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The Agency That Sticks Out

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, an oral history of Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo.

+TYOOctober 25th 2018

After establishing an agency in the U.S. in 1982, and building on its success ten years later with a second office in the global hub of Amsterdam, it might have seemed natural, inevitable even, for Wieden+Kennedy to expand to Tokyo. Technologically advanced, with a sense of taste and design encoded in the national DNA, Japan, was, and is, a cultural superpower, in addition to being a top-three global economy. The Japanese devotion to craft and work made Tokyo a kind of spiritual home for an agency guided by the principle, “the work comes first.”

But if Japan was a defiantly unique society, it was also uniquely challenging for business outsiders. This was especially true for advertising, an industry ruled by local giants whose influence came from media scale, not creative firepower.

Failing, hard, was a distinct possibility for a foreign ad agency here. So, following a directive from Dan Wieden, and the leadership of a creative founder whose view of advertising was as expansive as his social network, W+K created something different than an ad agency. W+K Tokyo was built to be a hybrid—to combine Japanese culture with an outsider’s point of view, to meld different cultures, languages and people, to absorb outside influences, and forge connections with the wider business and creative worlds beyond advertising.

The resulting work was authentically Japanese, but different—not just different from the work of other Japanese agencies, but from any other agencies, anywhere.

Through the years following its 1998 launch, and via teams of Japanese and foreign-born thinkers, managers, and makers, the agency did work that was innovative, but unstudied. Those teams combined creativity and technology to make culturally relevant content (a musical shoe and a viral sensation for Nike), and new shopping experiences (an ecommerce site for Uniqlo fleece well before this was a thing anyone did). They combined unexpected disciplines and elements into fun and useful things (Typeface glasses!). They challenged industry assumptions (Uniqlo ads broke ad norms by featuring real people, and not mentioning the clothes) and national traditions (a Nike spot generated awards and debate by confronting the national “nail that sticks out gets hammered down” mentality with an ode to individual achievement). They embraced music and fashion and art and design, and, with the 2003 launch of Tokyo Lab, the idea of a record label as a perfectly organic offshoot of an ad business (Lab would go on to make a “visual album” for musical artists Hifana, 10 years before Lemonade).

In other words, W+K Tokyo did a lot of the things that even the most progressive ad players are still talking about trying to do today.

If the agency model was ahead of its time, the work has always seemed timeless. This might be why the fact that Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo is turning 20 tends to elicit a hearty disbelief (even from Dan Wieden himself).

To mark the office’s unbelievable 20th anniversary, we talked to the creatives, managers, architects, collaborators—the family—behind W+K Tokyo about how they built a different agency, and about writing its next chapter.

The beginning...

Launching into a culture, and an ad market, unto itself.

Dave Luhr, W+K President: Amsterdam came first, then Tokyo…

We didn’t necessarily have a global vision for opening a network of offices. We had an account at Nike we loved and business was booming around the world. The first need was in Europe. We didn’t have a lot of knowledge about how to open up offices. I always say I'm thankful we opened in Amsterdam first. It gave us enormous confidence. We also knew the next step was going to be difficult...

Dan Wieden, co-founder of W+K: Tokyo was, and still is, a bit difficult. But there are things that that showed us we could go places and do things we didn’t think we could.

Dave Luhr: At that time, Tokyo really represented Asia. We decided, let's get aggressive and proactive. We think there's an opportunity. We also knew you could fail in Japan really easily. It's insular. And size and clout matter. There was less start up activity, back in the day especially. Dentsu ruled the city and country.

We started with an alliance with McCann. We felt an alliance would give Nike confidence—these guys understand the uniqueness of Japanese culture. We would bring creativity and account service and planning, and they would bring cultural understanding of market and infrastructure help.

We pitched it together and won. Two years later we got our own office.

Trish Adams, MD, 2006-2010: No value proposition for creativity had previously been established. Thankfully, we were able to find enough clients who understood the value of creativity and solving business problems. And we created work that made that value obvious.

Sumiko Sato, ECD, 2004-2010: (The mission was) to do work that was never done before. To create a culture of our own, which was a mix of Portland/USA and Tokyo/Japan, and more. It took a lot of energy and effort to make the multicultural and multilingual environment actually function day to day, and on top of that, to pump out good work.

Lawrence Teherani-Ami, MD, 1999-2002: When I got the job as MD of the Tokyo office, I had a meeting with Dan when he was in town, and I said “Hey Dan, you know, besides do great work and not lose money, what do you want me to do?” And he didn’t even miss a beat; he looked me in the eye in his Dan sort of way and said “I want you to fuck up.” That was not what I was expecting. He continued and said, “if you aren’t making mistakes, if you aren’t taking big swings and if you don’t fuck up, then I’m going to know you’re not trying hard enough.” This is what this is all about. It’s about trying and doing things.

A hybrid agency

Dave Luhr: In London, everyone knows what an ad agency does. Things are looser in Tokyo.

We were never going to be a Japanese agency. We were always going to be a hybrid. It was important that we played a global and a local role in the market. We wanted to bridge that gap and be one agency.

Trish Adams: The Tokyo office was always a hybrid—a mash-up of cultures, languages and people. We always brought a unique perspective to Japanese clients who were looking to stand out (rarer than you would guess), Japanese clients who needed to enter Western markets, and US clients who were looking to connect with Japanese customers.

John Rowe, MD, 2015-present: We are outsiders. But also very Japanese. And we take both sides of that very seriously. We have often redefined what good advertising is in this market. Yet we've never been embraced by the mainstream industry. Very few people leave here to work at other agencies. Instead, they stay forever. Or they leave us to work for clients like Google, Fast Retailing, Apple, Adidas.

Eric Cruz, CD and Tokyo Lab co-founder/director, 2001-2010: In 2000, Tokyo had the the most DJs per square mile in the world. Japanese youth galvanized and drove change from fashion to movies to music. The next decade represented the peak of the global Japanese youthquake where Japonism influenced the world through soft culture. We helped co-create, and rode, that wave.

At the time, Japan led the way forward with Nike Asia-Pacific, centered from Tokyo. So the work we did for APAC needed to work first and foremost in Japan, then influence and resonate across the rest of the region.

Mike Farr, ECD, 2013-Present: We’re unlike anyplace else because of all the sparks that the rubbing together of different cultures and languages brings. So, you not only have to walk in stupid, you need to walk in like an open sandwich. Willing to accept a bunch of unlikely ingredients piled on top of all your well-baked assumptions and expectations.

Tota Hasegawa, ECD, 2011-present: Hybrid. Freedom. Chaos every day.

"Our goal was to bring a new level of creativity to the market." John Jay

The John Jay Effect

Ann Diaz, editor, Creativity: And then, there’s John Jay.

Eric Cruz: What I loved about WKT is how it became a cultural magnet that attracted musicians, artists, makers, collaborators from around the world because we made cool stuff happen. It was like an invisible force that pulled us all magically together. John Jay was the mastermind behind it. He opened the door for everyone, myself included. He allowed us to explore and take calculated risks which brewed a very healthy dose of experimentation that led to great things unfolding.

Karrelle Dixon, director of emerging markets, now Portand MD: The importance of John Jay in this whole narrative cannot be lost. The culture, and the closeness to the creative culture and youth culture in Tokyo was what he was able to tap into when we started to have conversations with Nike.

John Jay, ECD, 1999-2004: When the agency decided to go on its own in Tokyo after receiving a recommendation from Nike HQ, I offered to help find the management team to run the office. Of course, I started interviewing candidates both inside and outside of the agency. After only two conversations, I called Dan Wieden to tell him that I found the first creative director. Dan was surprised and said, “That was fast. Who did you find?”

I said “Me!” After listening to myself pitch the merits of Tokyo and the creative opportunity there, I decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. I would take a great leap of faith. It was one of my best leaps ever. Just five years earlier, I had moved from my beloved New York City to join W+K in Portland without interviewing with Dan, never visiting the city nor seeing the office.

A hothouse of creativity in a creative and cultural center

John Jay: On my last day in Portland before moving to Tokyo, Dan paid me a visit in my office. He said something so important, a request that spoke to the very vision I had for this adventure. Dan said, “make this new agency the hothouse of our network. Do the kind of creative work in Tokyo that no other W+K office can.” And that we did.

Sumiko Sato: We were a small office but never thought of ourselves as small. I think we knew that we were part of the bigger family and culture of W+K, as well as part of the culture of Tokyo, and were always thinking of how we could instigate change.

Naoki Ito, ECD, 2009-2011, Now CCO, Party, Japan: Be independent; be provocative; fail harder. The wonderful Tokyo office and creative collective of individuals have these core concepts of W+K deeply rooted in each of their minds.

John Jay: Advertising often steals from culture; I wanted to be a contributor to the local and global culture. I could connect both in Tokyo, especially for the creative community. We (would) be the most connected agency in town—connected to the most important cultural, creative and business influencers. Over the years, the office became a must-visit hub for international journalists, creators and business leaders.

Bruce Ikeda, account executive/producer/co-founder and producer Tokyo Lab, 1999-2011: The WK office was like a secret hideout for creative gangs...producing astoundingly fine quality creative works, completely different from the ideas and methods of other Japanese agencies

Naoki Ito: My colleagues were less like people I worked with, and more like friends and family I spent time with.

Eric Cruz: It felt like a family who lived in a modern four-story house.

John Jay: Hiroshi Fujiwara is a global legend from Tokyo. The King of Cool The Godfather of street. The Influencer of all influencers. He is the “H” in Nike’s exclusive collaboration. H for Hiroshi. T for Tinker Hatfield. M for Mark Parker. HTM by Nike. I introduced Hiroshi to Mark in Tokyo. The picture here is of the super rare W+K Tokyo sneaker in white pony hair designed by HF for the opening of the new W+K office in Roppongi. Only 50 pairs made, each for a member of the office. The characters on the back says TOKYO. The tongue says W+K.

Blake Harrop, MD 2010-2015, now MD, W+K Amserdam: The office is a mixture of cultures, and has a unique energy that is reflective of the city. People at every Wieden+Kennedy office around the world join the agency to do the best work of their lives, but people at W+K Tokyo join because they want to do something really unexpected. It doesn't feel like a bunch of artists, nor does it feel like a bunch of people who wish they were making films. It feels like a bunch of people who want to make something that will cause the world to say “woah.” There’s a business savviness to the office and a tech savviness that comes from being in a city like Tokyo, but there’s a chill vibe that comes from being in the creative neighborhood of Nakameguro alongside the canal.

John Jay: Over the years, this strategy of inviting the most influential, interesting, unusual people to the office, to generate a dynamic global network as well as a deep connection to the local business and cultural community was critical. I built that network very strategically, but the reality was it was just damn fun to be around inspiring people.

My hope was to evolve W+K Tokyo beyond an ad agency...to be a cultural hub for the creative community, a destination for influencers and a place for great creativity that speaks to the zeitgeist of the times.

Tokyo Lab

Eric Cruz: W+K Tokyo Lab grew from our campaigns with Nike Presto circa 1999-2001. Instead of ads, we released limited edition vinyl, branded content, DVDs. Japan is special in its relationship with “objects.” There’s still very much a culture of collecting or owning things. So while everyone was downsizing music packaging, we went the other way by creating unique audio visual experiences that hybridized music and visuals.

We collaborated with the creators we worked with on the Nike campaigns as well as an international community of makers through our network of friends and like-minded people to pump out stuff we loved. The fruits of this yielded us a cult status following as audiovisual content creators that truly moved culture. Beyond the ads, we connected with Japanese youth in a way like no other.

Bruce Ikeda: Ever since the Tokyo office launched, John had envisioned making W+K Tokyo a creative company like no other, one that goes beyond the framework of advertisements. So from the first day, I could sense that sooner or later we would attempt starting something like a music label. I got into having conversations about the possibilities with John immediately after joining the agency. Music was a big thing for the staff at that time. Their creativity and music, in a sense, intertwined. From 1999-2002, we took on many music related campaigns in collaboration with Nike and local artists, and the success of those in the Japanese creative scene became one of triggers of the label launch. It took almost three years, but finally in 2003, we launched a label as a co-venture with a Japanese record company now known as W+K Tokyo Lab.

Keizo Machine and Juicy, Hifana: If we knew of W+K Tokyo Lab when we were students, it definitely would’ve been our No.1 choice of places to work, alongside the bandai (attendant seat) at a public bath house. We are now considerably old, but willing to start as your dishwasher any time! Are you listening Kenji (Tanaka)?

Everyone got along so well and was like family. But when it came to work, there was no compromise and they all took pride in what they did. Working with them was fun and motivated us too. John Jay was dandy.

The Work

Ann Diaz: From the get-go, Tokyo has reached beyond the typical consumer landscape and into cultural crevices we didn’t even know about, bringing seemingly disparate things together in strange, but wonderful ways—like shoes and music for Nike and typefaces and eyewear. More recently, there was that mesmerizing rap video for Nike that captured a vibrant part of Korean culture likely not familiar to a lot of viewers. It’s the kind of stuff you want to share with everyone--not just ad people. The agency has been “creating culture” way before that became the buzzy thing for agencies to do.

Trish Adams: The office was doing "branded everything" types of work well beyond TV since its inception—everything from broadcasting out of a dome in Ebisu for a week for Sapporo to creating its own record label. The office's approach was ahead of its time.

Tota Hasegawa: Most advertising in Japan was about the use of celebrity. We always started from the creative idea.

Bruce Ikeda: People tend to focus more on the output when speaking of W+K creatives, but we put more emphasis on the strategic mindset that lead to the final piece. Also, "simplicity" was the ultimate keyword that we constantly pounded into the back of our heads. From the planning and generating of new creative ideas to the execution, we aimed to produce strong creative works by thinking simple and focusing on the bottom line essence. I still follow this style in my current job as well.

Sumiko Sato: Every single piece of work that went out of our door has something to be remembered for.

Creative Milestones

The work that broke rules and broke through.

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Nike: The Early Days Three spots about unexpected sports stars established the brand as a sports and cultural force in Japan. They featured a world record holder in the blind long jump, women’s soccer, and a pitcher for the Giants coming back after Tommy John surgery.

Tom Kelley, founding MD, 1997, now senior brand director, Nike: Hideo Nomo was the first Japanese player to come to the U.S. and have a huge impact in MLB baseball. And in Japan, I mean—they played the game in japan in the middle of Shibuya Crossing; the ratings were higher in japan than the U.S. It was the first cross-cultural phenomenon. We wanted to connect the brand to this, and accelerate it. We leveraged one of the bigger weapons Nike had—the thought behind Just Do It. Telling the story through those lenses was connecting on a different level and having a different conversation around sport. It scared the daylights out of the partners were were working with, but in true Nike sense it was a bold look at sport and what the promise was for young people. It appealed to a new generation of consumers. It’s the work I’m most proud of and excited about in my career.

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Uniqlo

Sumiko Sato: Uniqlo wanted change, and wanted it fast. W+K Tokyo was craving a Japanese client that could allow us to do good work. The timing was right for both sides.

John Jay: My guiding principle for Tadashi Yanai, the Uniqlo founder, was simple: “Always trust the intelligence of the consumer.” At that time, casual apparel was still thought of as appropriate only for the young; it was not universally accepted for everyone. Our thought was to express the democracy of casual apparel. But democracy also reflected how Yanai ran his company. I watched him eat with us in the cafeteria, carrying his tray and cleaning off his dishes with all other employees. His humbleness was so endearing and he would show up on Saturdays in shorts and a T-shirt—unheard of for a Japanese CEO.

For that historic first campaign for fleece, we recommended casting no stars or major celebrities for the tv and print ads. Highly unusual for Japan. Throughout the campaign, in each 30-second commercial, never did our talent talk about the fleece garments—not once.

Respect the intelligence of the people...and you can become the richest man in Japan.

Kumon

Blake Harrop: An after-school study institution in Japan known and loved across the country, W+K rebranded Kumon working directly with the founder, and created advertising that created huge fame for the company. The W+K designed logo, “The Thinking Face,” is visible around the world today.

Eric Cruz: I love how the work we did not just reflected Japan but helped stir conversation. For example rebranding Kumon and creating its re-launch film: What should I be studying now? It raised the question of what the youth of Japan should be studying post Bible-era Japan. After the system had failed, how can Japan re-invent itself? That was powerful.

Nike Music Shoe

Naoki Ito: Nike Music Shoe was a product-centric expression that was a bit on the weird side. By giving the shoes an additional function as musical instruments, we were able to put the spotlight on the product in the promotional film. The Music Shoe also went beyond the film, and became the campaign's star item for people to experience at events and retail stores.

Shingo Ohno: Honestly, I wasn’t at the first meeting someone said “what if the shoe has sound?” But right after the meeting, they asked me “Do you think that’s possible?” then I just said, “Yes.” Everything was new, but solved step by step. That’s a good experience to me.

Naoki Ito: What I remember the most is when we were initially presenting the idea, Shingo, a key player in the project, hid his smartphone inside the shoe and managed to play the Music Shoe beautifully!

Frank Hahn, ECD 2010-2011: Shingo wanted to have the Music Shoe filmed in a sweaty concert venue. Thank god we didn't listen to him.

Hifana Channel H album

Hifana: We made a video for each track because we wanted to make a strong appeal that it was a concept album. We were able to make it happen because we worked with Tokyo Lab, the experts in the visual field.

Eric Cruz: The honest, simple truth is that we were stupid enough to say yes to Hifana when they asked us to create one music video for each track. There were 15! So while Madonna and Beck would release a compilation DVD, we were the first in the world to release DVD albums—music you not only listened to but watched and experienced live through audiovisual assault during live shows where we would use 3D motion tracking technology to make the digital avatars of Hifana and DJ Uppercut move as they DJ’d live.

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Nike Baseball “Pledge”

Blake Harrop: This campaign is very dear to my heart. Launched two years after the 2011 earthquake, it was a campaign for Nike Japan that highlighted the role of the individual player within every team. This is a provocative thought within a culture that has so much respect and reverence for team spirit, and was risky as an American agency working for an American brand. However we obsessed the authenticity and intention of the message and created something that caused a sensation in Japan.

Tota Hasegawa: It was a clear statement of how Nike should behave in the context of Japanese sports culture. In Japan, sports is about teamwork and harmony, not standing out. Be humble. The work took the opposite stance—admire individuality in the sport, and it was provocative.

Blake Harrop: The spot caused a national debate about the role society asks its young people to take, and whether there is too much pressure to assimilate to old fashioned ways. The campaign won Japan’s most prestigious prize for advertising, and the GM of Nike Japan was given a special award by the Minister of Finance on stage at a ceremony on October 31st 2013. The W+K team that worked on the campaign also attended the ceremony, but sat quietly at the back so no-one would notice that they were in Halloween costumes…

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Google

Trish Adams: It was the first ever new business pitch in the Tokyo office and the resulting work was also the first ever brand campaign anywhere in the world for Google.

Blake Harrop: Fun fact: Google’s first ever TV commercial was created by Wieden+Kennedy in Japan. Based on the same brief that resulted in the English language “Paris Love Story” (*not a W+K spot), the work was based on the real-life experience of a W+K Tokyo copywriter who used Google Search and Maps to find flights, trains and hospital directions to rush to his wife’s hospital from work when he heard she’d gone into labor.

Hiroshi Kuyama: In order to bring to life a simple idea of creating an appealing story only using seven search queries, many of the team members pitched in different ideas and we ended up with a pile of killed scripts every day.

Typeface Glasses

Blake Harrop: We started with a simple thought: in order to prove the value of brand building, let’s work directly with some Japanese craftspeople and help them build their own brand. This idea led the Tokyo management team to invite the agency to submit their ideas of interesting craftspeople we could collaborate with, and we ended up forming a JV with an online eyewear retail startup that was wanted to create its own eyewear line. Through this joint venture we created and launched an eyewear brand called TYPE and created glasses frames inspired by typography.

Tota Hasegawa: Typeface was an unusual project where we created brand and product from scratch, collaborating with the client and external professionals. It was an important project for us as it demonstrated how creativity can be used differently.

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Oronine Hands

Hiroshi Kuyama: The other day, a teenage girl who’s still too young to have irritated hands mentioned that her favorite advertisement was Oronine. Working on this project for 10 years not only contributed to the increase in the sales of the product but also brought the brand unexpected fans like her.

Shingo Ohno: I place importance on creating the right balance of keeping the good old brand image of Oronine while also making it appealing to a younger generation. Exploring a new way of expression that has never been seen, yet at the same time feels familiar is always difficult, but it allows us to present both the feeling of assurance and the sense of newness, which is something that our client puts their trust in.

Nike Korea Run It

Azsa West, creative director, 2016-2018: In Korean society, there is a clear path laid out for you when it comes to your life purpose. However, the trouble with this path is that it’s very limiting. There are few opportunities that are respected. We wanted to empower the young people of Korea to chase down whatever it was they dreamed and to make their own path.

A music video began to make sense the more we dove into the project. Especially for a Korean audience, where the music industry is so wildly respected. A music video felt like an authentic way to connect with the audience in an impactful way. The big idea really was the song. The song was completely original and we worked in collaboration with the artist to create something anthemic, empowering and cool that could rally the people.

The other side…

Sumiko Sato: I also took pride in how we were throwing the best parties in town.

Bruce Ikeda: In general, we worked hard, and had fun hard. Everyone was an awesome party-maker, and I have tons of memories of great parties. There was even a time when the agency staff all got together and rented a bus to Disneyland. Also, the Halloween costume party was crazy every year. Everyone was supposed to wear their costumes from home instead of changing at the office, and my taking the train to work in an orange Bruce Lee jumpsuit with black lines seemed to have become quite a story in the Japanese creative society. People still talk about it to me pretty often.

Trish Adams: The Founders' Day parties in that office were amazing—always a combination of great food, kegs of sake, fun activities and great music. And Sue's bar. The best.

Frank Hahn: Our studio once got flooded during torrential rain. It took the entire office to empty the basement with paper baskets in a suicidal mission while standing with our feet knee deep water and above all electric cables.

Eric Cruz: Our go-to place for lunch was legendary—Ichioku in Roppongi. It’s where famed musician Carlos Santana and Tadanori Yokoo (the god of Japanese design in the 70s/80s) would meet up with the owner—the three were close friends. In many ways it became Tokyo Lab central; we did a lot meetings there and hatched many plans. I still go there to this day.

Trish Adams: Going to Isetan with Sumiko and Yukari to buy a yukata to wear for the agency's Obon party ... and one of my favorite photos of all the ladies of W+K Tokyo...

Shingo Ohno: There is a big memory of our 10th anniversary exhibition at Ginza Graphic Gallery. Basically we exhibited our works and also I did a gig at one night. I brought a Tesla coil that makes actual lightning. Like this. But after that, the Tesla coil exploded and we had a [fire]. Now it’s a good memory and that’s the right thing for W+K because that’s the fail harder thing.

The evolution of Tokyo and W+K

John Rowe: The founding vision of Wieden+Kennedy was to create a place where people can come to do the best work of their lives. And we talk a lot about the work coming first. For us in Tokyo, this means setting a clear bar for the work, creating a culture that keeps people on their toes, and then giving people the freedom to do their best work. This includes a lack of hierarchy and structure, which can be surprising to new staff. It includes a mandate to speak up and give your opinion, which can be uncomfortable. It also means making sure we help staff fit work into their lives versus work being life, which is the norm in this country.

Finally, it means finding the right talent for this office, which is why we started The Kennedys here in 2017. Staying connected to culture, which is why we started the W+K+ Gallery in our Annex location. And continuing to partner with the best talent in the country.

Shingo Ohno: I think this company has become much healthier. Usually, Japanese agency people work (long hours) and WK Tokyo was the same. But this last three to four years, our working time has been reduced but the quality of work is not going to down. Creative wise, now we have a more broad-range viewpoint. This is what I thought we should be.

Mike Farr, ECD: When you meet all the great people who have worked here over the past 20 years, you get a sense that not much has changed. The spirit and soul of this place has endured through the years. Maybe because we all take the role of W+K within the Japanese ad industry very seriously. In that sense, we have always been a little counterculture, a pirate ship of fools.

John Rowe: As great as the last 20 years have been, we’re most excited about the next 20. As we’ve grown over the last several years, we’ve spent the majority of our energy on hiring the right people—smart, ambitious, open-minded, fearless young people who are willing to fail and learn and build our next chapter. As they mature, and the world changes, who knows where they will take us. That’s the exciting part!