“I don’t think anybody gets into advertising saying, ‘I’d really like to work on the Tampax account.’ People get into advertising and say, ‘I want to work on Nike, I want to work on Adidas…’”
The speaker is Mike Harris, account director at Chiat\Day’s San Francisco office. We are sitting in a wood-and-glass paneled conference room talking about sports and advertising. With us are Chiat\Day’s North American creative director Chuck McBride and Mike Allen, head of the SF office – two men identified as “Big Shots” on the company’s website.
“Sport” is often referred to as a category in advertising. No matter what is being sold – shoes, drinks, or the very games themselves – the ads get their juice from their association with sports. And since the day Michael Jordan sprung into America’s collective commercial unconscious, seemingly never to come down, the best and the brightest in this business have wanted to do sports ads. Some are ex-jocks, most are ardent fans but all of them want to light up the scoreboard and put their own man into space.
This office’s clients include Adidas, the Women’s Tennis Association and the Fox Sports Network but the collective experience in sports ads represented in this room is much deeper than that. Advertising is like sports in that the players move around a lot. Harris worked on Nike when he was at Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, in the late ‘90s, when the apparel maker was trying out different agencies. Allen worked in Nike’s in-house ad department in Beaverton, OR for seven years. And McBride logged time at Wieden & Kennedy, Nike’s principal ad agency, where he also worked on ESPN.
The presence of Nike – and its Mick-and-Keef partner in creativity, Wieden & Kennedy – is as subtle yet omnipresent as the Swoosh on Tiger Wood’s clothing. Chiat\Day actually handled Nike’s first national ads, including the inaugural Michael Jordan spot (“Who said man wasn’t made to fly?”). But there is more than the agency connection. Nike/W&K redefined sports advertising. They wedded sports apparel to the humor, passion and loyalty associated with sports itself in such a way as to make advertising cool again. Or as cool as any medium meant to separate consumers from their cash can be.
Chiat\Day SF looks like the place you’d want to work when you grow up. (The agency’s full name is TBWA\Chiat\Day, having become part of an international advertising conglomerate, like almost every advertising agency out there. And like other agencies, Chiat\Day is hurting; in the wake of the dot-com crash this office went from 120 employees to 30. So maybe this isn’t the place you’d want to work when you grow up.) The interior has been built to resemble the prow of an old sailing ship, there are skull-and-crossbones embossed on the front door and the dress code is casual, if non-existent. Jeans are okay. So are T-shirts. Shoes seem to be required though not necessarily socks.
The Big Shots act like they could be headed for the beach, too. UCLA alumni Allen has a SoCal drawl so laid back that he is almost inaudible at times, while the freckled and sandy-haired McBride, a product of USD, embodies the cockiness of the ideal adman. At his first agency job, working in print production, “I looked at the work we were doing and always thought I could do it better,” he says. And soon he was. At Goodby he was part of the creative team behind the original “Got Milk?” campaign for the Milk Advisory Board. (That PBJ with the bite out of it? That was McBride’s.) At W&K he oversaw a number of classic TV spots, including the Tiger Woods’ “Hackysack” commercial. It was the humor of those spots that some of the guys at Fox Sports recalled.
“I worked with Chuck when he was at Wieden and I was at Nike,” recalls Eric Markgraf, a senior vice-president of marketing at Fox Sports. Like his boss, Neil Tiles (who before Fox worked at ESPN), he didn’t care where McBride was working now. “In our business,” says Tiles, “based on what we’re looking for from our advertising solutions, it’s all about the individual.”
In 2000 the two TV men came to Chiat\Day with a mission: brand the end of baseball season as something belonging to Fox. “We knew we had the World Series and it was something we wanted to invest in because we had recently signed a deal with MLB to have successive World Series for six years,” says Tiles. (In the past Fox alternated series’ coverage with NBC.) They nailed it down to 24 days in October – league championship to division series to World Series. “We wanted to make that time special and that’s the strategy we came to Chuck with,” says Markgraf.
Working with Fox Sports was attractive to the men at Chiat\Day. “You get into the sports marketing world and it’s kind of a club from both the management and creative side,” says McBride. “It’s kind of like working with your fraternity brothers.”
In advertising, it all begins with The Brief: a piece of paper, or many pieces of paper, on which the client lists the objectives and challenges of the campaign they’re seeking. The more people involved on the client’s side, the longer the laundry list grows and the more unrealistic doing anything original becomes. Ordinarily, says Harris, “you’ve got ten people sitting in a room but anything that is provocative or interesting makes eight of them uncomfortable, so you shave that edge off. What you end up with is something that is pretty vanilla and they say, ‘You need to stick to this.’”
“In the ad business they call it ‘thumbprints,’” says Fox’s Tiles. “The more layers there are, the more thumbprints on the work. And after a while it’s pretty smudgy looking.” The brief for the October campaign was, well, brief. They wanted the ad to be funny, they wanted it to be “Fox” – bold, irreverent – they wanted to salute the fan (not that they had much choice: early in the season there was no telling what teams would make the playoffs). And they wanted it soon.
Working with writer Eric King, creative director McBride began batting ideas around. They knew they wanted something “inside baseball,” with October as the code word. In October, true baseball fans do not have time for their wives, their families, their jobs. Quality control takes a hike. After several iterations (including a historical take, which laid the blame for the exploding Pinto on playoff distractions), Chiat\Day came back to Fox with a pitch. A handyman unwraps a new nail gun – a gun with a mind of its own that begins firing random nails at the handyman’s wife, dog, a passerby… Then the tagline, “Beware of things made in October,” followed by a shot of a guy on the nail gun assembly line, watching the Yankees score while the tool leaves his station a lethal weapon.
It was clean, it was classic, it saluted the fervid fan mentality without taking it too seriously. Fox at first balked. “We had one conversation where they said, ‘I was expecting a little more peanuts and cracker jacks, green grass,’” recalls McBride. “And I looked at Neal squarely and said, ‘You guys don’t think that way. What this does is it allows you to own how the fan feels about it.’” And the men from Fox agreed.
How does an adman know when an advertisement has succeeded? When people start calling, when friends email video clips of the commercial to each other, when the next version (a leaf blower that turns into a flame thrower) is hailed like a new comet. Fox liked that campaign so much they came back to Chiat\Day to ask for a new series of spots to promote the network’s regional hockey coverage. Again, a look at the actual process is instructive. On the actual brief for the project, under “How target should feel after seeing the ad,” Fox wrote: “Wow, hockey seems like a tough and great sport. I’ve got to check out the (Red Wings) on Fox Sports Net.” What they got (courtesy the creative team of Susan Treacy and Ben Nott) was a series tagged “The more hockey you watch, the tougher you get.” Each ad featured a hapless hockey fan on successive days (Day 15, Day 47) as increasingly horrendous accidents befall him. He takes a dart in the neck. His wife slams the front door on his hand. He opens his car radiator and he shakes the scalding water off like so much seltzer.
“Eric really got into it,” Treacy recalls of the Fox response. “He wanted heads falling off. We had to reel them back in.”
Between the request and the result – between the client asking for something to keep fans watching all season long and the agency delivering footage of a man scorching his arm with a hot iron – is where the mystery lies. In that sense it’s like asking someone to put the wood on the ball. They may homer, they may single – or they may fly out. In that sense the ad people are like athletes, trying to give fans something to remember.
“The product is sport,” says Allen, “which people have an incredible attachment to. It’s not soap.”
After being told by Fox that they were “batting 1000,” McBride goes the soap metaphor one better, invoking one of sport’s noble superstitions. “I haven’t changed my underwear since that first spot,” he says.
“I believe if Shoeless Joe Jackson were playing today he would have a shoe contract.” So said Don Mattingly at the end of a Nike spot produced by Wieden & Kennedy. The ad itself is a parody of the sort of old-fashioned sports testimonials you might have seen on ABC’sWide World of Sports, except the players (including Matt Williams, Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey) say things like “I believe dome stadiums are great… for tractor pulls.” There is a lot of nudging and winking here but in invoking Jackson – who was banned with the other members of the Chicago “Blacksox” for throwing the 1919 World Series – the ad touches sports’ third rail. “Shoeless Joe became a fallen celebrity of some interest because he represented the cultural tension between playing for the love of sport and the immorality of money,” wrote Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson inNike Culture.
Of course one could argue that if Jackson and company had been better compensated they might not have been tempted to fix the series. And he did have a shoe contract, or at least endorse shoes. A placard from the era reads, “When he wears ‘em, Shoeless Joe Jackson wears Selz Shoes.” It is illustrated with a likeness of the slugger and a picture of two laughing, smiling feet. There is no record of what Jackson was paid for the endorsement, though it was presumably enough to buy a new pair of shoes.
The marriage of sports and advertising began with the rise of baseball in the early 20th Century. Sure, there were examples of athletes giving endorsements before then. Some Roman gladiators told people what chariots to drive. But sports advertising really came of age along with advertising itself, which evolved beyond drummers and nostrums to actually create an identity for a product – even adding value that wasn’t actually there.
In 1905 Honus Wagner, “The Flying Dutchman” of the Pittsburgh Pirates, allowed his signature to be burned into a Louisville Slugger – the first use of signature endorsement in American advertising. Later bats carried the signatures of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, which constitutes endorsement in its simplest form. For fans of the game and the titans who played it, the Louisville Slugger became like a piece of the true cross.
More controversial (and far rarer) were the baseball cards of Wagner included in pouches of Piedmont tobacco. Either because he did not approve of tobacco or he was unhappy with what he was paid for the endorsement (historians disagree), Wagner demanded his likeness be removed from the series. (There are at least 58 of the original Wagner cards extant; one in mint condition sold on eBay for $1.2 million.) As laws about tobacco and minors began to be more stringently enforced the cards moved from pouches of tobacco to packets of bubble gum.
Soon sports figures were being used to sell more than athletic equipment, which at least made a certain sense. Wheaties began putting athletes on the cover of its cereal boxes over 75 years ago, starting with Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy – a fictional character. (Fictional characters continue to serve sports advertising well; look at Reebok’s “Office Linebacker,” Terry Tate, back for another season of cubicle mayhem.) The great athletes of the day, from Bobby Jones to Babe Didrikson, were soon gracing the orange-and-white boxes and endorsements grew more significant.
For sports was not just for sports fans anymore. Up until 1920, the year Babe Ruth joined the Yankees, baseball was followed almost exclusively by men who attended games and followed their team’s progress in the papers. With the advent of Ruth, sport’s first crossover hero, millions of ordinary American wanted to partake of what he partook of (though not perhaps in the same quantities). The Baby Ruth bar was named after the daughter of President Grover Cleveland but it was the sweet’s association with the Sultan of Swat that made it (as ads proclaimed) “the most popular candy in the world.”
The 1923 World Series, in which Ruth homered three times to help the Yankees beat the Giants, was the first to be broadcast via radio coast to coast. This represented more than a new delivery system; the simultaneity of a live broadcast took sport out of the provincial domain and into the national. “Sports in some ways united America and bound Americans to each other as other aspects of national life did not,” wrote David Halberstam in his introduction to ESPN’s Sports Century. “It offered a common thread and in time a common obsession.”
Advertising possibilities abounded, from the dead air between innings and even pitches (ideal for promoting soft drinks and beer) to the names of the places where the games were played (Wrigley Field). There were even ads on Fenway’s Green Monster. Sports weathered the Depression and World War II better than most businesses. Listening to games on the radio was still free and in times of crisis, a nation turned its lonely eyes to men like Joe DiMaggio for more than entertainment. (The Yankee Clipper’s best-known endorsement came late in his retirement. In a soft sweater, Joltin’ Joe could be seen throughout the seventies hawking Mr. Coffee – though in truth he drank Sanka.)
The advertising industry, now centered near New York’s Madison Avenue, flourished in the fifties, with J. Walter Thompson and then McCann-Erickson passing more than $100 million in billings. Television presented more branding possibilities. Kraft Television Theater and Goodyear TV Playhouse preceded the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports – even though agencies were wary of the new medium at first. The most striking ads of the era featured single-image characters (the Marlboro Man, that guy with the eye-patch in the Hathaway shirt) with little or no copy to cloud the impression.
Athletes were trotted out to endorse the most obvious of products, manly stuff by and large: razors, hair gel, beer and, of course, cigarettes. “By the time TV came along the Surgeon General’s report wasn’t out but it was also clear that tobacco was bad for you,” says Robert Thompson of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “Having athletes pitch tobacco products would compensate: ‘Look, these are people who play for a living, would they do something that was bad for them?’” Tennis champ “Big Bill” Tilden and aquaplane expert Gloria Wheedon were pictured smoking Camels. So was Yankee catcher Yogi Berra who in his prime hawked everything from Puss ‘n’ Boots cat food to chocolate Yoo-Hoo. But the big tobacco companies knew the game was up and began diversifying by the end of the decade. (Philip Morris, working with the Leo Burnett Agency, showed the greatest foresight when it linked Winston to racing and Virginia Slims to tennis. Just mentioning those events was free advertising.)
Come the sixties and advertising’s vaunted Creative Revolution. Doyle Dane Bernbach embodied the new style in campaigns such as Volkswagon (“Think small”) that violated all the known rules of advertising. The Yankee austerity of such giants as J. Walter Thompson gave way to a brand of humor that was decidedly more ethnic and informed by popular culture. It was a matter of survival. “Irony could reduce advertising to absolute silence,” says Thompson, “so they had to find a way to absorb irony.”
What that meant for sports figures was that they were finally let out of the box. In an age when cultural and political figures could be shunted about like the cardboard cutouts on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pete Rose and Pete Townshend might appear in the same sentence and not cause wires to short. Mary Wells of the NY-based Wells, Rich and Greene had already buffed up Braniff’s image by painting their planes pastel shades and putting the stewardesses in Pucci outfits. But in a wacky series of ads, worlds actually collided. Andy Warhol and Sonny Liston were featured as frequent flying buddies (“They like our girls, they like our food, they like our style – and they like to be on time!”). So were Whitey Ford and Salvador Dali. “When you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Dali shouts at ad’s end, as he appears about to collapse.
“Tell ‘em, Dali baby!” says Ford.
By the time Mullen/LHC put Joe Namath in a pair of Hanes pantyhose in 1974, the lid was definitely off. Namath was a beloved, telegenic figure who hawked Ovaltine in his time, but by putting him in “Beautymist” pantyhose the ad was sending several messages not in the script. Real men wear pantyhose – or anything else they fancy, like full-length fur coats. And by trading on Namath’s reputation as a womanizer (ie, this guy knows something about pantyhose), Hanes was trading in the athlete’s story, one free of teams and seasons. A gay website called The Commercial Closet even sites it as an early example of gender-bending. All that cultural confusion, along with the ensuing controversy, provided a glimpse of sports advertising’s future.
First though came the jokey ads of the seventies. In the memorable Miller Lite series (produced by McCann-Erickson), retired athletes traded on their rather one-dimensional reputations. Billy Martin was portrayed as a battler, Bubba Smith as an ass-ripper (“I even like the easy opening can,” he says, shredding the container with his bare hands) and Bob Uecker gained fame for being not famous, a living butt of all baseball jokes. [(Muhammad Ali, the most outrageous sports figure of the sixties or seventies, was too hot for Madison Avenue to handle. “He was the perfect figure to illuminate the contradictions of America in the sixties,” wrote Halberstam – but Starkist doesn’t want contradictions. The ads of Ali that survive from that period are embarrassing [see bad ad box]. It was only in the nineties – when he was presumably no longer a threat to the status quo – that Apple and others began to use images of the Champ in all his butterfly-floating glory.)
Advertising underwent another change in the eighties. The cool humor of the previous decades was starting to seem dated; whether you believed it was “Morning in America” under Reagan or “The End of the World As We Know It,” products called for advertising that was inspirational, transcendent. Chiat\Day’s “1984” ad for Apple computers became the most talked about Super Bowl spot ever and raised the bar for everyone in the business. The creative work was suddenly all coming from the West Coast with Chiat\Day’s “Jordan Flight” ad for Nike – and Wieden & Kennedy’s subsequent variations on the theme – setting the new tone.
“If you look back on the history of advertising and sports you’ll see that it remains, until the Wieden & Kennedy campaign, profoundly in this world,” says University of Florida professor of English and advertising James Twitchell, who includes the initial Nike-Jordan campaign in his Twenty Ads That Shook the World. “You look at all the great sports campaigns – Wheaties, Miller, Coke and Mean Joe Green – these are all in-the-dirt campaigns… But in that Nike campaign that guy is soaring. It’s not ‘Just Do It,’ it’s ‘Just Believe It.’”
With Nike and Wieden & Kennedy, sports advertising got religion.
It was a religion of the gnostic variety, though. If there was a certain natural order implied in classical advertising – that the goods being advertised were worthy of your consideration, and the people pitching them to you could be trusted – Wieden & Kennedy turned it on its head. Even as the Jordan ads took flight, along with his astonishing career, Nike spots tried to tie his shoelaces together. The earliest of the “Spike and Mike” series featured then-underground director Spike Lee, playing his She’s Gotta Have Itcharacter Mars Blackmon, who, after examining Jordan’s superhuman abilities concluded, “It’s gotta be the shoes.” It was a cynical aside to an audience that grew up being told Ked shoes could make you run faster and jump higher. Lee’s deadpan directorial style fit the company and its developing image like a pair of old sneakers: “Oh-yeah” cynicism on the one foot, reverence for athletic ability on the other.
Nike was slow to pick up on the personal fitness craze that began in the 1970s. Founded by Phil Knight and some other runners from Oregon, where the sport is approached with a Spartan intensity, the men at Nike couldn’t understand why they should make cross-trainers for women – until Reebok showed them millions of reasons. Nike, which had become the number one athletic-shoe company in America in 1980, was losing market-share to the UK company. They outdistanced the competition by both bringing more women into the upper echelons of its alpha-male corporate culture (annual meetings were known as “Buttfaces”) and settling on an advertising approach – and agency – that put them in touch with their feminine side.
Meeting with a group of advertising and marketing people from Nike and W&K at the ad agency’s spacious headquarters in Portland’s trendy Pearl District, it is hard to tell who works for what company. It is not surprising, really; the two grew up together, started going steady almost twenty years ago and (aside from a trial separation in the late ‘90s) have been yoked together since. It is one of advertising’s most notable long-term relationships, rivaling that of Chiat\Day and Apple, if not such legendary marriages as Leo Burnett and Kellogg’s (“They’re grrrr-eat!”).
“We’re not always this friendly with each other,” warns Nike ad director Nancy Monserrat. A 14-year veteran of the company, who was hired to work on women’s brands, Monserrat in some ways embodies the new Nike. Surrounded by her charges and W&K “creatives” whom she works with on an ongoing basis, she has a kind of authoritative, and slightly oracular, presence. She has been there longer than anyone here, has seen the brand grow (and falter) over the years, she has a sort of institutional memory of the company’s great campaigns of the past. “We’ve tried looking at reels of old stuff,” says her subordinate, Nike adman Richard Mulder, “but Nancy starts crying every time.”
That could be because she is incredibly pregnant. Where the atmosphere at Chiat\Day’s SF office was a bit like a boy’s club, the group gathered here in W&K’s sunlit employee cafeteria is made up of an equal mix of men and women. [(When I arrived, W&K creative director Hal Curtis’s newborn baby was being passed around by mom, evoking waves of baby worship.)] For contrast, a voice over the agency’s public-address system announces free beer at a party hosted by Miller, a relatively new client.
“It’s hard when you do a basketball ad here,” says W&K account manager Thomas Harvey, “because you’re not just competing with Adidas or Reebok. You’re competing with all the great work that’s come out of here before.”
That great work includes the whole Spike & Mike series (Lee directed the last one when Jordan retired for real this spring); the “Bo Knows” Bo Jackson series; Penny Hardaway and “Little Penny” (voiced by Chris Rock); the Barkley ads, the Tiger ads, the Olympic spots, and hundreds of lesser-known (or less fondly remembered) advertisements that drew, in equal measure, on humor, sentiment and our shared culture. “The agency had a knack for identifying the tiniest carbon dioxide bubbles on the bottom of the bottle of popular culture,” wrote Randall Rothenberg in his definitive advertising case history, Where the Suckers Moon, “and riding them as they rose, expanded and burst on the surface of public consciousness.”
Most of these ads were linked to great athletes, some of whom had pretty amazing stories. But W&K’s influence went beyond their treatment of Nike’s star endorsers (who were treated with equal parts irreverence and awe). By slipping in the odd cultural referents, borrowing from Iggy Pop as well as The Barber of Seville, and allowing an ad’s tone to turn on a dime, W&K became the most influential agency of the last twenty years. The endorsements are important. Nike had just signed LeBron James (for $90 million) the day before my visit [STATUS TODAY?] and there was still hollering going on in the halls of both client and agency when I arrived. But by painting the athlete into a canvass of their own devising, W&K has made him – and they are still mostly men – merely part of the equation, changing the nature of sports endorsements forever in the process.
“We get to talk about sports all day long,” says W&K account director Rebecca Van Dyck. “There’s so many different athletes, sizes, races, genders. Even if there is not a formal brief we’re constantly throwing ideas around about stories we’d like to tell.”
When Nike does come to W&K with a brief it is usually to hype some new product the apparel maker has come up with. The popular Shox sneaker is a case in point. “In this one in particular we wanted to make sure we were saying something about the actual technology and not just a brand idea,” recalls Curtis.
“What the shoe does,” adds Nike associate ad director Saga Shoffner, “not just what it’s made of but what you can get out of it.”
Armed with those instructions, W&K’s creative team went to the drawing board. After days of deliberation Jonathan Gould, the writer assigned to the project called creative director Curtis into his office. “I think in one or two sentences he said, ‘We’re going to put Shox on a streaker at a soccer match and he’s going to outrun everyone.’ Hal stood up, shook his hand and said, ‘Good job. Let’s go show it to the client.’”
There, again, is the moment of mystery. How do you go from a request for an ad that will sell people on the advanced shock-absorber technology of a sneaker and end up with a naked guy being chased by bobbies on a British soccer field? Is the agency even listening to the client?
“The brand voice had been a little serious for a while and we thought we should be a little lighter,” says Nike’s Shoffner. You get the feeling it’s hard to pass up a good gag here but she is quick to point out that the TV ad represents only one phalanx in Nike’s battle for the hearts and soles of America. Images of the shoe in motion, with text that called out its state-of-the-art springiness, appeared in print, online and in store ads, all under the tagline “More Go.”
The first test of an ad’s success can come almost immediately. For the Shox “Streaker” the reaction was instantaneous. Many members of the team that worked on the ad happened to be in sports bars when it aired (it was during the NFC championships last year) where you “see the visceral reaction to one of your commercials,” says Curtis. “The Swoosh goes up and you start hearing immediately.”
“Hal kept saying, in his quiet way, ‘This is going to be incredible,’” recalls Monserrat. “He knew it was a good spot. But it’s not until it gets out there and the phones start ringing.” And the shoes start walking. According to her, sales spiked immediately, with over 400,000 pairs leaving stores within days of the ad’s airing.
And how do the creatives who built this baby, one of the most talked-about ads of 2002, feel when Reebok (in an ad created by the Arnell Group) spoofs it by having Terry Tate knock the naked man down? Big smiles.
“They spend a lot of time talking about Nike in that ad,” says Shoffner.
As the assembled ad and marketing people are talking, picking at the pasta and salads brought by a caterer, Dan Wieden sidles up to the table. The talk has taken a slightly cultish turn, with Nike and W&K people both talking about The Brand as if it were the Holy Grail, when the company’s founder interrupts them.
“Is this complete bullshit here?” he asks of no one in particular. “Sounds like suck-up time.”
In an industry filled with self-proclaimed legends, Dan Wieden is the real deal. It was he, along with his partner David Kennedy, who founded this agency over 20 years ago and his sensibility still informs it. The son of a local adman, who aspired in his youth to writing beat poetry of the Gary Snyder variety, Wieden’s relationship with Nike began rather inauspiciously when he went to ask the man for his business.
“They were having a sales meeting at Sun Valley,” he tells me back in his “show office” (the one with the view). “I went there and he was standing by the ice rink. Someone introduced me and he said, ‘Hi, I’m Phil Knight and I don’t believe in advertising.’ And I said, ‘Would you like to see some pictures of my children?’”
But the truth was that Nike already knew the potential of advertising. In 1977, an early in-house ad of theirs ran in Runner’s World under the legend, “There is no finish line.” It was ripped out of the magazine and tacked on runners’ walls across the country. They had so many requests for the ad that they had a poster made that they sent to fans. The company (then called Blue Ribbon) understood the mentality of the runner, its primary customers. And they shared that knowledge with W&K, pushing them to break whatever rules about ads they might have learned.
“I think it was [Rob] Strasser [Nike’s first marketing director] who pointed out to us, ‘These aren’t customers, these are our buds. We grew up, we went to school, we raced against these guys. We know these guys. So I don’t want to see any goddamn models. And I want them to talk in public like I would in the locker room and use words the public may not understand.’”
All of which was music to the young team’s ears. Wieden could forget everything his father ever taught him (and good thing, too, since Wieden Sr. turned down the Nike account back when Phil Knight was still selling shoes out of his car) while Kennedy could try to blot out the experience of working at Hal Riney in Chicago (where “Hal’s critters,” like the Jolly Green Giant and the Pillsbury Dough Boy, were concocted by so many Dr. Moreaus). The young agency helped establish the brand’s voice, using John Lennon’s “Revolution” and then “Instant Karma” in some early spots, outraging Yoko haters everywhere. They hired the best directors, such as Lee, Spike Jonze and the Doug Limon – all of them eager to do Nike spots. Wieden in particular showed an affinity for the brand’s flinty sort of Pacific Coast existentialism. It was he who coined the company’s credo, “Just Do It,” though the sentiment had been heard in Nike meetings for ages.
“My contribution to Nike work tends to be more along the line of Phil’s,” says Wieden of his role today. “It’s more the unseen presence. Sort of like the Marlon Brando approach to filmmaking.”
White-haired and slightly avuncular, Wieden has been portrayed in the press at times as a curmudgeon, though I found him calm and accessible. He chooses not to answer some questions (about W&K client ESPN and the agency’s separation from Nike in the ‘90s) and stops talking when he has finished answering others. His instincts are legendary. “Wieden is the only person who I ever worked for who knew before you were done if something worked,” says Chiat\Day’s McBride. And as the head of one of the last independent agencies around, he shares Nike’s disdain of research and focus groups.
“You don’t fall in love through research,” he says, “you fall in love through inexplicable things you can’t put your finger on about a person, or service, or product.” And if you say you have never fallen in love with a product, look to your closet. What brought you to choose the three stripes over the Swoosh, or vice versa, when so many shoes are interchangeable constructions of rubber, leather and glue? Surely you didn’t think one pair was going to make you jump like Jordan (who himself has been transmogrified into The Jumpman)?
Using smart hires (none recent: W&K has suffered the same losses as the rest of the industry in the last three years) and an open cultural antenna, W&K has kept the Nike spots young even as the company has matured. Their Funkadelic ads brought Parliament godfather George Clinton together with Snoop Dogg in spots so out there many didn’t know what they were pitching. The “Freestyle” ads – featuring street players dribbling basketballs in seemingly impossible rhythmic match-ups – were so popular with kids that MTV ran them as videos. (An off-Broadway “Freestyle” musical has been in the works for some time – since before the ads, in fact.)
Like everyone else I have spoken to, Wieden thinks the category – sport – is what keeps his creatives, well, creative. “Sport is just great comedy,” he says, “with all the inspirational moments and degrading moments. There aren’t many categories where the human drama plays itself out as publicly as it does here.”
Just ask the naked man on the soccer field.
(Published, in edited form, in the Portland Monthly)