Lasser’s Masterclass

by Taylor Whitelow

May 7, 2019

Wieden+Kennedy New York Creative Director Jimm Lasser shares his insights on the company’s success

Jimm Lasser
Jimm Lasser, Creative Director, Wieden+Kennedy, NY

What’s Wieden+Kennedy?

As one of the world’s largest independent agencies, creative top dog Wieden+Kennedy has succeeded in distinguishing itself from the herd. What’s the secret to its success, and what can aspiring advertising professionals learn from the company’s story?

We interviewed Jimm Lasser, artist, documentary filmmaker and long-standing Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy New York, to find out. Lasser gives us the inside scoop on all he’s learned in his more than 13 years at W+K.

The Wild Wild W+K: Lasser’s Experience, Unfiltered

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to assume the creative production process is seamless, much like the agency’s work. But that’s far from the reality.

“It’s a lot messier than you would think. You spend a lot of time in school learning to come up with a good idea. But learning how to make that idea is something you just need hands-on experience to do. And besides that, often success depends on a lot of soft skills—communication and presentation skills, and luck.”

As Creative Director, Lasser acts a bit like a puzzle master, taking all the pieces of a presentation the client likes and challenging the creative team to put them together in an unexpected fashion. Lasser’s work with Chrysler’s Super Bowl ads illustrates those challenges perfectly.

“Our ideas were good, but the client was massively ruthless on getting [actor] ​Clint Eastwood​ and ​[rapper] Eminem​ in commercials. I couldn’t believe they were able to pull that off. But they had the means and desire to chase after people to make that come alive.

“There’s so much going on, that success sometimes depends on a [number of different things]: the right director, the right song, all these little things that you might not think about [as an ad student]. Right now you’re just thinking about needing a good idea, and needing to present well on a portfolio.”

Jimm Lasser speaking in front of a podium with a screen behind him that reads "Wieden+Kennedy"
Jimm Lasser speaking in the Eric Mower Advertising Forum at the Newhouse School.

No Monkey Business

While producing numerous projects as Creative Director, Lasser also created an Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Long Live Benjamin,” about his cousin’s life-changing bond with his late Capuchin monkey. The film’s success has proven that Lasser’s talents are not exclusive to creative advertising, and that he has truly achieved work-life balance.

Lasser acknowledges that he’s good at managing his time, and his film had aspects which were advantageous in terms of the time commitment. Since his cousin also lived in New York City, Lasser had more time to film than another documentarian might. He also handled the camera and audio equipment on his own, so he wouldn't have to gather a crew every time he wanted to film. While there may be no strategy to winning an Emmy for your side project, the secret ingredients of completing one are simple: time management, accessibility and tenacity.

The W+K Way

Side projects are often the way people get their foot in the door at Wieden+Kennedy. For Lasser, it’s one of the reasons he’s stayed for so long.

“I wanted to do outside projects and they supported that. I’m able to balance those with what I do. The work-life balance was manageable. Also, they liked me, I felt comfortable there. You want to find a place you feel comfortable enough to bear your ideas to everyone. They have an atmosphere like that that I took to.”

At an agency that creates work aimed at shaking things up, it’s no surprise to find an environment that cultivates free creative expression—a no-judgment zone of sorts. That environment, Lasser says, is what makes Wieden+Kennedy so unique.

“We definitely see how we’re different than other agencies. Of course, there are a lot of agencies doing interesting work. But… each of them [has gone] through their own dips and valleys. Our place has stayed pretty consistently good. The longevity of people staying there makes it feel familiar and more family like.”

Committed Teams Wear Rings

Lasser’s current team at Wieden+Kennedy New York is nicknamed “Rings,” but the way they received the name was all but intentional.

“We got the name because of a mistake. We shot an Air Jordan commercial and there was a pawn shop in it, with a neon sign that said ‘Rings.’ My partner Caleb just happened to hang it up outside [our office work space], so it looked like we were saying the name of this is Rings.”

In fact, they work so well together, the entire team decided to take things to the next level and fully dedicate themselves to creating a collective environment.

“Usually the creative and account [groups] sit apart in agencies— that’s how it is for W+K. Our group was unique in that all disciplines sat together. Seeing the people you’re working with on brands is really important. It makes for good cooperation so account people don’t become 'those people on another floor.'”

“This group was also diverse for the agency. Not just in terms of color and background, but in terms of position. For example, at one point, most of our creatives in the group were women. This dynamic works out really well since a lot of the brands we work on have diverse audiences. Our diversity allows us to have discussions about what’s appropriate and what’s not, what would be empowering, what’s the right way to do stuff.”

What is​ the right way to do stuff?

There’s a fine line between attaching a brand to an issue for profit and making a statement that aligns with a brand’s goals. Given the rapidly shifting cultural expectations on brands to both understand and respect diverse audiences, walking that line can be tricky, as Lasser explained during a presentation at the Newhouse School in November 2018.

“The Chrysler campaigns I’m going to show [in my presentation] is from eight years ago and if it was done today people would probably go after us, even though our intentions were not political. Our job was to represent the brand. Today, sometimes you have clients that are interested in making political statements. I didn’t work on the Colin Kaepernick work but I know that it was a couple of years in the making before they were ready. There was a moment when they were ready to do that, and is was a big choice.”

Lasser’s team decided to cast WNBA player Maya Moore when they re-created the famous Michael Jordan “wings” pose. Using a female athlete made a profound statement about athleticism today. However, that wasn’t necessarily the team’s primary intent.

“A woman was the most appropriate of the Jordan athletes [Moore has an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand] because she had four [championship] rings. That was political, but it was appropriate. It was more about, here’s this athlete who has four rings.”

As brands using their platforms for social good becomes an increasingly popular trend, it’s even more important that agencies know how to do it right.

Lasser’s Last Lesson

So, to all of the aspiring advertising professionals about to turn their tassels and take the great leap into the bustling, brand-loving industry beyond, here’s one last lesson from Lasser:

“Know what you know and know what you don’t know. Seek out what you don’t know because you’re not going to know most of it. And as long as you’re open to finding it out and figuring it out, that’s what leads to great creativity.

“Look at everything as naively as possible, as simply as possible. And good luck!”

Taylor Whitelow is a senior in the advertising program at the Newhouse School.