Dan Wieden on Two of His Essential Ad Spots
Dan Wieden, the ad man who helped put Portland on the map as one half of the city’s most iconic advertising duo, died last Friday, almost exactly a year after the death of his longtime business partner, David Kennedy. He was 77.
Together, the two ran one of Portland’s foundational workplaces, seeded by early Nike accounts and spinning off into a worldwide ad powerhouse that employs about 1,500 around the world, from its Portland headquarters to satellite offices in New York, London, Shanghai, Delhi, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Sao Paulo. Wieden stepped back from the business in 2015, though never formally retired. He turned much of his attention to charitable efforts, including the arts camp for at-risk kids that he founded in Central Oregon and, with daughter Laura, and seeding a research effort at Oregon Health & Science University to find a cure for multiple sclerosis.
During a 2016 talk hosted by Design Indaba, an Africa-based online publication, Wieden talked about his company’s origin story, and the folly of founding a company in way-off-the-beaten-path Portland in the early 1980s. He and Kennedy rented a basement room in a “broken-down labor temple,” Wieden said. They couldn’t afford a phone in their office, so they’d rush to answer the pay phone down the hall whenever it rang, hoping a business prospect was on the other end of the line.
“The only people who would move to Portland then had been fired elsewhere, or they were kids just out of college,” Wieden said in his speech.
Upstarts they may have been, but their agency grew fast and is responsible for some of the defining ad campaigns of the past four decades. Wieden himself coined the definitive Nike slogan: “Just Do It.”
The hits come fast and furious. Wieden & Kennedy was behind “Bo Knows” and other iconic Nike commercials—consider Spike Lee badgering a top-of-his-game Michael Jordan about the je ne sais quoi that made him so generationally special in “Is It the Shoes?” (For a non-Nike classic, look to the “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad for Old Spice, which ends with one of the best kickers in advertising: “I’m on a horse!”). The company has done work for the largest brand news in the world: Coca-Cola. Chrysler. Sony. Facebook.
But when asked for his own highlights from the agency’s work for Design Indaba, Wieden didn’t go to the most popular of all time. He stuck instead to a few spots that he said he felt captured his company’s ethos: “To create strong and provocative relationships between good companies and their customers.... It’s the culture that lifts the people,” he continued. It had been his goal, Wieden told the audience, to “create a culture so wild, so weird, so sticky that it hurt your soul to leave it.”
Here are two of his picks for the ad spots that stayed with him, in a lifetime of making them:
“Thank You, Mom” ( Proctor & Gamble)
At first blush, Proctor & Gamble isn’t an obvious tie-in for the Olympics. The company isn’t in the business of athletics. So, Wieden said, for the 2010 campaign they looked for a common thread and found one in moms (though if they were making it today, we’d wager they’d go for something more all-encompassing, like “Thank you, family.”) Behind every Olympic-level athlete, there’s a mom who has washed their clothes and fixed up a boo-boo and cleaned up the breakfast dishes before an early-morning practice, maybe even with a P&G product along the way.
Made for Lebron James’s much-hyped return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, the black-and-white shot commercial is narrated by James and features James, his teammates, and a cast of thousands of Ohioans echoing the team’s mantra: “Hard. Work. Together.” The Just Do It slogan comes in at the end, over a shot of Cleveland’s skyline—gritty, blue-collar, an underdog looking to come out on top through sheer effort.