Remembering Dan Wieden

“I’m an old hippie, a wayward child. We never expected to be this successful.” This was Dan Wieden in 2012, reflecting on 30 years of Wieden + Kennedy, the agency network that he co-founded with David Kennedy in 1982, on April Fool’s Day.

The irreverent, slightly cheeky choice of April 1 as a founding day set a precedent for the agency’s style which has continued to this day. Now 40, the network is spread across eight cities around the world, and remains resolutely independent and devoted to creativity as a guiding force. These principles have led to work that has been stunningly successful for the brands W+K has worked with, which include Honda, Old Spice, ESPN, Uniqlo, Samsung, Coca-Cola … the list goes on.

W+K’s most famous client, of course, is Nike – which was also the agency’s founding client. Wieden had first met Kennedy (who died last year) at McCann-Erickson’s Portland office. They moved together to William Cain ad agency where they first encountered Nike, then a local startup. When they started their own agency in Portland, Nike came with them, and while W+K now has offices in major cities around the world, the ethos of the W+K brand remains rooted in the Oregon city, which still contains its flagship agency.

“I think what was beneficial to us was we were not in Madison Avenue,” reflected Wieden in 2012. “We were out in the hustings and we had a great client who was as much of a rebel as we were. So you began by being ignorant. Nike thought you’d never run an ad more than once, because you wouldn’t write the same letter to someone. It was that kind of innocence that really let us rethink what the process is, and actually build a brand. I think being ignorant is the key to our success.”

Photo of Dan Wieden; Image courtesy Wieden + Kennedy

In 1987, Wieden wrote Nike’s enduring slogan Just Do It. Simple, direct, and with the ability to be both competitive or encouraging depending on its use, it is a flexible tagline that has amply stood the test of time.

It comes with a fascinating back story. The line was sparked by the need to have a unifying link in Nike’s first television campaign, which featured a number of different commercials, and in Doug Pray’s 2009 documentary about advertising, Art & Copy, Wieden confessed that the idea for it was prompted by the last words of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who said “Let’s do it!” to the firing squad before his execution. A small shift of words and a branding legend was born, though no one really realised it at the time.

“Creatives in the agency all questioned if we really needed it,” said Wieden years later. “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.’” The response to Just Do It was immediate, however. “Nike started getting letters, phone calls, so did Wieden + Kennedy. For some reason that line resonated deeply in the athletic community and just as deeply with people who had little or no connection to sports.”

As well as writing inspiring copy for brands, Wieden spawned many expressions that aimed to motivate his staff. Termed ‘Wiedenisms’, these emerged long before the trend for inspirational quotes was sparked on social media, and – like the one in the image shown top – still adorn W+K offices around the world.

Most are rooted in encouraging creatives through the dark times that can come when you are trying to make good work, and often sprang from Wieden’s own experience. ‘Fail better’, for example – Wieden’s shortening of Samuel Beckett’s ‘try again, fail again, fail better’ – spoke to his early experience of being fired from Georgia-Pacific, a forest products company in Portland, which he felt gave him “freedom to fail” in other parts of his life, and led him to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the advertising industry.

As well as his commitment to remaining independent when so many agencies over the decades have folded into the larger groups, Wieden’s devotion to experimentation and creativity comes through in the leadership structure across the network, which always has a higher headcount of creative types to managerial types. This undoubtedly leads to some tension, though is arguably the secret sauce behind the network’s ongoing creative reputation.

If you talk to anyone who has passed through a W+K office, you will likely hear mention of the network’s commitment to the ‘work’ coming above all else. But perhaps Wieden’s greatest legacy in advertising lies not only in the amazing creative advertising that was made during his tenure, but also in the building of a culture.

A glance across social media since his death last Friday finds an outpouring of gratitude for his support and inspiration, with many mentioning life-changing interventions by Wieden or citing him as a driving influence in the formation of their own businesses. It is in these seeds that he has planted across the globe that his philosophy and ideas will continue for generations to come.

Dan Wieden, 1945-2022;