Dan Wieden, Who Coined Nike’s Slogan “Just Do It” at His Prolific Portland Ad Agency, Dies at 77

In 1982, he and David Kennedy founded an advertising agency with just one client: an Oregon sneaker company.

JUST DID IT: Dan Wieden judges a Wieden + Kennedy pie-baking contest circa 2009. (Mark Lundgren)

Dan Wieden, the Portland ad man whose coining of the Nike slogan “Just Do It” vaulted his agency Wieden+Kennedy into global prominence, died at home Friday, the company announced. He was 77.

Wieden was one of the seminal figures in the emergence of Portland as a city that signified more to the national consciousness than lumberjacks and rain. In 1982, he and David Kennedy founded an advertising agency with just one client: an Oregon-based sneaker company called Nike.

Wieden, a University of Oregon journalism school graduate, cut his teeth at the McCann-Erickson agency, mostly making ads for timber giant Georgia-Pacific. But he and Kennedy attempted something different at their own shop: advertising in which an aura of cool was more important than a pitch for the product in question.

The turning point, which WW examined in a 2014 history of the city, came in 1985, with a spot for Honda Elite scooters starring Lou Reed. Grainy footage of Reed zipping through New York’s Lower East Side on a motorbike was edited like a French New Wave film—and Nike, which had given Wieden its smaller accounts, switched all of its business to the Portland upstart. Three years later, Wieden himself crafted the three-word tagline that became synonymous with Nike: “Just Do It.”

As WW recounted:

Wieden+Kennedy, of course, grew up along with Nike, creating not only the shoe giant’s iconic slogan but also most of its memorable ad campaigns, starting with a series of spots starring then-underground director Spike Lee. Portland became known as an offbeat design center housing not just Wieden+Kennedy but countless little boutique ad and marketing shops, a hub for the creative class that author Richard Florida thought would save America, one Pearl District loft at a time.

The two companies would collaborate on some some of the most iconic ad campaigns of the past half century: the “Bo Knows” spots, Charles Barkley declaring he was not a role model, and Colin Kaepernick showing why he was one.

Wieden, meanwhile, presided over an office culture in Northwest Portland that became famous for luring the most creative young people in America to sell Coca-Cola and Levi’s jeans. In 2009, WW listed the attractions: “regular afternoon rock concerts, an indoor basketball court-cum-yoga studio, an espresso shop, free Cokes in the machines, napping rooms, an annual pie-baking contest, legendarily mood-altered parties, stacks of special-edition Nike high-tops wheeled through the halls.” On the annual Founder’s Day party each April 1, Wieden+Kennedy’s 400 employees simultaneously downed a shot of ouzo.

By that time, the agency had offices in New York, Tokyo and London, and reported more than $1 billion in annual billings.

Wieden remained a hallowed figure in the Pearl District offices, called “Papa Bear” by kids at his at-risk youth camp in Sisters and regarded similarly by copywriters. One former employee recalled Wieden’s speech at the company’s 10-year anniversary party in 1992: “I think you people just needed somebody to get the fuck out of your way.”

He stepped away from day-to-day operations in 2015, though he never formally retired.

The company issued a statement Saturday.

“We are heartbroken,” it said. “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.

Wieden’s death comes almost exactly one year after the passing of his business partner, David Kennedy.

Correction: This story incorrectly stated that “Just Do It” was coined for an Air Jordan campaign. In fact, the ad campaign featured a marathon runner. The story also said that Nike was based in Eugene. By the time of its association with Wieden + Kennedy, Nike operated out of the Portland area. WW regrets the errors.

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