Friday, November 7, 2008

How 12 got started

Five years ago, almost to the day, I launched an experimental advertising school called Wieden+Kennedy 12, or 12.

My wife and I had been living in Portland for a year or so. We were starting a family and had moved back to Oregon to be close to grandparents. Dan Wieden had given me office space on the sixth floor of W+K, and I was using the agency's video conference equipment to continue teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University Adcenter. Dan was on the board there.

I was also teaching at the University of Oregon Journalism School, and, along with strategic thinker and guru/jester/provocateur Mark Barden, working with clients under the banner of Barden & Jelly. It was all fine, but I felt a little unfocused.

Dan Wieden had bugged me a number of times about rejoining the creative department at W+K, but that didn't feel right. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do.

Diane Cooke-Tench, founder of VCU Adcenter, and a creative director I had worked for at The Martin Agency, once gave me a great piece of career advice: write down a list of everything you love to do, draw a circle around it and call that your job.

So in 2002 I tried that, and presented the idea to Dan Wieden, and it flopped.

I suggested leading an effort within Wieden+Kennedy that would focus on sustainability. It was a weird idea so I thought I'd present it in a memorable way.

Back in the early '90s when I first worked at W+K, a copywriter named Teresa Elliott observed that a lot of people in the creative department were having dreams about Wieden. She'd ask people to write their dreams down and she'd post them on the door of her office. Some were hilarious.

Over lunch with Dan, I asked him if he remembered the Wieden Dreams, and he laughed, and said he vaguely did. I told him I managed to find a copy and handed him this.

The book contained the dream-like account of my actual history with Wieden+Kennedy, filled with characters like Michael Jordan, James Brown and Steve Martin, episodes like switching from art director to writer and becoming creative director for the Amsterdam office, then quitting, disenchanted with advertising and consumerism, only to find myself sitting in Wieden+Kennedy again.

The book's interpretation of this dream contained the punch line, my proposal for a new role at the agency.

Dan loved the little book - though he was bummed it didn't contain copies of all those old dreams his employees had - and was intrigued by the sustainability idea, but he couldn't really get his head around it. I don't blame him. Re-reading it again this morning, it contains more passion than clarity. But I was heading somewhere.

A couple of months later I came back with a new idea. It also combined everything I loved: teaching, working with good clients, collaborating with talented people. Wieden+Kennedy would start a school, and I would be its director.

Only not a school, an agency. It would have its own paying clients, who would fund two thirds of the operating costs of the school. Tuition would cover the other third.

But not an agency, an experiment. The school would be set up as a laboratory to discover new ways for people to create together. It would be built on the best experiences and methods of Wieden+Kennedy.

The school would have thirteen students, be thirteen months long, tuition would be thirteen thousand dollars, and it would be located in the heart of the W+K headquarters on Thirteenth Avenue. The school would be called 12.

This time I didn't present the idea with any gimmicks. I presented it right off my laptop there at Jake's seafood. It might have been 5 sentences in total.

Dan loved the idea immediately. I didn't know what to say, I was shocked.

"Well, when should I start?" I asked him. It was early February.

"How about January 31st," he smiled.


trh said...


Anonymous said...

This story made me so happy. I had never heard it before. Awesome, etc. Yeah. That year. It was really something. And I love that FC picture. You can see all of it, the best parts, on all our faces. Beautiful. xo, Lew.