Dan Wieden made Nike an international force in pop culture, creating plans that are still used today.
When he praises a man with the gravitas that Dan Wieden has built into sports and marketing, the enormity of his influence makes certain failure certain. He’s the man who invented Nike’s “Just Do It”, after all.
Wieden has developed several iconic campaigns for Nike.Images: getty
Wieden, who died aged 77 last month, and Wieden + Kennedy’s seminal iconoclastic work with Nike helped turn an apparel nameplate into the most indelible, and arguably the best, brand in sports in the world. It was done so uniquely and with such confidence, originality and panache that Wieden and Nike’s impact on sport and culture was reminiscent of the Beatles: enormous, transformative and continually influential. In an age where attention spans are shorter than a TikTok video, we still marvel decades later at creations like Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon ads, the “I’m not a model” disclaimer. by Charles Barkley and “Bo Knows”.
Consider the fusion of sports and pop culture; a force responsible for the growth of American sports like cable television did for the generation before Michael Jordan. Wieden helped fan and light that fire, with University of Oregon alumnus and Nike founder Phil Knight as a related cultural arsonist.
“Dan Wieden is responsible for many campaigns that have helped Nike move from sports to pop culture in a way that has never been done,” said Scott Rosner, professor and academic director of the sports management program at the University. ‘Columbia University.
Wieden and Knight drew or commissioned marketing plans still copied by an endless variety of product, service and property marketers. Brand uber alles? Treat a property or an athlete as a brand?
Before Nike, branding was largely reserved for packaged goods giants, like Procter & Gamble, Unilever or Coke. Now that the swoosh is as connected to its consumers as any brand on the planet and a $47 billion business, the athletic shoe industry is a touchstone for marketers, and the imperative to branding is a universally accepted need for marketers of all persuasions, uh, swoosh.
“Dan Wieden and Nike created a whole new language around sports marketing that was a whole different take on it – merging entertainment, sports and culture,” said Chris Zimmerman, president and chief business operations officer of the St. Louis Blues, who spent 11 years at Nike from 1995-2006, including three as North American advertising director. “They had courage, a willingness to take risks and push people where they weren’t comfortable. Without a doubt, it was a trademark of Wieden and Nike, who were always ready to go with them.
Joani Wardwell worked with Knight, when she was at Nike from 1999 to 2006, and with Wieden at the agency from 2006 to 2016 in various corporate communications roles. “They both hated anything that wasn’t authentic, and they both loved telling stories and were good in their quiet ways,” she said.
For those in need, W+K has conclusively demonstrated that great creativity is not confined to the confines of Madison Avenue. So the man who repeatedly said he wasn’t building an ad agency often did so by hiring people from outside the field.
“Dan ruled his heart, not his head,” said Lee Ann Daly, who had W+K as her agency while serving as executive vice president/marketing at ESPN. “He would want to find the person inside or outside the agency who cares the most about something like professional bowling and put them on the line because their love will show. It was Dan.
For a longer version of this story with more on Dan Wieden’s career, see Terry Lefton’s Newsletter SBJ Marketing.