Dan Wieden, advertising legend behind Wieden+Kennedy, Nike’s “Just Do It,” dies at age 77

Dan Wieden, the architect, creative guru and gifted leader who built what is arguably the most famous advertising agency in the world, died on Friday 30 September 2022, aged 77.

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

Wieden was funny, self-deprecating and hugely ambitious. His greatest gift may well have been his ability to manage and manage the quirky, eccentric and sometimes difficult personalities behind the best content. Karl Lieberman, the agency̵[ads1]7;s current chief creative officer, likened Wieden to Lorne Michaels, the visionary behind “Saturday Night Live.” The cast changed, gags came and went, but just like “SNL,” Wieden+Kennedy lived on and remained relevant.

“The reason it lasted so long was because he didn’t build an ad agency, he built a culture,” Lieberman said. “Curious, driven, approachable and lacking in esteem…it’s a place that in many ways reflects him.”

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

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 paper company Georgia-Pacific, but was later employed by the 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 the Portland office, and the future business partners moved to another agency where they worked together on the Nike account. Within a few months, they founded Wieden+Kennedy.

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

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

Nike at the time had recently debuted its “Revolution” TV spot, an edgy, artistic ad that featured the famous Beatles song. Nike had paid more than $800,000 for the musical rights – only to be ripped off by music lovers for appropriating one of the rock era’s biggest singles 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, it should have an edge,” Bedbury said. “But if it has an edge, someone will be cut. So be it, as long as it’s authentic and true.”

Bedbury needed no convincing. The ad had proved hugely popular. In addition, Bedbury knew that his boss, Nike CEO Phil Knight, fully agreed with Wieden.

Not long after, also in 1988, Nike unveiled its classic “Just Do It” tagline. While Wieden was usually quick to credit his star creators for the agency’s memorable work, Wieden always claimed “Just Do It” as his own creation.

It became arguably the most famous advertising order in modern corporate history. Since the introduction of the slogan, Nike’s annual sales have increased from $877 million to around $46 billion.

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

Cronin traveled to Modesto, California, once a month to try to come up with a campaign acceptable to executives at E. & J. Gallo Winery, the mass-market wine business. The wine managers rejected pitch after pitch. In desperation, Cronin proposed an ad campaign “about a barely fictional agency that goes to Gallo headquarters every month and can never sell a single ad,” he recalls.

To Cronin’s surprise, Wieden stopped the pitching and ended the account.

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

Wieden+Kennedy currently employs 1,500 people at eight offices worldwide. Headquarters remain in Portland. The biggest customers are Nike, McDonald’s and Ford.

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

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

Luhr confirmed that Wieden entertained a significant number of potential buyers over the years and happily rejected all the offers. Luhr declined to share any details about those offers 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 requests that memorial gifts be made to Caldera Arts, a non-profit arts and mentorship organization founded by Wieden and his family in 1996.

— Jeff Manning;

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