Is W+K's so-hip-it-hurts content arm anomaly or inspiration?
Imagine a children's show on acid. In one 90-second episode of "Califunya!" an online Web series, two women in flowing dresses excitedly cart around a giant rainbow-colored "key to their happiness" that was pulled from the garbage. ("What a lovely giant key from the trash!" one exclaims). Another four-minute episode called "Bluebird"(brought to you by sunlight, by the way) plays like a charming music video, as three women, again in beautifully retro dresses, harmonize to a song about, well, a bluebird.
But "Califunya!" isn't your average viral video. Its star, Becky Stark, is known in indie music circles as a performer with Lavender Diamond and the Decemberists. Decemberists lead singer Colin Meloy also makes several appearances, and upcoming guest stars include writer/director/artist/hipster icon Miranda July and installation artist Jim Drain. And most notably, "Califunya!" is funded by creative advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy as part of their new experimental division known as WKE - Wieden+Kennedy Entertainment.
After several delays, WKE - whose mission statement is to "renegotiate the relationship between art, media and advertising""- officially launched in December 2009. Its central business model works contrary to that of WKE's traditional creative advertising department (which counts Coca-Cola, Nike and Target among its clients). Instead of developing content at the behest of clients, WKE creates its own entertainment products, including podcasts, Web videos, and documentaries, and distributes them directly to viewers in the hope that clients will then agree to fund and underwrite the shows. Production costs for shows like "Califunya!" come out of WKE's budget - as of now, the outpost provides no revenue for the larger W+K umbrella.
"All I can say is that all great developments in the history of time have started as someone's crazy idea," says WKE creative director Aaron Rose, who works out of W+K's headquarters in Portland, Ore. "This is one of those situations."
Wieden+Kennedy had been toying with the idea of a creative-first portal for some time. WKE's first incarnation, in the form of an online radio station, featured non-sponsored shows and sets by employees and local bands. When Janice Grube, WKE's creator and content director, tapped Rose to head up the new video channel, he brought with him a sense of indie cred: Rose, a former art gallery owner in New York, directed the 2008 film Beautiful Losers, a street art documentary that featured artists like Shepard Fairey and director Harmony Korine.
As a result, WKE's programming slate is unapologetically (if painfully) hipster, with a distinctly Portland point of view. The cheekily-named "Don't Move Here" documentary series plays like a love letter to the city's music scene. The doc series "D.I.Y. America," a natural extension of Beautiful Losers, focuses its lens on the DIY/punk movement. Artfully-made short films, with names like "To Remember That Our Skies Are the Same Skies" are limited-time-only videos designated as "Features of the Week."
The lineup comes with its share of critics, many of whom accuse WKE of exploiting the local arts scene to attract new clients. "I don't see W+K as any more commercial than HBO, Showtime, MTV or NBC," Rose says. "People accept programming from those networks without comment. Why are we different?"
According to Rose, the artists featured on WKE have no qualms partnering up with an advertising agency. "[Do] the artists involved consider this selling out?" Rose asks. "In my experience, most artists just want to share what they make with the world ... and a venue like WKE is just another avenue to do that. Unless you're home recording cassette tapes in your basement, there's gonna be someone paying to distribute what you do. All the successful artists that I know have learned this. The key is keeping the art full of integrity, regardless of the distribution or funding. I feel we're doing a pretty good job of that at WKE."
Regardless of financial backing, the portal gives Wieden+Kennedy a unique opportunity to brand itself as an agency supportive of alternative culture. But will national brands like Coca-Cola and Dodge be willing to fund content with tattooed hipsters and a heavy Portland focus? As of now, the WKE project has yet to secure a corporate sponsor, and its directors are unsure about its long-term future at Wieden+Kennedy. According to Rose, all WKE programming is developed with possible clients in mind, but "creativity is just as important to us," he adds.
"Who knows if it will be a success? That's not the point really," Rose continues. "Right now we are only interested in creating great entertainment that hopefully inspires [people] or gives them a chuckle or somehow makes people's lives a bit better. In my experience, if you create an honest product, then the funding always sorts itself out."