Just Another Dan Wieden Tribute

What I learned from an ad legend, as someone who hated advertising

I keep seeing tributes to Dan Wieden, the advertising legend who wrote the infamous tagline for Nike, "Just Do It," and who recently passed away at the age of 77. Every time I see one, I think, I want to write one too.

Then, I don't write a word.

I know if I'm going to try to honor of one of the world's most famous writers—even if his name isn't credited on any of the millions of T-shirts, hoodies and crew socks his words are printed on around the globe—whatever I write has to be fucking amazing. That's a lot of pressure.

I also worry that writing about him on the internet would only cheapen our friendship; like it would somehow just become another piece of content for people to engage with, and my truest feelings for this man who changed my whole life would be boiled down to a guy in a Patagonia vest in Palo Alto earning a few bucks from it.

And I worry about all the people I used to work with, the ones who'd like to tell me how my work was too female or feel-y. I imagine their eyerolls from me spewing so much earnestness on the internet. I also worry (a little) about that one boss I had who wrote in my annual review: Lu needs to find a way to be less affected by everything. Sorry, Brad. I don't think I'll ever not need improvement in this area. I get it, though; sadness and loss and literal mortality isn't great to talk about in a business that guarantees a sunny future, but only once you've bought all the right things in all the right order.

I also worry about if I even have a right to talk about my friendship with Dan. Like, were we really friends? We were close, but that was back in the early 2000s, back when I used a Razr flip phone because iPhones weren't invented yet and back when I thought I could change the world through advertising because Dan told me I could.

Most of the time, I wondered if I had dreamt our whole thing.

Then, Dan's death was announced in the press and a photo of me from almost 20 years ago ran alongside his obituary in The Oregonian.

In the photo, I'm standing behind him, along with the rest of the first class of the experimental advertising school Wieden+Kennedy 12. The school was the thing that compelled me in 2004 to move to Portland, Oregon, four months after I'd filed for bankruptcy in a courthouse in Newark, New Jersey. I didn't have a real job or a family. It made perfect sense for me to pick up my life and move across the country to work for free for a year in the world's most famous ad agency. I wasn't doing anything better. In fact, I was mostly just talking dirty on the phone to men for money because I didn't understand how a creative person could pay the rent. Lucky for me, Dan saw how well my skill set would translate into the ad business. If hundreds of men paid me $3.99 a minute to listen to the fantasies I spun while I pretended to be a happier, sexier, more aspirational version of myself—imagine what I could do for a brand trying to get inside the heads of consumers and then get them to keep spending money?

I'm not sure why The Oregonian decided to publish this particular photo in the piece about Dan's passing, but when I saw it, I gasped. Suddenly I was 30 again, living in a one-room apartment with my two cats and my fancy Pomeranian, Lola, on NW Flanders Street, praying that the year I was spending to learn how to make ads would help me find some direction in my disappointing life.

That photo of me, of all 12 of us, standing behind Dan in the atrium of W+K Portland, transported me back to the talks he and I used to have, alone in his office, back when I was in school. We'd talk about how much I hated advertising, how advertising made me grow up to hate my oversized body, and how I never saw anyone who looked like me in an ad unless it was in a before, never an after.

He'd laugh and ask me, "If you hate it so much, then what are you doing here, kiddo?"

I'd tell him I'd come to ad school not to get in line with the ad business, but because I wanted to understand how the advertising sausage got made, in the hopes of maybe not getting so sick when I ate it. I also wondered if maybe I had what it would take to change it from the inside. He'd lean in, really listening, eyes sparkling, encouraging my cynicism.

"There has to be a better way," I'd tell him.

"Prove it," he'd shoot back with that smile.

I never censored myself, and he never flinched. We'd go back and forth like this for hours. I was messy, intense, ridiculous, stubborn. I was human to a fault, sort of like how I think he wanted his agency to be. I remember sitting with him, running my fingers over his fuzzy, white, fake-fur couch (I think it was fake?), sparring with him about the business that made him so successful, the same business that had made me question my own worth since girlhood. Fat was bad for business, and yet there I was, inside the house Nike built, pretending not to hyperventilate when I climbed the stairs.

Dan once asked me in one of our office chats, "Since you hate advertising so much, what do you think you'll do if you don't end up working in it?"

Without hesitation I said, "I'll be a self-help guru, like Tony Robbins. I'll get people to believe in themselves. I'll wear a tiny microphone and march around on a stage." I remember how hard he laughed. Then he told me I was in the right place. "Lu, there's no bigger religion than advertising."

I knew what he meant. My mother, after she was diagnosed with cancer in the 1980s, had adopted "Just Do It" as her personal mantra, a battle cry to help her find the strength to fight the disease she eventually lost to in 1996. I told Dan about this in the hopes he'd understand I could see the subtleties of the thing he'd built; how the morality of the ad business wasn't all black and white, that sometimes it did good too. I often found myself wondering if my ghost mom had something to do with me ending up alone, month after month, in the office of the guy who wrote the words that gave her hope in the last years of her life. The room lit up with a charge when I shared my wondering with Dan. He teared up. "Yes, I believe she has something to do with us being here together," he nodded.

A few months before I graduated from 12, I decided I'd stop getting angry and start trying to really change things. On a page in my Moleskine I scratched down an idea. I'd build a new agency—the world's first advertising agency founded on the idea of respecting women. I'd call it Heart New York. I got goosebumps. I thought, I'm a fucking genius. What I didn't know then is that no advertising agency can exist that respects women because if you show women how they really can be in ads—aging, fat, disabled, moody, angry, emotional, intuitive, powerful, woeful, worried, messy—and then don't circle back with some product that can cure them of their "flaws," no one's gonna make any money.

I took Dan out to lunch at PF Chang's in the Pearl District. I told him about my idea. He didn't tell me I was stupid. Instead, he offered me space in the New York office of Wieden+Kennedy to work on it after I graduated. I moved back East five days after graduation and got right to it. A few weeks later, Dan was in the office and he saw me, sitting at my little desk by the kitchen. He ran to me and gave me the biggest hug. "You're doing it, kiddo!" he beamed as he shook my shoulders. Immediately after that, the shitbag I'd been sitting next to, who hadn't once spoken to me since I'd arrived, greeted me every morning with a cheerful hello.

Dan and I talked a lot that summer. He introduced me to people and gave me encouragement, and I did my best to open a business of my own, but most days I felt like both Romy and Michele, cosplaying some kind of phony business lady who's lying about inventing Post-its. I was filled with doubt but acted like I wasn't. Then I found out I was getting an award from the Women's Image Network, an organization that awards positive representations of women in the media. WIN decided my idea alone for Heart New York was notable, even if my business plan wasn't. They invited me to L.A. I was a special honoree, along with Gurinder Chadha, who directed Bend It Like Beckham. Kathy Griffin was the host. On a fall night in 2005, in the Hollywood Hills, at an open-air amphitheater, Dan—who'd flown in from Portland to introduce me—told the audience that I was: "One of the brightest, funniest, and perhaps one of the most focused revolutionaries to ever take on Madison Avenue." He gushed. "If you think she is kidding, if you think she is naive, if you think your cage is not about to be rattled ... think again."

Dan was talking about me, the same girl who would be pictured in his eventual obituary; the hopeful, committed, naive girl who was on fire. This version of me is still somewhere inside myself, but I haven't thought about her in a long time. That's too bad. She may have missed the mark, but she was definitely onto something.

A lot of things did happen after Dan told everyone I was on the precipice of doing something great—but opening an ad agency wasn't one of them.

When Heart New York sputtered, I took a copywriting job at WKNY. I gladly wrote copy for face soap and sneakers. I wrote something that Michael Jordan still gets quoted with saying—even though it was me who wrote it at 2 a.m. in a sweatshirt covered in food stains. I went on to work at MTV and gave notes about the amount of glycerin needed to be rubbed on a teen heartthrob's abdominal muscles for maximum shininess. I was told by my boss at Facebook to take myself to the Official Facebook Health Clinic for therapy after I shared my anxiety about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I ate a lot of craft service. I flew first class, my seatbelt extender guaranteeing my place in this business—adjacent, in support of people more beautiful and rich and thin and marketable than myself. I measured my days by how happy people were with me. I had a lot of bad days. Months turned into years, years turned into decades. I stopped thinking about Dan and his fuzzy couch and how he could make me feel like the things I was sure made me broken, weird and unworthy were the things that made me great. Instead, I told a lot of people Yes, sure, whatever you need, and I swallowed my feelings in the form of delirious binges that left me sweaty and sick. Like, really, really sick. I burnt out in a spectacular way; like Fourth of July fireworks style. I've spent the last few years trying to find my way back to health. I see a million doctors to try to fix my body. I've gotten a lot quieter and a little smaller. I still miss so much. I miss Shutters on the Beach and room service and the secret desserts I could expense. I miss the titles I held at impressive media institutions, where a few capitalized letters squished together meant I'd really made it. For a while, these titles tethered me to this impossible world. I exploded anyway.

Dan encouraged me to make something out of my dissatisfaction, and I tried. I'm still trying. It just looks different now. I've stepped away from creativity for global consumption and the bottom line. I write poems I publish in tiny lit mags that have 11 readers. I walk in the woods. I don't wear as much black much anymore. I cry when I feel like it (often) and don't eat my feelings (except only sometimes). The things I make now are for myself first, but it was Dan who taught me the most personal things can in turn be the most universal, so I go deep and hope for the best.

Thank you, Dan Wieden, is what I guess I'm trying to say.

It's priceless, what you gave me. Still, I'd like to believe that you wouldn't want me to end this tribute without saying the shadow part of what I'm thinking; how I still believe (maybe more than ever) that advertising hurts people, and how that harm has only gotten more extreme as the structures that serve advertising into our eyeballs have only gotten more powerful, ubiquitous—and far less human—than they were when we first met. I'd like to believe if you heard me say this to you on your white couch, you'd lean in closer and ask me to explain what I mean. That's one of the 10 million things that made you great. You were a guy with his name on the door, but you still wanted to hear the contrarian thoughts of someone like me—a fat, bankrupt phone sex operator from New Jersey.

In the speech you gave about me that night in L.A., you told the audience, "We had chat after chat in my office. She confessed that somewhere along the line she had developed this damn conscience, see, and her conscience was not exactly into propaganda, illusions and manipulation. I told her lots of people have those feelings initially." Your joke got a lot of laughs. I remember how, when I heard you say that, I promised myself I'd never put my dissatisfied feelings down because they were clearly what was fueling me, but of course I put them down, like lots of idealists do, once they get exhausted from trying to change something that has no interest in changing.

Now, in honor of you, Dan, I am going to try again.

I will use my whole heart, all my questions, doubts and anger, all my poetry and damage, all the things I hate about myself, but that you showed me were some of my best qualities, and I will make something beautiful, dangerous and mine. It won't be an ad agency that respects women (that would be ridiculous), but it will be something just as ill-advised and impossible. Then one day, I'll come and sit down with you, wherever you are now, and I'll tell you all about it.

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Lu Chekowsky
Lu Chekowsky is an Emmy-winning writer and creative director.

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