Dan Wieden, Advertising Legend Behind Wieden+Kennedy, Nike’s ‘Just Do It’, Dies at 77

Dan Wieden, the architect, creative guru, and talented manager who created arguably the world’s most famous advertising agency, has died on Friday, September 30, 2022, at the age of 77.

Wieden, along with his late partner David Kennedy, formed Wieden+Kennedy, which over the years became the world’s largest independent advertising agency. He was best known for his work on the Nike account, crafting messages that lodged in the public consciousness.

Wieden was funny, self-deprecating, and hugely ambitious. His greatest gift may well have been his ability to lead and manage the quirky, eccentric and sometimes difficult personalities behind the best content. Karl Lieberman, the agency’s current creative director, compared Wieden to Lorne Michaels, the visionary behind “Saturday Night Live.” The cast changed, jokes came and went, but like “SNL,” Wieden+Kennedy survived and remained relevant.

“The reason it lasted so long was that he didn’t build an ad agency, he built a culture,” Lieberman said. “Curious, motivated, welcoming and devoid of deference…it’s a place that reflects that in so many ways.”

Wieden was born in Portland on March 6, 1945, the son of Violet and Duke Wieden. He attended Grant High School and graduated in 1967 from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

He married Bonnie Scott in 1966, with whom he had four children. He died in 2008. In 2012, Wieden married Priscilla Bernard.

He worked, and according to Wieden+Kennedy, was fired from the Portland Georgia-Pacific paper company, but was later hired at their marketing agency, McCann-Erickson. It was there that he met Kennedy.

When Georgia-Pacific moved its headquarters to Atlanta in the early 1980s, McCann-Erickson closed its Portland office and the future business partners moved to another agency where they worked together on the Nike account. Within months, they founded Wieden+Kennedy.

The long ties between the agency and the sneaker company became the envy of the world of advertising and marketing.

“I was lucky to see those two forces come together,” said Scott Bedbury, who joined Nike in 1987 as director of advertising. “You had this agency that had no patience with traditional advertising and a client that didn’t believe in marketing.”

Nike at the time had recently debuted its “Revolution” TV ad, an arty, edgy ad that featured the famous Beatles song. Nike had paid more than $800,000 for the music rights, only to be criticized by music lovers for appropriating one of the greatest singles of the rock era to sell shoes.

“One of Dan’s great lines, part of his ethos, was that if you’re going to do something memorable and worthwhile, he should have a head start,” Bedbury said. “But if he has an edge, someone will cut himself. So be it, as long as it is authentic and true.”

Bedbury didn’t need convincing. The ad had proven to be very popular. In addition, Bedbury knew that his boss, Nike CEO Phil Knight, totally agreed with Wieden.

Not long after, also in 1988, Nike introduced its classic “Just Do It” slogan. While Wieden was generally quick to credit his star creatives for the agency’s memorable work, Wieden always claimed that “Just Do It” was his own creation.

It has arguably become the most famous advertising slogan in modern corporate history. Since the slogan’s adoption, Nike’s annual sales have increased from $877 million to about $46 billion.

Jerry Cronin did many of the agency’s classic Nike and ESPN campaigns in the 1980s. When asked what his favorite Wieden story was, he recounted an ad campaign that never happened.

Cronin traveled to Modesto, California, once a month trying to come up with a campaign acceptable to executives at E. & J. Gallo Winery, the mass-market wine operation. Wine executives rejected release after release. Desperate, Cronin suggested an ad campaign “about a barely fictitious agency that goes to Gallo’s headquarters every month and can never sell a single ad,” he recalls.

To Cronin’s surprise, Wieden stopped the pitch and left the account.

“This relationship with Gallo could have lasted for many profitable years,” Cronin said. “And any agency head would have been fine with that. Dan Wieden wasn’t cool with that. He believed that the agency’s reputation and success depended on doing excellent and different work for each client.”

Wieden+Kennedy currently employs 1,500 people in eight offices around the world. Its headquarters remain in Portland. Its main clients are Nike, McDonald’s and Ford.

Wieden stepped away from day-to-day administrative duties about a decade ago. The agency is now owned by a trust, Lieberman said.

Dave Luhr, who was an executive with Wieden+Kennedy for many years, is the chairman of the trust. He says the trust was largely Wieden’s idea and is structured in such a way that he cannot sell the agency.

Luhr confirmed that Wieden had entertained a sizable number of potential buyers over the years and happily turned down all offers. Luhr declined to share details of those deals or how much money Wieden left on the table.

“It was a bold move,” Luhr said. “Dan was a bold thinker.”

Wieden is survived by his wife Priscilla Bernard Wieden, daughter Tami Wiedensmith, daughter Laura Blatner, daughter Cassie, son Bryan, stepson Nathan Bernard, stepdaughter Bree Oswill, stepson Sean Oswill, brother Ken, sister Sherrie and 12 grandchildren.

The family asks that souvenirs be made to give to Boiler Artsa nonprofit arts and mentorship organization founded by Wieden and his family in 1996.

–Jeff Manning; jmanning@oregonian.com

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *