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Industry heroes: Dan Wieden

The adland legend Dan Wieden, who helped market Nike to the masses, works by the simple maxim that doing great work leads to great business – and that approach rubs off on those who work with him – according to former Wieden+Kennedy staffer Humphrey Ho

First and foremost, I have to caveat this piece by stating that I am lucky enough to have worked for a handful of great leaders – all independent agency owners.

However, in my career as an advertising professional, there is one man that has made a particularly significant impact on my business perspective specifically and my view on life in general.

That is one Dan Wieden, the co-founder of Wieden+Kennedy. I had the privilege of working for him while serving as the business director of Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai.

The essence of his leadership style is simple and can be summarised in two words: ‘Fail harder.’

Wieden is all about ‘failing harder’

He taught me that it’s completely acceptable to fail, but you must learn from your mistakes and not allow history to repeat itself.

In advertising, if you don’t dare to fail, you will never do truly great work.

And, as a leader, you must provide an environment for your team to create the best work of their lives – even if that means they have to fail once or twice before getting there.  

In a conversation with Dan once, he asked me how things were faring in Shanghai. I said: “Well, it’s a different beast in China.” His response was one that I believe holds true to this day.

To paraphrase, Dan replied by saying that if you do good work but don’t make money, that’s not something that will put your job on the line at Wieden – but if you do poor work and you make money, you probably won’t last here.

After making this distinction, he sent me back to Shanghai with a different perspective on my role, which was to create opportunities among Chinese clients for Wieden; a very ‘American’ organisation, wherever it might set up shop.

In China, the agency maintained its reputation as an extremely independent, strong-willed agency, despite being in a country with highly standardised and regulated practices.

So, I paid my dues at Wieden, then worked at Google for a bit, which ultimately led me to spearhead Hylink’s western expansion in the America today.

 

Although I’m leading my own offices now, Dan’s principles are still in play.

Hylink has become the largest digital agency in China, pushing clients to do better work even when the mindset can often be that of ‘good enough is good enough’.

But, we persist. We have pushed our clients to buy better media and do more innovative work. Many times, it hasn’t paid off immediately.

For while it doesn’t always pay to be innovative in the short-term, it certainly does so down the line in the long term.

Which brings me to my final, invaluable, lesson from Dan. He believes that if you do good work, the money will come.

When he said this to me during a lunch in Portland, I hadn’t fully understood the notion. I thought ‘they have to pay, they have to sign a contract’, Chinese clients expect this, that and the other.

But Dan implored me to keep with my persistence and focus, suggesting that if I did so then the money would be just around the corner.

Now, I truly understand what that means – and that sentiment forever changed my perspective on the ad business.

Dan sees things not from a planner’s perspective, a creative’s perspective or an executive’s perspective; but just as a man who has been around the block a few times and sees that good work pays.

Day in and day out, this is what I try to emulate.

Ho tries every day to emulate Wieden’s approach

Humphrey Ho is the United States managing director at the Chinese independent agency Hylink Digital

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