There is no doubt that Dan Wieden is a titan of advertising. There isn’t an advertising lifetime hall of achievement order of the GOAT awards medal he hasn’t been awarded.
But if you close your eyes and try to visualise a titan of advertising. What do you see? Confidence? Don Draper? Fancy car? Ego the size of a donkey? Center-of-attention types? Holding court on a fancy terrace in Cannes? They love holding court! Or schmoozing clients with lobsters and the like?
That wasn’t Dan.
Dan was an introvert. Who drove a Mini. And had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He liked reading. And being home with family. And he loved nothing more than pointing the spotlight in someone else’s direction. Or passing the mic to someone who had something to say.
Some people might think: “Wow, he had all those people love and adore him, and he was THE DUDE, even though he was an introvert.” But that’s not quite right. His brilliance was because he was an introvert, not in spite of it.
Just so we’re all on the same page; introverts need quiet time alone to focus inwards on things (it’s where they get their power). Whereas extroverts get charged up with social energy, and find alone time hard. There’s lots of other things that come easier or harder to introverts. As a very introverted person myself, I get it.
I remember talking to him after Quiet came out (the brilliant Susan Cain book on introverts). We were laughing about the “terror of small talk at events”. And the tactic of finding someone you can talk to about real stuff. Then clinging to them as your escape from the “networking”. And how an intense conversation becomes like a safety bubble surrounding you.
And that’s how he made you feel if you were lucky enough to have a one-on-one with him. Like you were in a fascinating safe bubble. He was an absolute master of conversation. If dialogue was a game of tennis. He could move the ball round the court like a limber Björn Borg. He could do high culture, low culture, sport, politics, funny stories, technology, neuroscience, family, advanced mathematics, poetry, climate change, art and pies. All in one lunch. But that conversation was a one-off. It was a live improvisation. It was jazz with words and ideas.
If someone else got into the groove with him, the topics would be totally different. But the liveliness of his brain and his ability to jump between ideas and topics would be as vibrant. And this made for inspiring, profound and difficult to summarise conversations. I’d often walk away with my brain “feeling fizzy”, often with no idea why. He had an ability to carbonate your head and your heart.
He was so skilled at these one-to-one conversations you’d see people leaving his office beaming. Having just agreed to move to Tokyo, Shanghai or Sao Paulo. Not quite sure what had happened. But feeling delighted about it.
Out in the world it was interesting to see how Dan played “the room” at events. He wouldn’t gravitate to people he already knew. He would, of course, spend time with clients if someone asked. But he definitely wouldn’t head over to the corner where industry bigwigs were hanging out, by choice. Instead you’d often see him deep in discussion with one of the interns or the person delivering the mail.
He seemed drawn to people who were a bit lost, out of place, or different. Less magnetised by the confident looking kids from ad school – the ones who most sought his approval. They had to work harder to get noticed. He never told me this but my theory was that they were OK. They had well-developed voices already. And they were more than robust enough for agency life. He wanted to hear from the quiet ones on the edges who didn’t quite fit in. And make sure they got a shot.
I think this was because the “untrained” people had unexpected stories and experiences to share. And, most crucially, voices to discover. Voices and ideas unsullied by advertising. And that’s where he got his kicks. Helping people find their voice.
But finding and developing the misfits wasn’t just for fun, or charity. Dan was a canny businessman. Flexing unexpected talent gets you to fresh work and makes good margins. And that’s what made Dan so formidable. He would find a natural harmony between doing what’s right and doing what’s good for business. Helping people develop their point of view and selling this fresh talent to brands.
And although his financial acumen was strong. The success and money were a consequence of great work. And great work was a consequence of great people. People who’d been given the right support. And a remarkable culture that encouraged them to be themselves and to swing for the fences.
And that’s what he built. A cathedral of creativity in Portland. Where he installed a fun, empowering, supportive, decent, culture. Then added in a super-high creative bar that people felt duty-bound to live up to. And that’s an intoxicating and winning combination. Which then got duplicated around the world in places that made sense.
That was never a formula as such. In fact, Dan was not a fan of process at all. He believed chaos bred creativity. And that following process would lead to lazy bland work. It’s hard to dispute his hypothesis when you look at the work that comes out of the place.
While there was definitely no patented six-stage process. There were some ways of doing things. The famous OG “only rules” at Wieden & Kennedy say:
- Don’t act big.
- No sharp stuff.
- Follow derections (sic).
- And shut up when someone else is talking.
When you look at those rules, they’re whispering quietly: “It’s OK to be an introvert here.” And it really was. There were plenty of quiet spaces. Lots of private offices. And lots of the ways of working are introvert friendly. And you wonder why the writing from Portland has been so exceptional for 40 years?
Wieden & Kennedy was Dan’s way of giving everyone a voice. Especially the quiet ones. The overlooked. The marginalised. And the just plain weird.
That’s the kind of thing a real titan of advertising would do.
So next time someone asks you to imagine a titan, forget Don Draper. Instead think of a little guy with a gray goatee. Driving off in a red Mini. Sticking his tongue out. On his way home to read a book.
Miss you x
Iain Tait is co-founder of Food