Adman who helped Nike climb to fame passed away peacefully at home

By Mark Tungate

Dan Wieden in 2014. Photo: Sam Beebe (Creative Commons)

Is there a more timeless or pithy tagline in the whole of advertising history? There may be a few other contenders, but “Just do it” is up there with the all-time greatest. Dan Wieden, who has left us at the age of 77, achieved immortality with those three words.

Industry tributes have been pouring in since Wieden died at his home in Portland, Oregon on September 30. A statement from Wieden + Kennedy, the agency he founded in 1982 with David Kennedy, read: “We are heartbroken. But even more so, we are overcome with gratitude and love.

Thank you Dan, for throwing the doors wide open for people to live up to their full potential. Thank you for your steadfastness, courage, faith and abiding love. Thank you for making this beautiful creative life possible. We will miss you so much.”

Born on March 6 1945, Dan Wieden graduated from the University of Oregon in 1967 with a degree in journalism. He met Kennedy at McCann Erickson’s Portland office, but it was when they worked together at a smaller agency – William Cain – that they came across Phil Knight, owner of a nascent sports shoe brand called Nike. Knight became their first client when they decided to go it alone.

It happened that Knight disapproved of most advertising: he wanted something new, different, better. “Nike constantly wants us to surprise and amaze them,” Wieden confirmed later. (“What makes Nike’s advertising tick”, The Guardian, 17 June 2003).

From the very start, W+K’s work for Nike posited that anyone can be an athlete. One iconic spot for Nike’s Air Revolution shoe featured grainy Super 8 images of athletes, both professional and amateur, over the Beatles song “Revolution”. Another commercial, in 1988, starred an 80-year-old San Francisco runner, who said: “I run 17 miles every morning. People ask me how I keep my teeth from chattering in the wintertime. I leave them in my locker.”

“As long as it’s authentic and true”

Arguably the first US advertising business to challenge the hegemony of Madison Avenue, W+K grew into the world’s biggest independent agency. It is now owned by a trust with the proviso that it cannot be sold – apparently at Wieden’s behest. (David Kennedy passed away last year.)

Oregon Live, the website of The Oregonian newspaper, described Wieden as “funny, self-deprecating and hugely ambitious”. It added that “his greatest gift may well have been his ability to lead and manage the quirky, eccentric, and sometimes difficult personalities behind the best content”.

Quoted in the same source, Scott Bedbury, Nike’s advertising director from 1987 to 1994, said: “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. But if it has an edge, someone will get cut. So be it, as long as it’s authentic and true.”

While Wieden himself admitted that it was hard to overstate the importance of Nike to the agency, Adweek points out that his team rose to lofty heights of creativity on many other campaigns, from Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” to “the ongoing animated Coca-Cola holiday bears ads, along with work for AB InBev,, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Delta Air Lines, ESPN, Honda, Mondelez, Procter & Gamble and Verizon”.

Dan Wieden’s family has asked that remembrances should be made as gifts to Caldera Arts, the outreach and mentorship non-profit he founded with his family in 1996, and whose aim is to “help creative minds use their voice”.

See our curated selection of Nike ads here.

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