Austin Howe

Thursday, October 25, 2012 / 7pm / KANEKO Bow Truss



PDX > OMA: DESIGN WRITER  Portland-based creative director and writer who collaborates with firms like Ziba Design, Sandstrom Partners, Wieden+Kennedy, Co Projects and JDK to help companies find their authentic voice and historical significance (if any). He is the author of Designers Don’t Read and Designers Don’t Have Influences.


Unlikely Greatness PDX > OMA

Before we get started, I need to establish a premise, just so we’re on the same page from the start: You can often learn more about your own category by looking outside of your category. Agree?

We’re going to look at the industry I often say I’m recovering from: Advertising.  My background’s in advertising, and I still do the occasional campaign, but for the past 7 years, I’ve been collaborating exclusively with designers or design firms—with the exception of Wieden+Kennedy in Portland (but even there, I bring in a designer partner). The advertising business is changing dramatically, but there are still some lessons to be mined. And make no mistake: advertising agencies like Wieden, Crispin Porter in Miami, TBWA\Chiat\Day in LA, Saatchi & Saatchi in London, are still some of the most creative companies in the world.

Take it a step farther: maybe there are things we can learn from studying other cities, other markets. 

And maybe there are some things we can learn from Portland, where I’m based, to see how this soggy logging town, literally Stump-town… became a creative center.

Creative people from all over the world seem to just flock to Portland—oftentimes without jobs. Like actors flock to Hollywood without roles.  I get emails every week.

We have great restaurants, we have the hotel that the New York Times called “the hippest hotel in America” (Ace), an interesting music scene (probably not as interesting as yours), some great artists and photographers, costumer makers, trumpet makers, a growing film and animation community, some of the best advertising and design talent in the world, Skylab Architecture, Allied Works architecture, our own parody TV show, Portlandia (Portland is where young people go to… retire), the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.  But it wasn’t always that way.

This is in some ways A Tale of 7 Cities, and we’ll only really be able to touch on a few of them tonight:

1. Portland. 2. Omaha. 3. Los Angeles. 4. Minneapolis. 5. Miami. 6. London. 7. Beaverton.

How many of you have heard of Beaverton? What do you know about it? (Nike’s world headquarters) What else do you know about it? (Not much)

Beaverton… because so much of Portland’s story was written there. Because so much of Portland’s story is Nike’s story, Phil Knight’s story. Nike is the Kevin Bacon of Portland creativity. I say that we have lots of great restaurants, but when I first moved to Portland in 1988, unless you wanted a steak or a Reuben sandwich, there were no great restaurants. The first great restaurant, Zefiro, was designed and partly owned by a designer from Nike. That’s just one tiny example. There will be more.

Oddly, Portland has this animation thing in its DNA.  Mel Blanc? Bugs, Porky, Daffy, Speedy, Taz, Yosemite Sam, Woody? He went to Lincoln High School, my kids’ school, and (Omaha’s own) Elliott Smith’s school, by the way. Mel Blanc perfected Woody’s laugh in the halls of Lincoln. Okay, anyone know who else went to Lincoln High School? Hint: animation.

(Matt Groening. Simpsons.)  His dad’s name was…? (Homer). But Homer Groening didn’t work at a nuclear power plant, he worked at an advertising agency (Gerber) with a guy by the name of Duke Wieden, who was the father of…? (Dan Wieden, co-founder of Wieden+Kennedy, Nike’s advertising agency).

So, Mel Blanc, Matt Groening… and then there was Will Vinton and the California dancing raisins; Jim Blashfield won a Cannes Gold Lion and a Grammy for Michael Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone” video; Chel White, Bent Image Lab, longest animated short for SNL (“Blue Christmas”). And now we have Laika, the studio that made Coraline and ParaNorman (which I think is still in theaters). Anyone know who owns Laika? (Phil Knight) Anyone who knows who runs Laika? (Travis Knight, his son)

For being such a reclusive billionaire, Phil Knight’s vision, chutzpah and influence is felt everywhere in Portland. So, it’s probably worth a quick review:

  •  Grew up in Portland.
  •  Ran track at University of Oregon in 1959. Coached by Bill Bowerman, who would eventually become his business partner.
  •  Went to grad school at Stanford, wrote his thesis on how to overcome the monopoly that Adidas had on the running shoe market. He was basically pondering how a David could take down a Goliath.
  •  In 1962, he travels to Japan to meet with the executives at Tiger shoes (who made cheap Adidas-like runners) claiming to be head of a company called Blue Ribbon Sports (which didn’t actually exist, except in his head) about importing their shoes to the US.
  •  He starts selling running shoes out of the back of his car at track meets.
  •  In 1972, Knight and Bill Bowerman start making their own shoes with the waffle sole and the swoosh. They called them Nikes, after the Greek goddess of victory.
  •  1978: Blue Ribbon Sports is renamed Nike, by the end of the 70’s, they were doing $270 million in sales.
  • Sales this year are somewhere around $24 billion, Nike has about 44,000 employees worldwide. And they don’t seem to show any signs of letting up. The level of creativity and the quality of just about everything they do is pretty damned perfect. I think it’s fair to call Nike a great company, and it’s all happened in the least likely of all 7 cities: Beaverton, Oregon.

BUT, what drives a person to keep pushing and pushing like Knight does? It’s amazing enough that he went from pretending to have a sporting goods company and a $500 investment borrowed from his dad, to leading a dominant $24 billion global brand that’s transformed an entire city, and in some measurable ways, changed the entire world for the better? Nike is credited with starting the global fitness craze, but I’m not sure that’s completely accurate; I think Phil Knight took the time to study the market, get in touch with his own passion, and see that this (fitness) wave was coming; and then get on that wave ahead of everyone else. But he got on the wave.

But what drives a guy like Phil Knight to keep pushing?  Part of it, according to Donald Katz (author of Just Do It, The Nike Spirit In the Corporate World) is that he doesn’t think in terms of how much market share Nike has, but how much is still out there to be had.  “There were $2 billion of unrealized sales sitting out there in the world, Knight would say. And there were potential customers out there who knew what Nikes looked like and what they ‘meant’ but couldn’t get at them yet. There were competitors coming at the company from all sides and institutional investors who perceived each lull in Nike’s rapid growth as the beginning of the end. Perhaps it was the difference between the will to always win,” Katz posits, “that causes business empires to rise and the will to win that creates sporting majesty, but Knight couldn’t begin to imagine having nothing left to prove.”

Here’s a peek into Phil Knight’s melon, talking about his relentless quest for the next big idea: “I worry about it like I worry about my kids… I can’t break the power of the connection any more than I can stop worrying about my two kids. There’s just too much emotion involved. I’ll never quit worrying about Nike and we’ll never stop needing to win.

Where does this level of ambition come from? More importantly for our purposes here tonight, is it something we can acquire or learn?

I believe it is, and I think the next chapter in Portland creative history will show how that can happen.

  •  1982: April Fool’s Day of 1982 Wieden+Kennedy launches with Nike as their main account.
  •  April of 1983: With the 84 Olympics coming up, Nike felt that they needed more creative firepower than maybe Wieden possessed at that time and so they looked outside of Portland, to Los Angeles, to Chiat/Day, the hottest agency on the planet at the time, who had just done the Apple 1984 commercial that launched the Mac.

Chiat created the iconic Randy Newman “I Love LA” TV commercial, just-athletes print and outdoor boards (throwing over here, catching over there)—most people thought Nike was the official sponsor. Even though Converse paid $4 million for the official sponsorship.

  • Los Angeles was one of our 7 cities, remember? Obviously, with Hollywood, it’s been a creative center for a long time. But until Chiat/Day came along, it wasn’t a center for advertising or design—at all. New York was. But one man, Jay Chiat, almost singlehandedly changed all that. You can read about Chiat in Designers Don’t Have Influences. Or in Steven Kessler’s book, Chiat/Day, the First 20 Years. Two words defined Jay Chiat: vision and chutzpah.
  •  June of 1986: Nike leaves Chiat and brings all of their creative work back to Wieden (something about Chiat being great creatively, but maybe a little bit arrogant, a little bit asshole-y).

My perception: During those 3 years, the shock, the sense of humbling and perceived “failure” of Nike leaving the fold for a hotshot Los Angeles firm drove W+K’s creativity to a whole new level without turning them into arrogant assholes. They kept the nice, and added a level of dead seriousness. They pushed the place to do the best creative, the wildest but smartest creative in the industry.

Basically, Dan learned, and I think was really transformed by, a lesson Bill Bowerman had taught Phil Knight back when he was his track coach at U of O: “Play by the rules and be ferocious.”  In case you haven’t looked up “ferocious” lately, it means “marked by extreme and violent energy.” Right around this time, Wieden ran an ad for the agency with a quote from Gustave Flaubert and a picture of the tract houses of suburban Beaverton. It said: “Lead a regular and orderly life, so you can be violent and original in your work.” Wieden the person, and Wieden+Kennedy the place, embody that.

  • Nike was rewarded for their renewed loyalty, by Dan Wieden himself, as he helped them boil their authentic story down to three powerful words. The most famous tagline in advertising history, “Just do it.”
  • 1987: Working at Saatchi & Saatchi in Los Angeles. While I was there, Saatchi & Saatchi accomplished their goal of becoming the world’s largest advertising agency. They went from a 3-person consultancy based in London about 15 years earlier (at the time, Brits looked to New York as the true creative center, not London). So self-conscious were they about their credibility gap, they asked a graphic designer to create a logo that would make them look big and substantial (read “legit”) and the company still uses that logo today. Saatchi & Saatchi challenged and rewrote the rules and saw a way to dominate the advertising space through acquisitions. London became a major creative center for advertising and design. The brothers’ mantra that they repeated to each other through that meteoric rise: “Nothing is impossible.” Not just words. They acted on it. Another line from Maurice Saatchi that has more truth than humility in it: “People don’t know what they want until a brilliant person shows them.”  If you study some of the great product breakthroughs, or just read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, you’ll see the truth of that.
  • 1988: Lloyd Wolfe, a creative director from Minneapolis (one of our 7 cities), was brought to Portland to help turn around one of the Northwest’s oldest agencies, Cole & Weber. He began recruiting creatives from all over the country. Including me, and my creative partner, who was recruited from Bozell in Minneapolis. And we had a major creative run. But let’s take a quick trip over to Minnesota for a minute.

While Portland’s star was rising, so was Minneapolis’, with some people from Bozell, Fallon, Duffy Design, Carmichael Lynch, Clarity Coverdale (here’s a weird Kevin Bacon moment: I freelanced long distance with Craig Tanimoto from Clarity, until he moved to Portland to work on Nike at Wieden+Kennedy and then TBWA\Chiat\Day, where he wrote the line “Think different” for Apple).

Jack Peterson, who is now the president of Sandstrom Partners in Portland, was at Carmichael during that time and I asked him about it. Here’s what he said:

“Most creatives that studied under Ron Anderson at Bozell credit him for starting the era. He was probably the single largest influence. Fallon, Carmichael, Clarity and Martin-Williams, and to a lesser extent Campbell-Mithun carried it from there. There were a few other notables—Peterson Milla with their Target work.  San Francisco has a similar creative ecosystem that was created by Hal Riney: Goodby, Butler Shine, etc. Every creative center can usually be credited to one or two highly talented, stubborn, mother (expletives). God bless them.

  •  1990-91, I started my own agency in Portland and Steve Sandstrom launched his design firm, where I still spend a big chunk of my working life. Steve Sandstrom is known as the Tazo Tea guy, more recently as the St. Germain guy. But he started his firm after working as a designer where…?  (Nike.)
  •  In 1997, I sold my agency. One of our art directors, who we hired right out of school, moved to Miami, Florida, to work for a small agency called Crispin Porter+Bogusky. Now, if Portland or LA were off the beaten path, Miami was off the path and into the ocean. They asked me to come out and talk to their creatives, and I could see that they were on a mission—first to learn best practices (which you are clearly doing here in Omaha), and then to achieve unlikely greatness. In Miami, Florida. They got a little bit famous for their anti-smoking Truth work, then a lot famous for their Mini work, and even more famous for their weird work for Burger King. They have been named Agency of the Year 13 times by Ad Age who also named them Agency of the Decade, and many in the industry consider them to be even more creative than Wieden+Kennedy. Oh, and that art director who cut his teeth in Portland, Andrew Keller, is still at Crispin Porter. He’s now the CEO. I told him I was coming here and asked him how they achieved unlikely greatness in Miami…

“Very early on the agency decided it would not be a regional agency. It wouldn’t follow the path of regional agency to big regional agency to national agency. It would start nationally. And so it followed its passions in terms of accounts instead of geography. The agency read in Adweek about a pitch for the Shimano account in California. The agency pushed its way in with a funky mailer (it hadn’t been invited) and ultimately won the pitch. Shimano became one of its early key accounts that led to many more within the sports and outdoor categories.

It was a bold move to go after a government account-the Florida anti-tobacco account. The agency was split on whether it was a good idea. But they went for it. We created a brand called Truth. And in the process took on tobacco companies. Which meant that networks would refuse to run the work. But the agency persevered and it’s some of our most famous and impactful work.

I think creative leadership has been a big deal. Two of the three names on the door were creatives. And when Alex Bogusky stepped away, the agency decided to put a former Art Director turned creative director in the position of CEO. Rarely done.

One thing we’ve always done is refused to defend accounts that we already have. It’s hard to walk away from the money, but we figured you never win so it’s not so hard to do. But we walked away from VW-our biggest account. And we walked away from BK, our second biggest account when they wanted to open it up to other agencies.”

As the father of all creative ad agencies, Bill Bernbach, once said, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.”

Okay, enough with the superficial and wildly disjointed history lesson. Let’s break it down.

Some conclusions I’ve drawn from observing all this stuff like a total geek…

What can we learn from the unlikely greatness of markets like Portland, Minneapolis, Miami, especially in terms of attracting the best creative talent to what might be considered an unlikely locale?

  1. Dan Wieden’s stated goal for Wieden+Kennedy: to create an environment where creative people can come and do the best work of their career. And that isn’t talk. He backs it up. By fighting for great work, supporting huge, outrageous, expensive, outside-the-box ideas, and encouraging failure. In the agency, they have a beautiful piece of art made entirely of push-pins and it says, “Fail harder.” Creative people won’t move somewhere to work at a place that’s really good at compromise. But they will move somewhere for the chance to find their voice, to experiment, to create their best work and be supported in that.
  2. It usually seems to come down to one or two visionary, motivated individuals. And these people don’t just aim high, they aim really high. They don’t commit, they over-commit. They push themselves and the people around them to do better work than they ever thought they could do. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was actually coming here for one or two people who have been thinking about and wrestling with some of this stuff and this might just confirm it. That maybe they just needed to permission to go for it. Maybe they’ve been keeping the rules, and now it’s time to be ferocious.
  3. Be decisive and fierce about getting rid of products, processes, clients and employees who aren’t moving things toward greatness. Steve comes back to Apple and gets rid of under-performing products (printers) and a potentially good device (Newton) to focus on truly great products: iMac, iPod, iTunes, and eventually iPhone and iPad.
  4. Leverage failure as a driver for your success. Like W+K did. Note: You might want to raise the bar on the creativity and quality of your work now, before your clients go bar shopping. 
  5. Take time to ponder, dream and think about where things are going. (My annual retreat, Knight’s inner office)
  6. Try to determine and define your authentic story.  I’m asked to do a lot of manifestos, help companies figure out and articulate their story. Dig in and find out their history, DNA, mix of personalities and body of work.  I want to share manifestos for 2 very different architecture firms in Portland.


With Apologies To Gravity: Architecture & The Serious Sense Of Play

The Skylab Manifesto

We are playing with it.

With space and time and materiality.

With genres and eras and idioms.

With all of it.

We play because we have to. Because we want to. Because we take play seriously. Because the very idea of play is too easily dismissed by all those earth-bound practitioners who are so tightly tethered to the dictums of architecture as usual.

With unapologetic verve and bona fide moon-mission audacity, we look to the space made available to us. We reclaim every inch of it. We think harder, bigger, more detailed thoughts about that space. We make connections that were never made or were once made only to be obscured by those with softer, smaller, less detailed thoughts.

This concept is ours because we get to decide what it is. This time, next time, every time. We make the rules and then bend them into lush, liquid, pretzel-esque shapes that would make Dali himself dance the perpetual jig of joy. And, sometimes, when the stars align and the gods conspire, we defy gravity itself.

These journeys call for big minds, big hearts and steady hands. These minds, hearts and hands give birth to buildings. New, timeless buildings, of and about now. Structures and environments that are the shining, real-time embodiments of play. This birth we give, this work we do, travels by a more stylish and au courant sounding noun, that of Conceptual Modernism.

But know this: we are not about trends or fads or flavors of the month. No, we answer to a much higher and infinitely more mischievous calling. We are the detectives of beauty, incandescent embracers of improvisation, and anthropologists of abstraction, who seize upon even the smallest artifact and lovingly imbue it with new context and wonder.

At the core of our quest, is a near-proprietary, cultural-blender ethos, forever set to “puree.” Into it go all the materials, vocabularies, voices, philosophies, histories, common sense, and huge heaping helpings of our own elegantly outrageous design hankerings.

Our muse has many mothers and fathers, and many colorful and enigmatic cousins. And given her rebel DNA, it’s not surprising that she chooses to wear so many festive and inspiring hats.

We’re playing—with form and meaning and possibility. Playing—for aesthetic stakes yet to be measured. We’re proud to proclaim that we are, in fact, building the kinds of buildings we always promised ourselves that we’d build. And we’re out to mold and shape and craft and chisel and hammer, if need be, both public and private spaces into intelligent, transcendent hives of joy, simplicity, and pure human richness. And, the way we see it, the sky is not, and never will be, the limit.

It’s only the starting point.

GBD Manifesto

 “A building is like a man: it has integrity and just as seldom.”

—Howard Roark, The Fountainhead

A building is like a man. Or a woman. There are those we like, and those we don’t. The ones we like are honest and reliable. They put us at ease. They are respectful. They listen. They have the gift of conversation and empathy and a willingness to help us solve our problems. They go so far as to factor our needs into even their smallest decisions. They are unique in their amiable spirit, their kindness, their dignity and grace, their manners.

Then there are the men and women we don’t like. They don’t listen. They don’t empathize. They give us the feeling they’re working out their own issues at our expense.

They may be quoted, celebrated and photographed. Their revolutionary flat roofs can be praised by architectural critics worldwide and still let in enough rainwater to give those underneath them pneumonia. Their expansive glass walls can be hailed for their beauty and covered with ice—on the inside. They can be the subjects of best-selling coffee table books while creating blinding micro-climates that make living next door virtually unbearable.

We aim for something different.

To touch the souls of our fellow human beings. To move them. To elevate them. To engage them in the act of creating and experiencing beauty—a beauty that goes beyond aesthetics. A beauty that attracts through character and authenticity. That invites human activity and conversation. That reminds us of who we really are. And who we aspire to be. Our best selves.

These are the buildings we want to make.

Buildings that work. Hard. Just like we do. They must be honest and wise, and give out more than they consume. They must be thoughtfully and artfully crafted, always placing utility before vanity. They must be quiet, majestic solutions to real human problems, not the source of new ones. And we must never forget that we are afforded the privilege of building them not as an excuse for public theater, not to showcase the latest technology or flavor-of-the month material, not for awards, not for notoriety; we are asked to build them in response to simple human needs.

So, let others build their monuments to themselves, their leaky roofs, their death-ray cladding, their “personal statements.” We will focus all of our talent and experience and ingenuity and sweat on solving problems and creating better places for humans to be… more human. And we’ll let the personal statements come from those who utilize those places. Because, in the final analysis, these are not “GBD buildings.”

These are human buildings.

6. Once you have a better sense of your authentic story, be bold and start trusting your gut more.

Note: Does anyone know the Omaha motto?  (Fortiter in Re [Latin] “Courageously in every enterprise.”) There’s one big hint about the DNA of this city.  Be courageous in every enterprise.

7. Which, practically speaking, might mean just being willing to have awkward conversations. I read recently, “The quality of a person’s life is determined by the number of awkward conversations they’re willing to have. Made me think of Steve Jobs.”

In conclusion, there’s a story about the early days of DreamWorks SKG when Steven Spielberg was trying to recruit a young filmmaker. He sent the guy an email that said, “Come join us as we walk into our destiny.” This is Spielberg! Didn’t you already do that with Jaws and ET and Indiana Jones and Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park?

Maybe it’s time for you… and for Omaha, to walk into your destiny.