“We better not tell Wieden” are not words you really want to hear – or say – when you’re working at an ad agency where the name on the door is Wieden & Kennedy.

But oddly and randomly, I was reminded of those words as I was binge-watching my latest new Netflix obsession last night: The Repair Shop.

Set in England (so, ya know, the accents #swoon), it’s a reality show that brings together a group of extremely talented craftspeople ranging in skills from restoration of furniture, ceramics, and fine art to more niche talents like repair and rejuvenation of accordions, clocks or jukeboxes. It appeals to me on so many levels; I love watching fine craftspeople at the top of their game evaluating and solving really unique challenges, and I especially love it when a particular challenge requires multiple people with different skills to pull it off.

Which is why those words – “We better not tell Wieden” – came to me.

Although I can’t recall if I was the hearer or the sayer of the words, I recall vividly the urgency with which they were expressed, felt, and shared by the small team we’d brought together to solve perhaps the most interesting and challenging client problems we’d faced on one of Dan’s favorite pet accounts – the State of Oregon Tourism account.

To give you an idea how he felt about the business, as we prepared one year to pitch and retain the account (at the time, there was a mandated two-year review process), he said to the agency that “If we lose this business, heads will roll and blood will fly.” And he wasn’t joking. We kept the business, in fact the agency still has it to this day. No heads were lost, no blood ever flew.

Dan’s passion was understandable. Having grown up in the state, he and his partner David Kennedy had birthed and grown their business there, and they’d been able to draw unbelievably talented people who were helping grow this incredibly creative agency miles away from the adworld petri dishes of New York City, or Chicago.

The two men felt they owed the state for all it had given them, and as a result, even though the revenue from the Tourism account was 0.0001% of total agency revenue (I may be exaggerating to make the point, but I’m not that far off), they paid very close attention to all the work produced on behalf of their baby.

“The work” at that time consisted of beautifully photographed and equally beautifully written two-page magazine ads. And that was it.

We’d produce a handful of ads during the year before to run the following year, ads that would represent the geographic and activity diversity of the State and when published, would be paired with a business reply card that readers would fill out and return by mail and when received would prompt the sending of a state travel guide, also by mail, sometimes weeks later.

For anyone under 35 reading this, I’ll provide a glossary at the end to translate that entire paragraph for you.

The print ads were masterfully crafted, labored over, and loved on by some of the best creative talent to pass through the agency. Of course we had the typical challenges faced by any account, but generally, I was happy to say as the account lead, there was a rhythm to it, a pace. It ran pretty much like clockwork.

Until one Spring.

And an urgent phone call I received from our client saying that he’d just had word from the Governor’s Office that due to a red tide at the coast, all tourism efforts and budgets were to be redirected to bringing visitors to beach communities that were going to suffer economically from not being able to send their fishing boats out.

Knowing that we hadn’t produced a coast ad for the Spring campaign, the response from me was practical, unemotional reality, with a door-opening question at the end: “The Spring ads have already been shipped. Not only has all of the production budget been spent, but the media dollars are committed as well. We could cancel the insertions, but we wouldn’t get any money back. And due to publication timing, there’s no way to create an ad now because it wouldn’t be able to run for months. Do you have ANY other budget you could free up?”

Turns out he was able to come up with $50,000, not an insignificant amount of money.

I grabbed our team – consisting of writer Glenn Cole, art director Tim Hanrahan, print producer Lonnie Winter, and everything-but-print-producer Jeff Selis – to brief them on the assignment. The energy was palpable, the solutions limited only by the budget and the goal – get people to the coast, urgently.

We knew what would be required – a crazy mixture of creativity, resourcefulness, and problem-solving. And we dug in.

This would not be a print ad solution, given cost and timing, which is probably the first time someone on the team uttered the words, “We better not tell Wieden.” Those print ads were his baby; none of us wanted to mess with that, yet the situation warranted a wildly different solution.

Thus was born the Coastmobile.

A repurposed 1940s step van, updated with new tires (and maybe a new floor?), in addition to a new sound system replete with speakers on top a la the Blues Brothers. The team agreed that the best target would be Oregonians who lived in other parts of the state to play on their love for their home, so the vehicle was conceived to recreate the feelings captured in some of the old WWII-era posters featuring copy that exhorted readers to “Do your part!”

We agreed the Coastmobile would tour the state, attending local parades and festivals, with tourism staff (“ambassadors,” in today’s parlance) outfitted in Coastmobile jackets, passing out posters and coastal travel guides.

Glenn wrote the crap out of the audio that would be pumped over the speakers, the wonderful Gary Owens’ voice that offered gems such as “Beachcomb for a Better Tomorrow!” Tim’s art direction and design of the van were impeccable. Jeff Foster, one of the agency’s studio artists who also happened to be an amazing illustrator, was commissioned to create posters as well as artwork for the side of the van.

Jeff Selis found the van and coordinated all aspects of its renovation. He also produced the audio track, while Lonnie had the posters and coastal tour guides printed, along with making the jackets. It was an unbelievable team effort, with each expert doing the thing they were made for, trained for, all signed up for a single goal.

Kind of like the Avengers, or the Fantastic Four, or the lesser-well-known DC Comics heroes The Challengers of the Unknown. And also the craftspeople on The Repair Shop, my most current Netflix obsession but I think I may have already mentioned that.

At one point during the mad scramble to get this done urgently and bring help to the coastal communities, I recall thinking about a children’s book I’d read and loved years prior (in the stairway reading nook of my good friend Mark Southworth) called “The King with Six Friends.”

I’d loved it so much, in fact, that on one of my many visits to Powell’s Books in Portland (the world’s largest independent bookstore, like Disneyland for readers), I’d found a used copy exactly like the one I remembered growing up, and bought it with no hesitation, and have it to this day.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the story. The beginning of the book presents the reader with an existential crisis; if a king loses his country, is he really a king? When King Zar is defeated in battle, his country is taken over by his attacker, leaving him penniless, castle-less, army-less, and country-less.

With nothing but his sword, he travels to a neighboring kingdom in which its king conveniently happens to be retiring, but because Zar has nothing to show for himself, he’s told that in order to win the country (and the hand of the king’s daughter), he must accomplish several very difficult challenges.

Along the way, he meets six strangers, each of whom Zar helps out of trouble, and each of whom also happens to have very unique powers and abilities. To repay Zar for saving them, they each join his mission, and the group soon learns that their unique powers and abilities come in quite handy in helping him accomplish the tasks the king has set forth.

At the end, as the celebration of the new king begins and as the story is told about how each task was accomplished, the six friends are asked what it was that Zar did, since he had no unique powers or abilities of his own. “Simple,” was the answer, “He led us.” Proving that leadership is as unique a power or ability as any of those held by the six friends.

Reflecting back on the Coastmobile experience and wondering about my role, as many account people do over the course of living out their sometimes difficult-to-explain chosen career path, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I can’t write like Glenn. I can’t design like Tim, or produce like Lonnie or Jeff in any of the various mediums in which they work.

But I sure have appreciated being part of teams that have the capacity to conceive of and produce incredible ideas, and to the extent that it’s been sought, or required, or useful, I’m happy to have had the experience to “lead” them. I was thrilled that this particular project was a resounding success at bringing visitors to the state’s coastal communities until the red tide disappeared.

And oh by the way, I’m still not sure to this day that Wieden knows we did that.

What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with what’s next being greater than what’s now? Well, more than ever before, leaders in “the next” will be required to bring together disparate teams of skilled professionals. People who work virtually and think laterally.

Very rarely will these leaders be specialists in one particular area, more often they will be generalists who have a good understanding of many different areas, polymaths who can draw on seemingly random or incidental experience to break out of industry norms, and who view challenges holistically instead of narrowly. Who don’t have the capacity to think insular or incestuous, because what they’ve seen and done goes well beyond the standard, expected thinking that so often rules so many brands in so many categories.

So yes, what’s next WILL be greater than what’s now. Like the Repair Shop, King with Six Friends and Coastmobile proves, you need to have the right people in place to solve the toughest challenges. Leaders like those described above will make the difference, and will help accelerate their brands’ growth as we all re-enter whatever the new next is.

Beachcomb for a better tomorrow, folks.


Author: Matt Stiker, Brand Lead Consultant

Photo credit: Hunter Newton

This article is published as part of Matt’s “What’s Next vs. What’s Now” series. Find the first article (and links to the others in the series) here: What’s Next > What’s Now Part 1 – Apollo 13