One Great Big Giant Life Lesson Named David Kennedy
By Jim Riswold on Oct 25, 2021
Jim Riswold eulogizes the advertising icon.
The advertising industry mourns the loss of the legendary David Kennedy, who passed away on October 10. One half of the founding duo of the provocatively independent Wieden+Kennedy, David is one of the few industry icons who have been inducted into both the Creative Hall of Fame and the ADC Hall of Fame. As such, it takes another Hall of Fame laureate to the man a proper send-off — and who better for the job than W+K's very first copywriter, Jim Riswold?
Photo by Kurt Hettle
Kath Kennedy asked me to write David Kennedy’s obituary.
What an honor. What a daunting task. What a gulp. HELP!
Goddamnit, it’s like trying to write Santa’s obit.
What can you say about a man so humble, so averse to publicity, that his longtime business partner, Dan Wieden, once quipped he was shocked Kennedy even had a driver’s license? This is a man who wants to be buried in a pine box with nothing more than three simple words on his tombstone: He Was Old. Guarantee you, he’s pissed right now because someone is writing his obituary.
Leave me and my pens alone, I got work to do!
Sorry, Kennedy. Deal with it. You are loved.
Like Santa, Kennedy liked giving. He considered it his job, his raison d’être — not that he would ever use a highfalutin set of French words like that, nope, no way, non. He especially liked giving to the misfits, the little guys, the kooks, the dorks, the confused, the flawed, the ungotten, the left-behinds, the lost, the what if-ers, the WTF!?s, the wrong ways, the upside downs, the inside outs, the lunatics howling at the moon — Kennedy could howl at the moon with the best of them and the rest of them. Like Santa, he dispensed gifts — encouragement, smiles, sketches, wisdom, direction, rambling stories, the Pillsbury Doughboy’s life story, dumbass jokes—over and over again. Pats on the back, non-lethal kicks in the pants, hugs, perverted whimsy, birthday cards, handwritten notes galore — the man kept Post-it Notes in business, for chrissakes! Green beans, candy, cookies, ouzo, handmade toys, photo ops, his incomplete complete attention, his heart, his actual blood (O-, BTW), his devotion, and his comfortable blankets. He was big on blanket giving; Kennedy was the biggest on giving.
So, it should come as no surprise that Kennedy’s favorite thing at the agency that bears his name was playing Santa every Christmas for the last 435 years. He had the beard. He had the white hair. He had the disposition. He had the Ho ho ho’s. He had the belly. The only difference between him and the OG Santa: Kennedy Santa’d it up 365 days a year. In your face, OG Santa, you lazy SOB! Kennedy was all Santa, all the time.
"He had the beard. He had the white hair. He had the disposition. He had the Ho ho ho’s. He had the belly. The only difference between him and the OG Santa: Kennedy Santa’d it up 365 days a year."
The world could use some more Kennedys. Call them Kennedy Clauses.
Oh, that proper obit thing. Where to start? I guess you can start with the details. David Kennedy. Born North Pole…kidding…maybe…born Kansas, May 31, 1939. Grew up in Oklahoma as, in his own words, “third-generation oil-field trash.” Learned to shoot a gun, and did so, a lot. Hunted animals and fish, a lot. Got a job as a welder at 13, and didn’t accidentally light himself on fire, surprisingly. Went to college in Colorado. Liked the mountains there. Learned to give the finger — nobody gives the finger better than Kennedy. Got an art degree. Created the most immaculate handwriting in the whole history of handwriting. Worked in a bar with some guy named Robert Redford.
Met and married his wife, Kath, in 1963. Out of his league, he’d tell you. Joined the Marines, became one of its top sharpshooters—a skill that would come in handy later when dealing with ornery advertising clients. Moved to Chicago. Got a job in advertising. Tried to murder the Pillsbury Doughboy. Had kids 1, 2, and 3 — Cathlin, Erinn, and Brendan. Worked. Had kids 4 and 5 — Siobhan, Ian. Worked. Missed mountains. Moved to Portland, near mountains. Met Dan Wieden. Did wood ads with Dan at McCann-Erickson. Cast Dan as Noah in one of those wood ads. Started an ad agency with Dan. Let Dan put his name first. Found the agency’s principles in a rented dusty drawer. Worked on Nike. Did beautiful work on Nike, full of impeccable craftsmanship. Worked on every single account at his agency, no matter how small or soul-sucking. Hated meetings. Loved spray booths. Hated organization. Loved messes. Got mad at paper cutters. Got really mad at empty coffee pots. Got famous and couldn’t care less. Got mistaken for the janitor on more than one occasion. Got gifted the name Wichasha Owayakepi Chunta by the Lakotas; it means He Who Sees the World with His Heart. Got his own totem pole. Who gets their own totem pole?! Beat that, Custer! Worked some more. Retired. Got a motorcycle and didn’t splatter himself all over the asphalt, another pleasant surprise. Worked even more. Cursed cell phones and computers. Worked more than ever. Died October 10, 2021. Last words: “I don’t feel so good.” Went to heaven or someplace else. Currently working.
Loved family. Loved mountains. Loved work. Got it?
Yep, that about sums up Kennedy. However, just as I’m trying to do this very instance, summing up Kennedy is IMFUCKINGPOSSIBLE, cheap even; so much so, you might as well go and try to dam a river with a toothbrush. Both exercises in futility, I tell you. Summation shortchanges Kennedy and us; Kennedy is beyond summation because Kennedy is spirit, soul, lifeblood, his own zeitgeist. Can’t sum that stuff up.
"Summation shortchanges Kennedy and us; Kennedy is beyond summation because Kennedy is spirit, soul, lifeblood, his own zeitgeist. Can’t sum that stuff up."
If you’ve been lucky enough to bump into that zeitgeist, you know what I’m talking about. It was like one of his beloved blankets; it warmed and comforted you. It wrapped you up, and — bingo! — you were better for it. You thought better. You cared better. You worked better. You gave better. You shared better. You loved better. You gave the finger better. You grew better. You ignored meetings better. You succeeded better. You failed better. You bettered better.
Now, if you haven’t been lucky enough to get spiritually blanketed by Kennedy, here’s a crash course, starting with those five principles he found in a dusty drawer. Take notes.
Don’t act big. No less than Francis Bacon said, “All art is meaningless.” If Bacon said that about art — ART — imagine what Kennedy would say about advertising. Recognizing something, in this specific case, advertising, for its meaninglessness in the grand circus tent of things makes for capital-B Better advertising. Armed with this Kennedy-ism, we get advertising that at least attempts to be more thoughtful, more humane, more respectful, less shouty, less rude, and less worthy of getting punched in the face over. Also know that Kennedy would take issue with being mentioned in the same paragraph as Francis Bacon, despite their common Irishness, occasional grumpiness, devotion to clutter, and affinity for the dram.
No sharp stuff. Sharp stuff hurts. Don’t hurt anyone. Don’t coddle them, either; nurture them. Nurturing allows for two people to grow better up. (NB: The “No Sharp Stuff” rule does not apply to the following sharp stuffs: paper cutters, X-acto knives, and pushpins—three of Kennedy’s favorite things.)
Follow derections [sic]. But use those derections [sic] as a starting point, a place to wander from, discover, and try new things. Consider yourself a tightrope walker and those derections [sic] your safety net. It’s a place you can always come back to after your journey. Wind yourself up and go; you are safe here. Send postcards.
Shutup [sic] when someone else is talking. Interrupting somebody is just plain rude. But more importantly, the world is full of talkers, more so than ever, so listen more. Kennedy was a listener.
The work comes first. Yes, it does. Yes, it always will. The work is the making — it’s what those seven licensed Disney characters sing about. It’s the work that gives all of us our jobs. It’s the work that brings us together. It’s the work that gives us the good times. It’s the work that gets us through the bad times, an all-too-common time in advertising. It’s the work where you find your voice, even if you trip over it, even if it screams, I CANNOT STAND ADVERTISING! LET ME OUT!! More power to that voice; it’s yours. Congratulations, don’t forget to thank the work for it on the way out. No offense to Karl Marx, another giant of a man with a giant of a beard, but Wieden+Kennedy is the actualized Worker’s Paradise, thanks to Kennedy, the man who, not without reason, came to the office with his name on it, dressed as a worker.
Kennedy would add one thing to the above rules: Fail harder. There’s a reason a zillion pushpins spell out those two words in the agency (in a true craftsman’s reverse). Oscar Wilde, a David Kennedy by another name if there ever was one, once said most of us will die of “a sort of creeping common sense.” Not Kennedy. Fuck you, Common Sense! If you’re not willing to fail, pick yourself up, and fail again, you really haven’t lived. You may have survived, but you haven’t lived—there’s a difference, a big one. Some of the greatest things in life are the results of somebody failing — Play-Doh, potato chips, the Slinky, saccharin, penicillin, pacemakers, colorful wardrobes, Post-it Notes (you’re welcome, Kennedy), Silly Putty, microwave ovens, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and LSD. Failing is life. Overcoming those failures is life-affirming.
Think we’re talking about advertising? We’re not. We’re talking about priceless and eternal life lessons—humility, kindness, discovery, listening, growing, falling, getting up again. That’s Kennedy. Thank you, Kennedy.
Kennedy’s obituary is a living obituary.
Kennedy. The Man. The Spirit. The Soul. The Lifeblood. The Zeitgeist. The Blanket.
God, that blanket is missed.
David Kennedy is survived by his wife of 3,489 years, Kathleen, daughters Cathlin, Erinn, Siobhan, and son Brendan, and preceded in death by son Ian. He is also survived by his 18,000+ stepchildren who are lucky enough to have ever worked for this man at Kennedy+Wieden.
(L–R) Dan Wieden, Jim Riswold & Dan Kennedy @ the 2013 Creative Hall of Fame Ceremony. Photo by Ric Kallaher
"This Is Indian Country," David Kennedy's final campaign, which ran the day after he passed.
American Indian College Fund, 1991
Travel Oregon, 1988