Advertising is a funny business in that it’s entertainment, utilizing music, film, and brands people love, yet the general public often doesn’t know—or care—who is behind it. Of course, most advertising is pretty forgettable and so this dynamic works out just fine. Yet some names are worth knowing. David Kennedy, who was behind some of the most culturally influential and memorable ads of the last century as cofounder of Wieden+Kennedy, is one of those names.
Kennedy died on Saturday at the age of 82. The Portland, Oregon, agency he cofounded with Dan Wieden in 1982 has created iconic ads and campaigns for Nike, Honda, Coca-Cola, ESPN, and many other brands. We can debate who would make up the Mount Rushmore of American advertising, but doubtless Kennedy would be there. As an artist and art director, he helped reimagine what ads could look, feel, and sound like. Wieden wrote Nike’s famous “Just Do It” line, and Kennedy helped bring it to life.
Like “Walt Stack,” Nike’s first-ever Just Do It ad, which starred an 80-year-old runner named Walt Stack jogging across the Golden Gate Bridge and detailed his daily 17-mile run. Kennedy was also intricately involved in Nike’s famed “Bo Knows” series of Bo Jackson ads, as well as the legendary Air Jordan ads starring Spike Lee.
Kennedy officially retired from daily advertising life in 1993, but he was still an active presence at the agency up to his death. One of his most passionate projects was for one of the agency’s longest-running accounts, the American Indian College Fund. The very latest work of his there launched on Sunday, the day after his death. He served on the College Fund’s board of trustees and collaborated for many years with Native American artists and the Pendleton Woolen Mills Company to produce a line of limited-edition blankets for the College Fund, based on traditional indigenous designs and legends.
Wieden+Kennedy temporarily changed its name on its site to honor Kennedy. Started as a creative outpost, far from the ad industry of Madison Avenue, W+K has become the world’s largest remaining independent agency, with offices in New York, Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Delhi, São Paulo, and Shanghai, creating high-impact advertising for big brands like McDonald’s, Bud Light, KFC, Old Spice, and Ford. And, of course, Nike.
The agency is in the process of creating a fitting tribute to its cofounder, but sent Fast Company a note including something Dan Wieden once said about his business partner. “David Kennedy’s heart and soul and neural pathways are etched deep inside Wieden+Kennedy,” said Wieden. “It’s who we are, it’s what we do and it’s why we do it.”
Born in Kansas in 1939, Kennedy was the son of an oil-field wildcatter. He got his art degree in 1962, and started his career in advertising in Chicago before heading to work at McCann-Erickson in Portland in 1978. At McCann, he met Wieden and within a few years they decided to start their own agency. Kennedy told The Oregonian in 2010 why the two hit it off: “Dan had four kids and lived in the country, and I had five kids and wanted to live in the country.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that Kennedy helped revolutionize advertising, given how he saw the industry in his early years. “I used to lie when people asked me what I did,” he told The Oregonian. “I told them I just worked in graphic design.”
His creative commercial work has won most every major ad industry award known to humanity, but perhaps his most enduring legacy is how he made it safe for subsequent generations to tell the truth about where they work.