David Kennedy, advertising icon and co-founder of Wieden + Kennedy, dies at 82

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In the 2009 documentary Art and copy—A film about advertising and industry icons — there’s a scene where Wieden + Kennedy co-founder David Kennedy stands in front of a wall of the famous agency’s office in Portland, Oregon. Behind the advertiser are 100,000 plastic pins that read “Fail Harder,” one of his favorite phrases.

“It took them four days and four nights non-stop to do this,” he said. said the camera. “The bottom is made of bedbugs. The easiest way would be to do the lettering like thumbtacks and leave the wall blank. They chose the difficult path. It’s a perfectly executed concept, and I think it should be here forever. It’s like Babe Ruth trying to hit a home run: I mean, it’s like you miss, you miss, but at least you hit the bat as hard as you could.

During a famous career building campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands, Kennedy has achieved a few home runs himself. Even some Grand Slam tournaments. But last weekend, the big hitter hung up his bat for the very last time.

Kennedy, one of the legends behind the original “Just Do It” campaign that helped make Nike famous, died Sunday at the age of 82. Wieden + Kennedy confirmed the news on Tuesday and in tribute has temporarily changed the name of the company on the website and social media platforms to “Kennedy + Wieden”.

According to the story, Kennedy and his co-founder Dan Wieden started out in a basement of a union hall with just a borrowed typewriter and a pay phone. However, W + K has grown far beyond Stumptown. Since the agency opened in 1982, it has expanded to eight offices in Portland, New York, Amsterdam, Tokyo, London, Shanghai, Delhi and Sao Paulo, which now have more than 1,400 employees.

Tom Blessington, chairman of Wieden + Kennedy, said Kennedy was “the most humble icon” and had “all the talent and no egos” – a rare figure in a profession known for its lust for credit.

“The agency reflected their self-effacing, genuine and genuine humility at the same time,” said Blessington. Forbes. “They weren’t showmen, and I think that’s one of the reasons they were proud to be off Broadway, Madison Avenue.”

After retiring in early 1995 at the age of 54, Kennedy continued to work part-time on various campaigns until his death. His final announcement, for the American Indian College Fund, was published Monday in the New York Times on the occasion of Indigenous Peoples Day. (The association is a long-standing pro bono project for Kennedy and the agency.)

Blessington, who joined the agency in 1990 before leaving and returning twice, compared Kennedy to Mike Mulligan in the children’s book, Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel. In the 1939 classic, the main character sticks to his coal-fired steam shovel despite innovations in gasoline, electricity and diesel. In the case of Kennedy, born the same year the book came out, “his steam shovel was a felt tip pen, an X-ACTO knife, and a cutting board,” according to Blessington. He said Kennedy was still often seen in the office “making compositions, preparing stuff”, until the Covid-19 pandemic forced everyone to work from home.

“When you find the agency co-founder tinkering around in the studio doing his own commercials and not delegating, it showed you that, in the agency’s mind, the work passes. above all, ”said Blessington. “There was no job that wasn’t even below the founder. And I think that kept everyone close to the job, that everyone kept everyone focused on what mattered, and they led by example. “

Born in Kansas in 1939 to a family of third-generation drillers, Kennedy grew up in the oil fields of Oklahoma, Colorado and elsewhere. Long before creating advertisements, he got his first job at age 13 as an apprentice welder. And while eventually leaving for a fine arts degree from the University of Chicago, he continued to create sculptures and prints throughout his life and even has works on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

After stints at agencies such as Young & Rubicam and Leo Burnett, Kennedy moved in 1979 to the West Coast with his wife and five children. After working for another agency in Portland, Kennedy and Wieden ventured out on their own.

W + K made Nike its first customer in 1982 and created its first ads for the new shoe startup that same year, including three TV spots during the New York Marathon. In 1988 they made their “Just Do It” debut in a commercial featuring 80-year-old runner Walt Stack which has helped the brand gain traction.

Prior to working with the agency, Nike co-founder Phil Knight wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of advertising, which he admitted when he first met the duo. In a 2020 interview on the Masters of scale PodcastKnight quickly realized that he didn’t hate all commercials, just “traditional advertising”.

“A lot of people say Nike is successful because our ad agency is so good,” Knight said. Harvard Business Review in 1992. “But isn’t it funny that the agency has been around for 20 years and no one has ever heard of it? It’s not just that they’re creative. What makes Wieden & Kennedy so successful with Nike is that they take the time to grind it. They spend countless hours trying to figure out what the product is, what the message is, what the theme is, what the athletes are, what emotion is involved.

Beyond working for Nike, Kennedy has also created iconic campaigns for other brands. In 1985 he developed a television commercial for Honda with Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed. Based on the New York-based hit song “Take A Walk On The Wild Side”, the commercial pioneered the use of shaky camera footage before the style became popular. In 2012, Kennedy was inducted into the American Advertising Federation Advertising Hall of Fame. He has also won numerous awards at the annual Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

“There was no job that wasn’t even below the founder. And I think that kept everyone close to the job, that everyone was focused on what mattered, and they set an example. ”

Tom Blessington, President of Wieden + Kennedy

“It was always an experience,” said Susan Hoffman, President of W + K and Chief Creative Officer. “It was an experience, but with a lot of humanity. And when it comes to advertising, it’s all built into our work.

Hoffman – who joined the agency as the eighth employee decades ago – said Kennedy had “a lot of clarity” and “an excellent knack for making ends meet.”

“He was quite humble,” she said. “He was my boss, and I remember years ago I would ask him if he could help me with anything, and then he would treat me like I was the boss. ‘What do you want?’ “How do you want me to do it?” And I remember thinking, ‘You’re the senior, I’m the junior.’ “

Wieden was not available for comment, but a spokesperson for the agency referred to an old quote from Wieden: “David Kennedy’s heart and soul and neural pathways are etched deep in Wieden + Kennedy. This is who we are, this is what we do and this is why we do it.

Current employees weren’t the only Tuesday mourning the loss of Kennedy and celebrating his life on Tuesday. Marla Kaplowitz, President and CEO of 4As, an influential advertising organization, said in a statement that “David Kennedy was a titan who influenced the way the world experienced the power of creativity and inspired generations of entrepreneurs.” .

Various advertising managers from other agencies took to Twitter to share their tributes. Brian Collins, famous designer and co-founder of COLLINS, wrote that Kennedy “was a game-changer” and “then played him better than anyone.” Rob Campbell, who worked at W + K from 2010 to 2017, said he shared an elevator with Kennedy during a visit to the Portland office when someone told him Campbell was opening a W + K Shanghai.

“That was it”, Campbell wrote. “He asked me for a coffee and kindly sprinkled me with questions because he was fascinated that an agency he created was somehow in a country as far from Portland as he could imagine. . “

Blake Harrop remembers his first year at the W + K office in Tokyo, when he tried to fit in by dressing up as Kennedy for a Halloween party. The next day, Harrop received a voicemail from Kennedy’s office himself saying that someone had shown him a photo of the suit. The beloved advertising man adored it.

“There are literally hundreds of people with similar stories,” said Harrop, who is now managing director of Wieden + Kennedy’s Amsterdam office. “About the legendary advertising icon who does something unexpected, personal and kind, to make them feel at home and believe in themselves. I think that’s the real legacy he leaves.



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