David Kennedy co-founder of the famed ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, died on Sunday at the age of 82.
In the 2009 documentary Art & Copy—a film about advertising and the industry’s icons—there’s a scene where Wieden+Kennedy Co-Founder David Kennedy stands in front of a wall at the famed agency’s office in Portland, Oregon. Behind the ad man are 100,000 plastic push pins that spell out “Fail Harder,’’ one of his favorite phrases.
“It took them four days and four nights nonstop to do this,” he tells the camera. “The background is made of push pins. The easy way would be to do the lettering as push pins and leave the wall blank. They chose the hard way. It’s a perfectly executed concept, and I think this should be here forever. It’s like Babe Ruth trying to hit a home run: I mean it’s like if you miss, you miss, but at least you swung the bat as hard as you could.”
During a celebrated career in crafting campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands, Kennedy hit quite a few home runs of his own. Even some grand slams. But this past weekend, the advertising heavy 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 on Sunday at the age of 82. Wieden+Kennedy confirmed the news on Tuesday and in tribute temporarily switched the company name on the website and social media platforms to “Kennedy+Wieden.”
As the story goes, Kennedy and co-founder Dan Wieden began in a basement of a labor 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’s expanded to eight offices in Portland, New York, Amsterdam, Tokyo, London, Shanghai, Delhi and Sao Paulo that now comprise more than 1,400 employees.
Tom Blessington, Wieden+Kennedy’s chairman, said Kennedy was “the most unassuming icon” and had “all of the talent and none of the ego”—a rare character in a profession known for craving credit.
“The agency reflected both of their self-effacing, authentic, genuine humility,” Blessington told Forbes. “These were not showmen, and I think that’s one of the reasons they took pride in being off of Broadway, off of Madison Avenue.”
After retiring early in 1995 at the age of 54, Kennedy continued working part-time on various campaigns up until his death. His final ad, for the American Indian College Fund, ran in The New York Times on Monday for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. (The nonprofit has been a longtime 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 with his coal-powered steam shovel despite innovations in gasoline, electric and diesel. In the case of Kennedy—born the same year as the book was released—“his steam shovel was a felt marker, an X-ACTO Knife and a cutting board,” according to Blessington. He said Kennedy was often still seen around the office “putting together comps, laying stuff out,” until the Covid-19 pandemic forced everyone to work from home.
“When you find the co-founder of the agency tinkering away in the studio basically making his own ads and not delegating, it showed you that, in the spirit of the agency, the work comes first,” Blessington said. “There was no job that was beneath even the founder. And I think that kept everyone close to the work, that kept everyone focused on what mattered, and they set that example.”
Born in Kansas in 1939 to a third generation family of drillers, Kennedy grew up in the oil fields of Oklahoma, Colorado and elsewhere. Long before crafting ads, he got his first job at 13 as an apprentice welder. And while ultimately leaving for a fine arts degree from the University of Chicago, he continued creating sculptures and prints his entire life and even has work on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Following stints at agencies including Young & Rubicam and Leo Burnett, Kennedy in 1979 moved 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 landed Nike as its first client in 1982 and created its first ads for the new shoe startup that same year including three TV spots during the New York City Marathon. In 1988, they debuted “Just Do It” in a commercial featuring 80-year-old runner Walt Stack that helped the trademark gain traction.
Before working with the agency, Nike Co-founder Phil Knight wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of advertising—something he admitted to in his first meeting with the duo. In a 2020 interview on the Masters Of Scale podcast, Knight quickly realized that he didn’t hate all advertising—just “traditional advertising.”
“Lots of people say Nike is successful because our ad agency is so good,” Knight told the Harvard Business Review in 1992. “But isn’t it funny that the agency had been around for 20 years and nobody had ever heard of it? It’s not just that they’re creative. What makes Wieden & Kennedy successful with Nike is that they take the time to grind it out. They spend countless hours trying to figure out what the product is, what the message is, what the theme is, what the athletes are all about, what emotion is involved.”
Beyond the work for Nike, Kennedy also created iconic campaigns for other brands. In 1985, he developed a TV commercial for Honda starring Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed. Set to the hit song “Take A Walk On The Wild Side” and based in New York City, the ad pioneered the use of shaky-camera footage before the style became popular. In 2012, Kennedy was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Fame. He’s also won numerous awards at the annual Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.
“There was no job that was beneath even the founder. And I think that kept everyone close to the work, that kept everyone focused on what mattered, and they set that example.”
“It was always an experiment,” said Susan Hoffman, W+K’s chair and global creative director. “It was an experiment, but with a lot of humanity. And when it comes to advertising, all of that is baked into our work.”
Hoffman—who joined as the agency’s eighth employee decades ago—said Kennedy had “a lot of clarity” and “a great knack for tying ends together.”
“He was quite humble,” she said. “He was my boss, and I can remember times years ago, I’d ask if he could help me with something, and then he’d 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 wasn’t available for comment, but an agency spokesperson referred to an old quote from Wieden: “David Kennedy’s heart and soul and neural pathways are etched deep inside Wieden+Kennedy. It’s who we are, it’s what we do and it’s why we do it.”
Current employees weren’t the only ones on Tuesday mourning the loss Kennedy and celebrating his life. Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO of the 4As—an influential advertising organization—said in a statement that “David Kennedy was a titan who influenced how the world experienced the power of creativity and inspired generations of entrepreneurs.”
Various advertising executives from other agencies took to Twitter to share their tributes. Brian Collins, the celebrated designer and co-founder of the agency COLLINS, wrote that Kennedy “changed the game” and “then played it better than anyone.” Rob Campbell, who worked at W+K from 2010 through 2017, recounted sharing an elevator with Kennedy while visiting the Portland office when someone told him that Campbell was opening a W+K Shanghai.
“That was it,” Campbell wrote. “He asked me for coffee & gently peppered me with questions because he was fascinated an agency he started was somehow in a land as far away from Portland as he could imagine.”
Blake Harrop recalls his first year at W+K’s Tokyo office, when he tried to fit in by dressing up as Kennedy for a Halloween party. The next day, Harrop received an office voice message from Kennedy himself saying that someone had shown him a photo of the costume. The beloved ad man loved 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 icon of advertising doing something unexpected, personal, and kind, to make them feel at home, and make them believe in themselves. I think that’s the true legacy he leaves.”
I’m a Forbes staff writer and editor of the Forbes CMO Network, leading coverage of marketing and advertising especially related to the ever-evolving role of chief
I’m a Forbes staff writer and editor of the Forbes CMO Network, leading coverage of marketing and advertising especially related to the ever-evolving role of chief marketing officers. I also manage a number of Forbes lists including World’s Most Influential CMOs, World’s Most Valuable Brands, CMO Next, 30 Under 30 Marketing & Advertising U.S. category and the 30 Under 30 Europe Media & Marketing category. Previously, I was a staff writer at Adweek reporting on marketing and technology and before that covered business and politics in Alabama for The Associated Press and The Birmingham News. Email me at [email protected] with news tips or other story ideas.