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Why Wieden+Kennedy Has Begun Making Cool Stuff for Wieden+Kennedy

Wieden+Kennedy made its name helping Nike, Coke, and other A-listers tell their stories and express their brand voices through one captivating ad after another (the most recent example: this charming Nike spot commemorating the Cub’s World Series win). But these days, the agency is eager to share its own stories.

During Fast Company’s Innovation Festival last week, W+K’s New York office hosted a Fast Track visit that doubled as a splashy launch for its new approach to content. "This is part of a larger strategy to put the inside of the agency on the outside," explained Richard Turley, the agency’s new executive creative director of content and editorial design. "I was brought in to make cool stuff for Wieden. We want to learn what it means to build a platform and to build an audience, a real community around the content. So we’re experimenting and taking the wall off the building and trying to be more open about our working process."

Rather than walk the Fast Trackers through case studies and merely talk about creativity, W+K invited them to experience it firsthand. What was initially billed as "a creative exploration" evolved into "a pioneering, immersive, 360 multi-sensory, interactive performance playground," as the event poster touted. Turley, who organized the extravaganza, described it only slightly more succinctly as "half science fair, half theme park."

In a vacant warehouse floor of its Soho offices in Manhattan, the agency put on a show—literally—starring its newly formed in-house rock band. While Wieden+Kennedy The Band was rocking out, playing ad-inspired and ironic originals they worked out during a three-hour rehearsal earlier, attendees participated in an impromptu drawing class featuring an impervious cellist in skin-tone leotard and sporting W+K tattoos. There was an arm-wrestling table that got occasional use, a 3D-printing machine churning out W+K tokens, a VR lounge, a "social media therapy" station, even an inflatable bouncy castle—the latter to simulate the playful yet arduous creative process, a W+K staffer explained. (At least, I think that’s what he shouted over the music.)

The zaniness was live-streamed on Facebook Live via a roving four-wheeled robot equipped with a camera—much as W+K live streamed Lady Gaga’s recent dive bar tour that it orchestrated to some 2 million viewers.

It was hard to make sense of it all, actually. Which was partly the point. The creativity that fuels W+K’s work is wild and unruly, but we’re not usually privy to that perspective. "Everything you see today is an unhinged allegory of what people here care about and what they’re doing," Colleen DeCoursey, W+K’s chief creative officer, told the crowd during one of the band’s breaks. "The job here is to harness that talent and create a culture that helps us make things that other people care about."

Turley hopes to make these creative explorations—these invitations to experience and collaborate—a part of how W+K behaves as a brand. "It’s about being more of an active participant," he says.

It was Turley’s work at MTV, in particular his brainchild No Chill, that first got W+K’s attention. The nightly show was a trippy, creative free-for-all, as much art project as TV show. At the agency’s leadership summit last December in Mexico, Turley, a magazine devotee who had joined MTV after a successful design reboot of Bloomberg Businessweek that involved a refreshing irreverence, riffed on the need for brands to embrace a new way of communicating, much as we’re all doing as individuals. Several months later, W+K asked him to help the agency to lead that effort.

"Ad agencies are good at taking time to think hard and give very considered responses to briefs," says Turley. "The world is not completely turning away from that, but my sense is it’s incorporating a more reflexive type of content. It’s quicker, more intuitive, where you’re looking around your community and responding to things."

It remains to be seen if an agency that has built audiences so successfully for its clients can now build one of its own. "My gut is that people are interested in what we’re doing," Turley says. "But it’s not a given that this will work. If it doesn’t, something else will, though, because I do think this way of existing and communicating, whether you’re a brand of business or a person or an agency, has reached an inflection point. We have to talk in a different sort of way."

That evolution, like creativity itself, is a journey—another plunge into the bouncy castle.