Dan Wieden: A remarkable legacy
Dan Wieden (died October, 2022) was a truly legendary American advertising executive and copywriter. He’s best remembered as the co-founder of Wieden+Kennedy, still one of the most successful and influential advertising agencies in the world. Dan Wieden has been recognized for his contributions to the advertising industry with numerous awards and honors. He was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2003 and the One Club Creative Hall of Fame in 2013.
Table of Contents
The work produced at his iconic agency has consistently been engaging, thoughtful and challenging. Not to mention wildly successful. Weiden & Kennedy have shown more than perhaps any other agency in the world that outstanding strategy and creativity are one of the best ways to build incredible amounts of brand value.
He was born in Portland, Oregon in 1936, receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Oregon in 1959. Upon graduation, he worked as a copywriter for a number of different agencies in the Pacific Northwest before moving to New York in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s, Dan Wieden and David Kennedy founded their agency in Portland, Oregon. Cheekily opening the agency’s doors on April Fools day.
The birth of Wieden + Kennedy
Wieden had first met Kennedy (who passed away in 2021) at McCann-Erickson’s Portland office. They moved together to William Cain ad agency where they first encountered Nike, then a local startup business.
When they started Weiden and Kennedy, Nike came with them as their founding client. The rest is history. Their creative work for Nike became incredibly famous all over the world. And, despite being away from the major North American advertising industry hubs of New York, Chicago etc – other major brand soon came calling.
The philosophy of the new agency was clear.
A place where people could perform at their best without the structures or bureaucracies that were in style in the big agencies of the time. A site where creativity would be enhanced as it grew. Dan Wieden hated cut-and-dried advertising campaigns. He believed in stories where you think big where products are sold along the way.
“I think what was beneficial to us was we were not in Madison Avenue,” said Dan Wieden when asked about it “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.”
Wieden + Kennedy today
Wiedens annually bill well over a billion dollars to their clients in North America. That doesn’t count the international offices in London, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai and Sao Paolo.
It’s a remarkable result for an independent network outside the massive stock market listed holding companies that dominate the Advertising scene at the moment. In 1999, Advertising Age named Wieden+Kennedy the “Agency of the Decade.”
How Dan Wieden built the agency Culture
Deep thinking with a sparkle of joy.
Over time, Dan Wieden proved himself not just a great copywriter, but an extraordinary creative leader. He has been one of the most quotable advertising people of all times. At times inspiring. At other times quietly insightful.
We will scatter more of his quotes throughout this article. The man most certainly has a way with words. “Fail better” is one.
Make it a place that creatives want to work
Creatives that work at Wieden and Kennedy like to stay there for a long time. Dan Wieden is a true believer in the power of creativity to push the needle for any brand in any market. Unlike, many other agencies that spout empty words about valuing creativity, Wieden + Kennedy truly live it.
They have one of the highest proportions of creatives to account and administration employees in the agency world. And that’s not by accident. The share of voice in the room that creatives have is much larger than at almost every other agency in the world.
Beside that, creatives are given permission to go off the reservation from time to time as well. It’s beautifully expressed in the quote below.
It wasn’t until five years into the founding of the agency that Dan Wieden wrote the iconic tagline “Just Do It” for Nike. Previously, Nike work didn’t have a tagline associated with it. In fact, all previous work had been print. The line was written as a unifying link for the very first television campaign, which you can see below.
“Creatives in the agency questioned if 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.
“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.”
Since that first television campaign, the Nike story has been developed in quite literally tens of thousands of iterations across television, events, print, posters, music, store design. All overseen by this one agency with modest beginnings in Portland, Oregon.
From the iconic “Just Do It” slogan to its more recent “Dream Crazy” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, Nike’s advertising has consistently resonated with consumers and helped to solidify the brand’s position as a leader in the athletic wear and footwear industry.
The brand’s campaigns often focus on themes of determination, perseverance, and overcoming obstacles, which resonate deeply with athletes and fitness enthusiasts. At times, their work uses average people. And at other times they use the highest-profile athletes that Nike famously sponsors, dating back to its early days when it signed deals with athletes such as Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Andre Agassi. These partnerships have allowed Nike to associate itself with some of the most accomplished and well-known athletes in the world.
Nike’s advertising campaigns are a great example of how advertising should be done. There are just too many great Nike ads to possibly feature in one article. So I’m including a few favorites below.
Old Spice was a brand on it’s deathbed. But then, a daring brand manager at Proctor & Gamble decided to give creativity one last Hail Mary. Wieden + Kennedy was exactly the right destination for that opportunity.
The “Man your man could smell like” campaign, featuring actor Isaiah Mustafa, debuted in 2010. It was a complete reinvention of the brand’s tone of voice. A complete shedding of every piece of ‘brand equity’ that existed beforehand. Just about every agency in the world would shirk at such a radical renewal. But not Wieden.
They discarded every category norm, and found a completely new tone of voice that had never been associated with deodorants / body washes before. It was daring. High risk, for sure. But it was a smart risk. If the brand was going to die anyway, it was worth exploring whether there was a new customer language that might resonate with the market.
Another key component of Old Spice’s advertising strategy has been its use of social media and digital platforms, pioneering now-common techniques for viral campaigns that spread rapidly across the internet. In 2011, Old Spice created a series of video responses to tweets and comments on their social media platforms. An enormous hit.
Old Spice has since become one of the most loved brands in the USA. The brand’s commercials and online content often feature over-the-top situations and characters, which has been particularly effective in reaching younger men, considered a tough-to-reach demographic.
The iconic work that Wieden & Kennedy produced for Old Spice prompted Proctor & Gamble to entrust more of their advertising work to the Portland office.
The following Proctor & Gamble product range ads that were made for recent summer olympics certainly display the versatility of the office. These are some of the most touching pieces of advertising ever put to film. They aren’t funny or quirky. There’s no hyperbole or biting wit. Just an honest insight executed remarkably.
The great work for Honda came from the Wieden + Kennedy London office. For twenty years it has been sensational. The quality of the work is testament to the depth of the culture that Dan Wieden created in the Portland office that the agency model could succeed so spectacularly in different markets.
Similar to Nike, it was a line that held the campaign together so well. The Power of Dreams. It perfectly encapsulates the striving for perfection that every car company wants to be known for.
Wieden and Kennedy USA never had Honda as a client. Rather, they made one singular perfect ad for Chrysler that we will talk about in the next section.
I’m only going to share one ad from the work that Wieden + Kennedy Portland made for Chrysler, followed by an interview with the ECD who oversaw the project. I urge you to watch both. The ECD, Joe Staples, beautifully articulates the creative and strategic process that resulted in this piece of work. If you are ever working on a manifesto for a client – whether for a strategic positioning or to be actually made into a piece of communication – this is the masterclass you need.
No brand had painted themselves into a creative corner than coca-cola had in the early 2000’s. Having been serviced globally by McCann-Erickson for decades, the work had become formulaic, repetitive and predictable. There were so many boxes to tick, and in the wake of the ‘New Coke’ fiasco – risk-taking was frowned upon.
Creative ideas went through countless layers of approval and intensive research. It was a process that squelched the charm out of any piece of work that made it to film. Not only that, but North American sales were not only stagnant, they were dropping off. It was precisely the kind of challenge that Dan Wieden relished. Not only would it be insanely financially rewarding to his agency. Coca-Cola was a creative challenge like no other.
What is exceptional about this piece of work is that it wasn’t just about advertising.
Wieden went root and branch. Everything about how the brand communicated with the audience was re-invented. It was contemporised. Not compromised.
Unfortunately, they lost the Coca-Cola business in 2021 with a campaign platform that was well below their standards. The ‘Real Magic’ campaign is forgettable, and we won’t show any ads from it. Hopefully it isn’t the canary in the calming indicating the decline of W + K following the deaths of the two founders.
Wieden and Kennedy did a stunning job of freshening the KFC brand. Unusually for this site, you can download the brand book that they created to communicate the creative approach. Click the button below.
They brought actors back to play the iconic Colonel Sanders. Imbuing the character with warmth, as well as a loving retro vibe that told great stories about delicious food and pride in their work.
Again, this is another client that left Wieden and Kennedy soon after the deaths of Dan Wieden. The work that they made is wonderful. It isn’t award-bait. It is incredibly effective and heart-warming. During their tenure, sales increased faster than they had for a very long time. Clients will move from agency to agency, however.
Things to do
The complete guide to kickstarting your brilliant creative career.
250 pages packed with profiles, critiques and analysis of every Portfolio School, Masters Program, Short Course and Incubator specialising in Advertising Creative in the USA and Canada. Impeccably researched, and updated six monthly.