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

Dan Wieden, the architect, creative guru and gifted executive who built what is arguably the world’s most famous advertising agency, died Friday, September 30, 2022, at age 77.

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

Wieden was funny, self-deprecating and hugely ambitious. Perhaps his greatest gift has been his ability to direct 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, the gags came and went, but just like “SNL”, Wieden + Kennedy survived and remained relevant.

“The reason it lasted so long is that he didn’t build an ad agency, he built a culture,” Lieberman said. “Curious, motivated, welcoming and without deference… it’s a place that, in many ways, reflects that.”

Wieden was born in Portland on March 6, 1945 to Violet and Duke Wieden. He attended Grant High School and in 1967 earned a journalism degree from the University of Oregon.

He married Bonnie Scott in 1966, with whom he had four children. She 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 his 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 future business partners moved to another agency where they worked on the Nike account together. Within months, they founded Wieden+Kennedy.

The long tie between the agency and the sneaker company has become the envy of the advertising and marketing world.

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

At the time, Nike had recently launched its “Revolution” TV spot, a bold and artistic ad that featured the famous Beatles song. Nike had paid more than $800,000 for the music rights – only to be ripped off by music lovers for appropriating one of the rock era’s great singles to sell shoes.

“One of Dan’s big lines, which is part of his philosophy, was that if you want to do something memorable and worthwhile, it should have an edge,” Bedbury said. “But if he has an advantage, someone will be cut. So be it, as long as it’s genuine and true.

Bedbury needed no convincing. The ad proved extremely popular. What’s more, Bedbury knew that his boss, Nike CEO Phil Knight, fully agreed with Wieden.

Shortly thereafter, also in 1988, Nike unveiled its classic “Just Do It” slogan. While Wieden was usually quick to credit his star designers for the agency’s memorable work, Wieden has always claimed “Just Do It” as his own creation.

It has become arguably the most famous advertising slogan in the company’s modern history. Since adopting the slogan, Nike’s annual sales have grown from $877 million to approximately $46 billion.

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

Cronin traveled to Modesto, Calif., once a month to try to come up with a campaign acceptable to E. & J. Gallo Winery, the mass winery. Wine executives rejected pitch after pitch. In desperation, Cronin suggested an ad campaign “about a barely-fictional agency that visits Gallo headquarters every month and can never sell a single ad,” he recalls.

To Cronin’s surprise, Wieden ended the pitch and left the count.

“That relationship with Gallo could have lasted many fruitful years,” Cronin said. “And any agency head would have been okay with that. Dan Wieden disagreed with this. He believed that the reputation and success of the agency depended on the quality and quality of his work for each client. »

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

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

Dave Luhr, who was an executive at 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 she cannot sell the agency.

Luhr confirmed that Wieden had entertained a significant number of potential buyers over the years and happily rejected 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, son-in-law Nathan Bernard, daughter-in-law Bree Oswill, son-in-law Sean Oswill, his brother Ken, his sister Sherrie and 12 grandchildren.

The family is asking for memorabilia to be given as gifts to Caldera Arts, a non-profit organization founded by Wieden and his family in 1996.

–Jeff Manning; jmanning@oregonian.com

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