David F. Kennedy, Whose Ad Agency Put Nike on the Map, Dies at 82

Wieden+Kennedy, which he co-founded in Portland, Ore., broke from Madison Avenue tradition. Unlike many of its rivals, it has remained independent.,

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

David F. Kennedy, a founder of the innovative advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, which created famous campaigns featuring Nike’s slogan “Just do it” and Lou Reed on a Honda scooter, died on Sunday at his home in Estacada, Ore., near Portland. He was 82.

The cause was heart failure, said Jeff Selis, a former Wieden+Kennedy producer and a family friend.

Wieden+Kennedy, which Mr. Kennedy started in Oregon with Dan Wieden in 1982, elevated Portland’s creative cachet at a time when advertising was mostly associated with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. While many rivals have been subsumed by gargantuan holding companies, the agency remained at his death an independent shop, with eight offices around the world and about 1,500 employees.

In 1988, Mr. Kennedy was the creative director on the first Nike commercial to include Mr. Wieden’s slogan “Just do it,” featuring an 80-year-old man named Walt Stack who ran 17 miles each morning. For Honda in 1985, the pair put out grainy footage of Lou Reed, the former frontman of the Velvet Underground, telling viewers, “Don’t settle for walking” while perched on a Honda scooter, all to the tune of his 1973 hit song, “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Image

Mr. Kennedy’s firm used Lou Reed to pitch Hondas in this 1985 campaign.Credit…Wieden + Kennedy

Mr. Kennedy once said that his work satisfied a lifelong “compulsive fixation.”

“Creativity is like a plague that I’ve contracted and I can’t get rid of — just an itch I’ve got to scratch,” he said in a video on the website of the Advertising Club of New York. “If I were in a jail cell facing execution, I’d be making something out of something.”

David Franklin Kennedy was born on May 31, 1939, in Wichita, Kan., the only child of Melinda Jane (Spoon) Kennedy, a bank administrator, and James Franklin Kennedy, a second-generation wildcatter. He had what his Advertising Hall of Fame profile called “an idyllic, Tom Sawyer childhood, fishing trout streams and rivers he had no idea were world-class” in Oklahoma and other states along the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains.

His first job, at age 13, was as an apprentice welder. At first he wanted to be a geologist, but art had a stronger pull. His childhood hero was Bill Mauldin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, whose work Mr. Kennedy traced while learning to draw.

After spending a day and night on an oil rig, he decided to try college. He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1962 with a degree in printmaking and metal sculpture.

He also served six years in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Mr. Kennedy met Kathleen Murphy in 1961 in Colorado through a fraternity brother who was dating her sister. They married in 1963, moved to Chicago and had five children. He is survived by his wife; his daughters, Cathlin, Erinn and Siobhan; and a son, Brendan. Another son, Ian, died in 2016.

In Chicago, Mr. Kennedy worked at agencies including Young & Rubicam, Leo Burnett, Needham, and Benton & Bowles. But after more than 16 years in the city, he ached to return west. In 1979, he was hired in Portland as an art director for the agency then known as McCann-Erickson, where Mr. Wieden was working as a copywriter.

“Instead of quietly riding the Chicago Northwestern train into work, he was now driving an old Chevy pickup truck with Miles Davis or Flatt and Scruggs playing on the radio,” his daughter Erinn Kennedy said in an email.

Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Wieden later moved to the William Cain agency, where they worked on advertising plywood for a lumber purveyor and making pitches for a small but growing company from nearby Beaverton — Nike.

Feeling creatively stifled, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Wieden struck out on their own. They started Wieden+Kennedy out of a labor union hall with a borrowed card table as a desk and used a pay phone down the hall. At one point they worked out of a restaurant, buying coffees to avoid being kicked out.

Nike was their first client. Mr. Wieden’s father, who had run Gerber Advertising in Portland, helped them with the basics of running a business. It grew rapidly.

Much of Wieden+Kennedy’s success was tied to Nike and to popular campaigns like “Bo Knows,” featuring the baseball and football player Bo Jackson, and “Mars and Mike,” with the filmmaker Spike Lee and the basketball star Michael Jordan.

“The bigger Nike became, the bigger we became,” Mr. Kennedy once said. “Two dudes up in Oregon doing this wild stuff — we got lucky.”

Wieden+Kennedy broke with glossy Madison Avenue tradition. It installed a basketball court at its headquarters and had beer on tap. The New York Times described it as a “temple of outrageousness.”

Ken Kesey, the countercultural figure and author of the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” attended the agency’s 10th-anniversary celebration and paid what Mr. Selis said became one of Mr. Kennedy’s favorite compliments: “You could teach the Hells Angels how to party.”

Image

Nike’s success helped turned Weiden+Kennedy into an advertising powerhouse. Credit…Wieden+Kennedy

For years Mr. Kennedy appeared in the office every day in a uniform of faded bluejeans and a denim shirt, leading employees to give him 50 pairs of Levi’s pants on his 50th birthday. His habit of carrying a ring of keys dangling from his belt loop led at least one executive’s wife to mistake him for a janitor.

He was also known for mentoring younger colleagues. Despite winning nearly every major industry accolade within its first decade, the agency lined its walls with portraits of employees rather than awards.

Quieter than the more talkative Mr. Wieden, Mr. Kennedy was meticulous. His handwriting inspired his colleagues to create a typeface used internally. (It’s called Kennedy.) Long after his colleagues shifted to computers, he still preferred designing with a pen, an X-Acto knife and a cutting board.

Mr. Kennedy retired from the agency in 1993, although he continued to turn up at the office several days a week until the pandemic began.

He donated part of his time to the nonprofit American Indian College Fund. His final advertising campaign for that group appeared in The Times the morning after he died.

Leave a Reply