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Remembering creative legend Dan Wieden

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

October 3, 2022 | 7 min read

We look back at the life and legacy of the Wieden+Kennedy co-founder, who has died aged 77.

Dan Wieden

Dan Wieden, co-founder of Wieden+Kennedy, who died on Friday aged 77 / Wieden+Kennedy

Tributes from across the advertising world have been paid to Dan Wieden, co-founder of Wieden+Kennedy, the world’s largest independent advertising agency.

Wieden died at the age of 77 on Friday September 30, less than a year after his fellow agency co-founder David Kennedy.

A statement from Wieden+Kennedy read: ”Thank you Dan, for throwing the doors wide open for people to live up to their full potential. We will miss you so much.” Here, we explore the late legend’s creative legacy.

Portland and paper

Wieden was born in Portland, Oregon, the city that would later serve as his agency’s stronghold. His father Duke was a copywriter who rose to lead Gerber Advertising. After graduating from the University of Oregon, Wieden worked for Georgia-Pacific, one of the world’s biggest pulp and paper corporations.

Wieden was fired from the manufacturer for being ”the hippie inside a very conservative company”, but was hired by its ad agency, McCann Erickson, where he met future business partner Kennedy.

When Georgia-Pacific relocated its headquarters to Georgia and McCann followed suit, Wieden and Kennedy chose to stay behind in Portland and after a brief spell at William Cain founded Wieden+Kennedy in 1982.

The agency’s founding client – an unknown, nascent footwear brand called Nike – provided an opportunity to make the reputations of both men.

‘Just Do It’

Their first campaign for Nike aired during the 1982 New York City Marathon, showcasing the pair’s trademark wit as they established the brand as the go-to option for serious athletes. The spots, dubbed ’Evolution’, ’Trophy’ and ’Co-op’, were made in a couple of weeks with a skeleton crew. As well as being W+K’s first work, they were Nike’s first nationwide broadcasts.

In 1987, an unusual source of inspiration helped Wieden create one of the most memorable taglines in the history of advertising: ’Just do it.’ Interviewed in 2009 documentary Art & Copy, he recalled reviewing new work set to be presented to Nike the next morning. The campaign would be Nike’s first big television campaign but Wieden felt it lacked a unifying element. The answer came from the last words of a convicted murderer, Gary Gilmore, who told the firing squad: ”Let’s do it!” Though colleagues and client were unsure, Wieden pressed ahead.

”Creatives in the agency all questioned if we really needed it. Nike questioned it. I said, ‘Look, I think we do. I believe we have too many disparate commercials that don’t add up to anything without a tagline. I’m not married to the thing. We can drop it next round.’ A lot of shrugged shoulders, but they let it ride.”

It has ridden ever since. And though the phrase has come to be synonymous with Nike, it has proven flexible. In its original outing, it’s a rallying cry to leave the warmth of your bed behind for a jog across the Hudson. But in this 1995 spot for Nike, it’s an exhortation to parents to let their daughters play sports and live independent, empowered lives.

‘Ragtag army’

Though their agency would grow (it now has thousands of staff and 10 offices in China, India, Japan, Britain and Brazil), Wieden and Kennedy made certain to export their particular culture of eccentricity. Each year, the entire company’s ”ragtag army” celebrates Founder’s Day on April 1, taking a day off normal service to develop art installations, go camping or make short films together.

That culture ensured that W+K could do for other brands what Wieden had done for Nike.

Its global teams went on to produce acclaimed work for Honda (’Cog’ was voted the best ad of all time by The Drum readers) and ESPN, while W+K Portland’s work for Old Spice jolted that brand back into the public consciousness and pricked the bubble of pretentious fragrance advertising.

In 2015, the company’s independence was secured by putting all of its shares into a trust “whose only obligation is to never ever under any circumstances sell the agency,” in Wieden’s words.

Wieden stepped back from daily management around 10 years ago, but still remained the agency’s most high-profile ambassador. He founded an arts non-profit called Caldera in 1996. His family has asked remembrances be made as gifts to the charity.

Additional reporting by Amy Houston.

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