Advertising legend Dan Wieden passes at 77

Wieden
(CREDIT: Wieden + Kennedy)

He was the icon who coined, “Just Do It” for NIKE. Advertising legend Dan Wieden “did it” all and now he is gone. The creative leader behind NIKE’s famous “Just Do It” tagline and co-founder of advertising giant Wieden + Kennedy passed away last Friday. He was 77. 

According to an obituary shared with NBC affiliate KGW by Wieden + Kennedy, Wieden passed away peacefully at his home in Portland with his wife by his side. The cause was due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

message posted Saturday on Wieden + Kennedy’s Social media platforms read “Thank you Dan, for throwing the doors wide open for people to live up to their full potential. We love you so much.”

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

Early in his career, journalism major Wieden took a job at Georgia-Pacific, a forest products company in Portland. He spoke of this job, and the day he was fired from it as the day he received the “freedom to fail.” He would take this spirit with him and practice it in every future endeavor. 

Following in the footsteps of his career-advertising father Duke, Wieden became a freelance copywriter and joined McCann-Erickson, the agency for Georgia-Pacific. It was here that he met his creative partner, the late David Kennedy. 

McCann-Erickson closed its Portland office when Georgia-Pacific relocated in 1981. Dan Wieden and David Kennedy moved to the William Cain agency, where they worked together on a lumber account.

The two dared the advertising industry by going against the norm and launching W+K in Portland, Oregon. At the time, most major agencies were in New York, Chicago or LA. In an interview with the Washington Post, Wieden said, “No one in their right mind would start an international agency in Portland, Oregon.”

However, in nearby Beaverton, was a small running shoe company called NIKE, which would become W+K’s first client. Wieden told the Portland Oregonian that he wasn’t into fitness, but he shared a rebellious POV like NIKE founder, Phil Knight, who reportedly hated advertising.

It took the W+K a couple of years to become noticed, but in 1985 the agency scored a hit with a Honda Scooter and Lou Reed. In the spot, we see shots of a busy New York City, ending with Reed sitting on a Honda Scooter. This was all set to his hit song, Walk on the Wild Side.

In 1977, convicted murderer Gary Gilmore inspired Kennedy with his final words before being executed by a Utah firing squad. When asked for his final words, Gilmore reportedly uttered, “Let’s Do it.”

The story goes that after Wieden read The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, he scribbled the words, “Do it” down and his creative team took that and adapted it into “Just Do It” for NIKE.

The tagline first appeared in a July 1988 spot directed by David Kennedy. It featured an 80-year-old man, Walt Stack, who would run 17 miles every morning and his route took him over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Watch below:


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Over the next several decades, NIKE would become a cultural phenomenon. Beginning with a series of ads featuring Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan and filmmaker Spike Lee, sales would go through the roof.

Jordan would be followed by almost every famous athlete playing their sport, including Charles Barkley’s infamous “I am not a Role Model”:

And who can forget “Barkley on Broadway”:

The “Bo Knows” campaign for NIKE’s cross-training shoes features athlete Bo Jackson and blues-rock guitarist Bo Diddley, turned the category on its head:

Wieden is survived by his wife Priscilla Bernard Wieden, daughter Tami (Wieden) and Peter Wiedensmith, daughter Laura (Wieden) and Joe Blatner, daughter Cassie Wieden, son Bryan Wieden and wife Jessica, stepson Nathan Bernard, stepdaughter Bree Oswill and Matvey Rezanov, stepson Sean Oswill and wife Nicole, 12 grandchildren and brother Ken and sister Sherrie. He is predeceased by his first wife Bonnie, father Duke, and mother Violet.

On a personal note, I never got to meet Dan Wieden or David Kennedy. But they were both instrumental and inspirations for the reasons I went into advertising. I wish I had a chance to work at W+K, but alas that was not my journey.

Reel 360 News sends its love and thoughts to the Wieden family. The family has asked that gifts be donated to Caldera Arts, which Wieden helped launch.


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Colin Costello is the West Coast Editor of Reel 360. Contact him at colin@reel360.com or follow him on Twitter at @colinthewriter1

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