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

Breaking from Madison Avenue tradition, he co-founded Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, Ore., one of the largest remaining independent agencies.,

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David F. Kennedy, who co-founded the innovative advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, which created famous campaigns featuring Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan and the musician 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 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 Velvet Underground, telling viewers, “Don’t settle for walking” while perched on a Honda scooter, all to the tune of his hit song “Walk on the Wild Side.”

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

Mr. Kennedy once said in a video on the website of The Advertising Club of New York 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. “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 drawings 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 reserves.

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 that was 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.

Later, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Wieden 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 the Gerber Advertising agency 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 writer of the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” attended the agency’s 10th anniversary fete and paid what Mr. Selis said became one of Mr. Kennedy’s favorite compliments: “You could teach the Hell’s Angels how to party.”

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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 American Indian College Fund. His final advertising campaign for that nonprofit group appeared in The Times the morning after he died.

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