- 37-year-old independent agency Wieden and Kennedy is famous for its Nike, Facebook, McDonald’s, and other ads, and it gets hundreds of applications a week.
- The agency seeks out people from outside the ad industry, often finding them through nontraditional channels.
- Executives there said aspiring employees should emphasize their personal passions rather than awards or titles.
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With 1,500-plus employees in Portland, Oregon and 7 other offices around the world, Wieden and Kennedy is not the largest ad agency by revenue or headcount.
But to many in advertising — especially on the creative side — it’s seen as the pinnacle of their profession. The independent firm created five ads in this year’s Super Bowl. Its campaigns for brands like Honda, Bud Light, Facebook and, most prominently, Nike, have won scores of awards and landed it on lists of top companies where creatives want to work.
For these and other reasons, it’s notoriously hard to get a foot in the door.
Business Insider asked current and former executives and applicants how to land a position at the company that co-president and global creative leader Colleen DeCourcy once called “the island of misfit toys.“
The agency eschews traditional factors like awards
Global talent director Melanie Myers, who joined the agency in 1996, told Business Insider her team gets hundreds of applications each week for a small and constantly changing number of roles. But all eight offices operate independently, the agency has no central jobs hub, and many positions aren’t listed publicly at all.
The agency sometimes announces job openings on Instagram via @wktalent or the individual offices’ accounts, and job seekers are encouraged to contact those offices directly.
Still, Myers said most of Wieden’s employees did not get jobs through unsolicited applications. According to Myers and executive creative director Karl Lieberman, who co-leads the New York office and has a say in the hires of department heads and creative directors, having no agency experience and showing even open disdain for advertising can be a plus as long as a candidate has the creative talent and passion needed in a demanding, ever-changing environment.
Lieberman said traditional factors like awards or titles aren’t deciding factors in hiring because awards are subjective and Wieden leadership doesn’t always agree with them.
“The emails I get with people listing all their awards make me want to kill myself,” he said.
Insisting on a certain title is another big red flag for Lieberman. He said the agency has a flat structure to minimize bureaucracy. He cited the recent hire of former BBH chief creative officer Gerard Caputo as a creative director, saying this title change did not amount to a demotion.
One of the often-cited mantras at Wieden, as multiple people told Business Insider, is “leave your ego at the door.”
The other is that this agency is the place “where people go to do the best work of their lives.”
Wieden finds people in unconventional ways
Wieden and Kennedy first tries to fill open positions internally. To recruit, it uses a variety of methods. Key points:
- It seeks out people from outside advertising: Six of Wieden’s offices use The Kennedys, a program that recruits current or recent grad students with no advertising experience and pays them to work with Wieden’s creative teams for several months. Myers said about half of the Amsterdam’s current creative staff came through that program.
- It looks for people from a variety of backgrounds: The agency’s efforts to find people from outside the ad world have led to it hiring a lawyer, trade journalist, political speechwriter, waitress in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and “Portlandia” co-creator Carrie Brownstein, who worked on the Starbucks account for six months in 2006 while her band Sleater-Kinney was on hiatus.
- Recruiters are always looking for new talent: Wieden and Kennedy recruiters look for less-obvious candidates by following people’s careers and encouraging other employees to send them stuff they love from the internet and beyond.
- It uses former employees to recruit: Lawrence Teherani-Ami, a 28-year veteran who leads the media strategy team in Portland, said independent recruiters who work with the agency are often former longtime staffers who know what Wieden and Kennedy is looking for.
- Internship programs: Teherani-Ami said the agency brings in several interns each year from programs including MPMS (Most Promising Multicultural Students) and MAIP (Multicultural Advertising Intern Program), which are trade industry efforts aimed at attracting minority students to advertising. Teherani-Ami, who comes from an Iranian-American family, is a MAIP graduate himself.
- College recruiting: Wieden and Kennedy also recruits students from colleges around the country, including Dan Wieden’s alma mater, the University of Oregon, as well as nearby Portland State University.
Recruiters review each application personally
Myers encouraged aspiring Wieden employees to apply using different methods, adding that her team gets applications via LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram as well as regular email but doesn’t usually hire people in this way.
Recruiters review each application, and Myers said the process would never be automated, even though that means the response time can be slower than at other agencies. Two creatives and one account executive known to Business Insider who spoke on condition of anonymity in the interest of protecting their career prospects said recruiters took as long as nine months to respond to them, with one adding that he “applied many times over the years” but never got hired.
Myers said she understands why the wait can be frustrating but warned applicants not to repeatedly call or email, no matter what may have worked at other agencies. She said many applicants eager to get responses do not seem to appreciate the volume of material that her team has to process each day.
Wieden and Kennedy wants people with passion, side projects, and are skeptical about advertising
Successful applicants will demonstrate their uniqueness as creative people — not advertising professionals — current and former employees said.
Myers said former executive creative director Jeff Kling, who was also a mentor to Lieberman, turned in a three-ring binder filled with ads for fictional products that were hand-drawn with a Sharpie marker. Another employee submitted a silk scarf that included a link to her own website printed in a custom typeface.
Copywriter Chase Zreet created a video cover letter consisting of a three-minute rap tribute to Sprite that three employees shared with the New York team before Zreet submitted it himself.
Lieberman went to extremes. After nearly four years’ worth of interviews, he got an inside source when a friend scored a job at Wieden and Kennedy Portland, and soon afterward Lierberman learned of several openings on the Nike basketball account. To show his dedication to the game, he printed out posts that he’d written for a basketball blog and mailed them to the Portland office along with his latest portfolio.
While a lot of applicants try similar stunts, Wieden’s official talent account said they should be compelling enough to get recruiters’ attention and prepare them to make a practical demonstration of the applicant’s skills.
Myers emphasized that she’s less interested in such presentations than in the sincerity of applicants’ side projects and passions, asking: “What languages do you speak? Do you play instruments? Do you paint? Do you have the biggest vinyl collection on the West Coast?”
“Somebody who’s awesome at Twitter can be just as helpful as someone who can write a 30-second TV spot,” Lieberman added, noting so much of the agency’s work isn’t focused on TV commercials.
Myers told Business Insider that no one should hang all their hopes on a job at Wieden and Kennedy, because it won’t be right for everyone. But the most important suggestion for those who keep trying may be to forget everything they thought they knew about advertising.