and welcoming, no-one [I had worked with] had previously done that,” Rhodes says. “It was a bit different in Portland, they had a lot of people from different countries. People you worked with became like family.”

Hoffman’s approach to nurturing colleagues to help them get to better work is something else she learnt from the W&K founders: “Dan and David gave me the amazing gift of support. I mean, I was a brat. But then they could see through the bratty mess. Creatives are like that – we’re not programmed to be practical and we’re a different breed.”

It’s this chaos that brings creativity, Hoffman explains, and why she likes to work in the office – although W&K does not mandate where staff work. “It’s that sporadic thing that happens in the hallway,” she adds. “So many ideas are generated at the watercooler – that’s an old-fashioned thing, nobody has a watercooler any more, but you
know what I mean.

“Often it makes better work or you find something you never thought about. I don’t think anyone is good on their own. If anyone says they are, then they’re lying. It is such a collaboration of different brains and you get a little spark from somebody and that’s how things happen.”

Hard-working ethic

Hoffman’s hard work ethic has the potential – at times – to put some noses out of joint. Even when teams have worked on a project for six months, Hoffman has no qualms with making big changes to it. “She just sweeps in and turns everything upside down and sweeps out. What it leads to is incredible work but it can be very difficult,” one source says.

“Susan pushes hard against mediocrity and demands excellence, both from herself and those she’s working with,” David Kolbusz, chief creative officer at US shop Orchard and executive creative director at W&K New York between 2014 and 2015, says. “She does not abide average work. It needs to be fresh. Different. It needs to move the cultural conversation forward. I wish more people in our industry had standards that high.”

Hoffman continues to be intrigued about London creatives coming in a pair, something that she and Wieden noticed when they opened the office in 1998. She recalls him saying: “Do you all come like a married couple?”

“That was unusual for us,” she says. “I had gotten used to it because of when I opened the office but I still find that so culturally different. I don’t think it’s a problem but I also recognise that I worked with many different writers. Now, I’m not telling you I liked them all. But you do different work with different writers. And you have to be on your toes a bit. Because, you know, some writers are a pain in the ass.”

The Portland agency will often encourage art directors to work with different writers. Hoffman refers to the “slime mould” theory that Wieden coined, where if you put slime moulds in a petri dish they come together and formulate new groups. Hoffman says: “Dan always felt that when you mix people up and put different things together, you get something unexpected. So the theory at this agency is built around that.”

Tait, who co-founded Food after he left W&K London, says: “The thing that sets Susan apart for me, the thing she does better than anyone I know, is ‘matchmaking’ creatives. I’ve seen it over and over again – ‘why don’t we try getting blah blah to work with so-and-so’. Often bizarre combinations that everyone else would reject at face value. And, more often than not, magic would happen.”

With the deaths of Wieden and Kennedy, long-term lieutenants such as Hoffman will be key to continuing their vision for the independent agency network. 

Powell says that the real question is whether the spirit of the pair can live on: “Tucked into every nook and cranny of W&K are words of wisdom and sayings that embody the founding fathers. People who knew them, who learned from them directly, walked the corridors and helped guide the work.

“Things like ‘move me, dude’ or ‘embrace failure’ were imprinted on your brain and those things all trickled from the top.”

For Rhodes, one of the biggest learnings she took from her time working with Hoffman was to take in as much culture as possible. She believes it’s the reason behind Hoffman staying in touch with audiences.

Kolbusz recalls that Hoffman would “run circles around the young designers” telling them that their idea was not fresh: “That’s crazy. You’re telling a 20-year-old, ‘That’s not fresh.’ And she was right. 

“She helped me codify a certain way of thinking. All my life I’ve always thought I was a freak taking in so much art and culture.

“The thing that I began to realise was that to be able to create output that is relevant and meaningful, you need to have a sufficient number of inputs and you need to be taking in what is going on in culture.”

Hoffman may be nervous to take the stage again in the south of France later this month, but her commitment to making outstanding creative work means she is well deserving of the Lion of St Mark.

The ads that made me

Nike ‘‘Revolution” (1987)

This was my first “grown-up” TV spot. We may or may not
have had the added pleasure of getting sued by The Beatles.

Nike “If you let me play” (1995)

Written and produced by a female creative team at a time when girls' competitive sports were being challenged in schools across the nation, this ad is still relevant today.

Levi’s “Go forth (America)” (2009)

At the time, Levi’s was looking to make a stronger connection with the youth, and this work focused on challenging younger audiences to go forth and make the world a better place.

Chrysler “Imported from Detroit” (2011)

This ad ran for the first time during Super Bowl XLV and, at two minutes, was one of the longest commercials ever shown during the big game. At the time, Detroit faced a struggling economy and image as a city. So, Chrysler wanted to revitalise that image and remind the nation that Detroit had a fierce optimism and work ethic that was being overlooked.

Nike “Da da ding” (2016)

W&K Delhi’s first “Just do it” campaign for Nike. It’s not really
a commercial, but a music video-turned-internet phenomenon
and rallying cry to Indian women that inspired and reminded them of the importance of sport.

Procter & Gamble “Love over bias” (2017)

This was P&G really putting a stake in the ground about its company’s views on biases. We wanted to use this platform to inspire a global conversation and show the impact of bias on people’s lives, and how a mother's love can overcome this.

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