Wieden+Kennedy digs in on indies with stake in Austin agency

From left (and kind of far away): Niklas Lindström, Craig Allen and Holly Petitjean / Callen

Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) has revealed that, for the first time, the agency will be investing in a newly-opened independent agency in Austin, signaling its intent to further impact the independent landscape.

Callen, opening this month, has been founded by departing W+K group creative director Craig Allen, business entrepreneur Holly Petitjean and production guru Niklas Lindström.

“Craig and his partners represent a bright future for this business,” said W+K President Dave Luhr. “When you give great talent the confidence and room to experiment, and the permission to even fail, great work follows. Independence has allowed us to do this for 35 years. We not only believe in independence, we practice it. By backing Callen, we are doubling down on an agency model and talent that we know leads to great work.”

Allen, a University of Texas alum and will serve as Callen chief creative officer, has been with W+K since 2008 and led award-winning work for Old Spice, Nike, Coca-Cola, CareerBuilder.com, Electronic Arts, Oreo and Samsung. The Old Spice work included the well-received “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” work and “Responses” social campaigns. Prior to W+K, Allen was at TBWA/Chiat/Day New York.

“Going home to Austin is personal for me — the community of Austin is a really exciting place to launch a creative endeavor,” said Allen. “We love the idea that it may not be the most obvious location for an advertising agency, but for a creative company (that is interested in making all sorts of things) it's the perfect location.”

Lindström was most recently director of interactive production at Droga5, working on brands such as Under Armour, Mailchimp and Hennessy. Prior to Droga5, he led digital at Forsman & Bodenfors, where he was involved in the hugely popular Volvo work, including the Jean Claude Van Damme “Epic Split” spot.

There's a strong sense of independence in Austin, not to mention innovation,” he said. “We love how this city just figures out how to make things. Everybody knows somebody who can do whatever you need. It’s exciting for a company like us to be surrounded by like-minded, independent creators.”

Petitjean has 20+ years of business leadership under her belt, including leading brand accounts such as Starbucks, Google, Budweiser, eBay, Pacifico at agencies including Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Possible, Huge, Creature and others.

“I have been in this business long enough to witness the many different ways our industry has transformed itself over and over,” said Petitjean. “This approach excites me and I believe is the best route to building brands and products humans love.”

Keeping it purely indie

The W+K stake is a minority investment designed to support the creative company, including giving it complete autonomy, somewhat of an anomaly in the practice of larger companies supporting smaller concerns. It will not be “W+K Austin” or a direct charge of W+K in Portland or other offices, but rather a wholly-separate, independent entity, charged with creating its own opportunities, business and growth.

Additionally, Callen, as part of the deal’s conditions — in fact, the only condition — cannot sell the agency and must remain independent, an ethos that the Dan Wieden-founded agency has pointed to as a key pillar of its success since the agency’s founding 35 years ago.

"This is Dan's legacy in action at a time when the industry needs more stories like Dan's" said Colleen DeCourcy, W+K’s chief creative officer. “Craig is a unique voice. He’s willing to pull himself up on the work and do it for the long term. Our contribution is to believe in Craig, Niklas and Holly, provide some starter cash, and get out of the way. Craig will pay us back, we're not worried about that. The only thing we ask is that he never sell. We hope Callen can be W+K's competitive little brother, continually driving us both beyond complacency and mediocrity.”

“All great agencies start with a strong culture,” noted Luhr. “We are an industry of case studies. There are too many case studies of culture lost as a result of a sale or merger.”

Another argument for not selling is answered through the lens of creative focus, sometimes lost in the shuffle of managing the chaos and change that has befallen the industry more of late.

“Independence lets you put creative opportunity as your first priority. It allows you the option to adjust your costs to match your client's needs. It gives you the freedom to change your model to match the market quickly,” said DeCourcy. “If you stay small (we're around 1,400 people globally, which is smaller than a lot of US high schools), it doesn't take a consultancy to re-point your agency every time the industry changes. Mostly, independence allows you stand your ground and fight for great work, and that's a huge part of the creative process.”

Seeding the indie landscape and future

An obvious question is whether or not the Callen investment is the simply the first in what could be more investment in small, ambitious indie shops.

“We certainly hope this is the beginning of something bigger,” said Luhr, who will be speaking later today at Advertising Week on the topic of starting up new agencies. “We are confident that Callen will have a strong and creative future. W+K has always been about experimentation. And Callen is just one more example of us believing in the longevity and power of independent creatively-driven companies.”

In DeCourcy’s mind, seeding the landscape with smaller, more nimble creative agencies, with the commensurate creative support can be nothing but a plus, especially for brands, as holding companies navigate their own size issues.

“We are excited to see new agencies born. We hope they stay independent. When there are more of us, brands benefit because they don’t have to buy or support huge infrastructure they don't need,” she said.

“Clearly we have taken note of the holding company contraction and the chaos in our business,” added Luhr. “But this chaos isn't limited to simply advertising. Nearly every business segment is under attack. Industry carnage has always proven to bring new opportunity for those who think differently and have bigger motivations than simply money. Independence provides us the gift of thinking out longer than 90 days.”

Indeed, W+K has placed a great premium not only on independence, but on the quality of its output, placing it at the very top of the continuum.

“We have always lived by the Wiedenism of ‘The work comes first’,” said Luhr. “We make sure that every W+K employee understands that our top priority is the quality of our creative product. We put that priority higher than the client/agency relationship. Most of our competition puts the client/agency relationship first. It is our belief that if our creative product is strong and smart, our clients will continue to be satisfied with our relationship.”

“The work comes first. Not you, not politics or power or success or money,” added DeCourcy. “Making the best work of your life is the goal for everyone here. Indies have the freedom, but also have to be prepared to put their money where their principles are. If you don't like an arrangement, push to change it. If you don't respect the company, don't work for them. If you don't like the terms, hold out and walk away. If they (indie agencies) are not ready to do that, then there's no benefit to offset the inherent hardships attached to remaining independent.”

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