Dan Wieden, adman who invented ‘Just Do It’ for Nike, dies at 77
The three-word, eight-letter slogan, along with Nike’s swoosh logo, is considered one of the most successful and recognizable in advertising history, and it emerged as the shoe company battled formidable competitors such as Reebok and Adidas, whose advertisements capitalized on the fitness craze of the 1980s aimed at young people.
Mr Wieden, once an aspiring playwright who reluctantly entered the advertising business, had worked for big business before laying his own shingle with business partner David Kennedy after reading a book called ‘How to Start an Advertising Agency’ .
The founding took place on April 1, 1982 – April Fool’s Day – marking an irreverent style that has become their hallmark. They kept draft beer in their offices and also had a full-scale basketball court on site, among other amenities designed to make work feel like play. A New York Times reporter described the building as “a temple of excess”. One of their party guests, Ken Kesey, author of the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” reportedly told the founders, “You could teach the Hells Angels how to party!”
Even daring to launch in Portland was a gamble, with the big advertising agencies based in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. “No sane person would set up an international agency in Portland, Oregon,” Mr. Wieden said years later.
Nike, a growing small company based near Beaverton, was their first major client. Although Mr Wieden was hardly a fitness enthusiast – he once tried jogging in a pair of jeans, only to rub his crotch, he told the Portland Oregonian – he shared a spirit rebellious with Nike founder Phil Knight, who introduced himself to the duet with the statement “I’m Phil Knight and I hate advertising.”
It took Mr. Wieden and Kennedy years to gain a foothold in the industry, as Nike also outsourced its business to giant Chiat/Day to handle its advertising for the 1984 Summer Olympics. by Wieden+Kennedy the following year – featuring the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed driving a Honda scooter through New York on the track to his 1972 hit “Walk on the Wild Side”, impressed Knight with its brooding intensity.
Although scooter sales did not see a major increase, Knight began to invest significantly more in the upstart advertising company. Mr. Wieden and his creative team had done advertisements for Nike featuring shoes for different types of sports and athletes, but they felt they needed a unifying tagline to tie them all together. Mr Wieden, who has always been quick to credit teamwork for many successes, said he came up with “Just Do It” largely on his own.
The idea was inspired by an atypical source: the last words of murder convict Gary Gilmore, whose murder by firing squad in a Utah prison in 1977 was the first execution in the United States after a moratorium. 10 years on the death penalty.
Mr Wieden said he had read Norman Mailer’s acclaimed 1979 book on Gilmore, ‘The Executioner’s Song’, and recalled the death row inmate being asked if he had any final words before leaving. to be slaughtered. The cheeky cheekiness of the answer – “Let’s do it!” – stuck with him. Scribbling in a notebook, he wrote, first “Do It”, later adding “Just”.
The slogan first appeared on a July 1988 television commercial, directed by Kennedy, featuring 80-year-old Walt Stack running 17 miles every morning, including over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – aspiring to sell a shoe that could meet everyone’s needs, regardless of age or fitness level.
“Just do it” quickly entered the cultural zeitgeist as a slogan intended to portray life as you see fit, daring to take risks on and off a playground. “You wouldn’t believe the answer Liz Dolan, Nike’s public relations director, told The Washington Post in 1989. “We’ve had millions of letters from consumers telling us it’s changed their lives. A woman left her husband.
Over the next few decades, Nike sales skyrocketed by 1,000%, with “Just Do It” ads featuring top athletes such as Michael Jordan and Colin Kaepernick. Wieden+Kennedy was also behind the clever “Bo Knows” ads for Nike’s cross-training shoes featuring athlete Bo Jackson and blues-rock guitarist Bo Diddley.
Although Nike remained its biggest client, Wieden+Kennedy also did advertising work for McDonalds, Ford, Coca-Cola, Samsung, ESPN and Uniqlo, among other major companies. The agency, which now employs 1,500 people in eight offices around the world, has won numerous awards, including four-time Global Agency of the Year from trade publication Adweek. Mr. Wieden never officially retired, but remained active as a director, often visiting the Portland headquarters to encourage and mentor new employees.
“The reason it’s gone on for so long is that he didn’t build an ad agency, he built a culture,” Wieden + Kennedy senior executive Karl Lieberman told The Oregonian. . “Curious, driven, welcoming and without deference, … it’s a place that in many ways reflects that.”
Alfredo Marcantonio, a veteran British advertising executive, wrote in an email: “In the 1960s, Doyle Dane Bernbach and his fellow New Yorkers ruled the world when it came to creative advertising. They inspired Collett Dickenson Pearce of London so much that the center of creative excellence crossed the Atlantic. It was Dan Wieden in Portland and also the late Pat Fallon in Minneapolis, away from Madison Avenue, who pushed the United States to vie for the international creative crown once again.
“He was a warm, gentle character, a complete contrast to the top dogs he’s spent his career competing with,” Marcantonio added of Mr. Wieden. “No flamboyance, no flannel, no fuss. He just did it.
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He graduated from the University of Oregon in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. The previous year he had married another student, Bonnie Scott, and had quickly embarked on a checkered career as a floor manager for a local television station and a marketing copywriter for the forest products company. Georgia-Pacific Corp. He said he was fired from the latter because he could barely contain his boredom. He devoted his free time to studying literature and drama, at one point imagining himself as an aspiring playwright.
For years, he tried to avoid following in his father’s footsteps, seeing advertising as too conventional a path. But eventually, seeking greater financial security to support his growing family, he joined McCann-Erickson, Portland’s largest advertising firm, and partnered with like-minded colleague Kennedy, who also considered an outsider in a slick or button-down world. admit. “It was a perfect match between subversives,” wrote the Oregonian: “Wieden, the nervous, gibberish radical writer, and Kennedy, the taciturn, philosophical artist.”
Or as Kennedy told the New York Times, “Dan had four kids and lived in the country, and I had five kids and wanted to live in the country.”
Both left around 1980 for the William Cain agency, where Mr Wieden said he found himself dreading his job for another lumber company in the Pacific Northwest. But one client, Nike, fascinated them. Mr. Wieden and Kennedy took on the challenge of branding the athletic shoe company far behind its competitors. They left Cain in 1982 to start their own business, attracting Nike as their only customer.
It has remained an independent agency ever since, despite multiple takeovers of smaller agencies by international conglomerates in recent years, and is now run by a trust – suggested by Mr Wieden – to ensure its independence. (Kennedy died in October 2021, at age 82.)
Mr. Wieden’s first wife died in 2008. In 2012, he married Priscilla Bernard. She survives, along with four children from her first marriage; three stepchildren; a brother; a sister; and 12 grandchildren.
In London’s Creative Review magazine, Mr. Wieden wrote this advice for creative teams: “Listen, if you’re driving for excellence, let me suggest you tell your left brain to take a break once in a while. And give your right brain permission to let all hell break loose. I am not joking. …You have to allow clutter and … foster a relationship with anxiety. With unpredictability. … The goal is not to move forward in harmony. … Excellence is not a formula, excellence is the great experience.
“It’s not math,” he added. “It’s jazz.”