“I’m Phil Knight and I hate advertising.”
These are the words with which the co-founder of Nike introduced himself to creative team Dan Wieden and Dave Kennedy. That first encounter led to some of the most remarkable – and successful – advertising the world has ever seen. Knight’s disdain for mainstream marketing, combined with the left-field approach of a couple of self-confessed hippies, who themselves didn’t much care for the conventions of the business, and who were starting an agency staffed with mavericks and misfits, thousands of miles from Madison Avenue adland, led to a remarkable partnership.
That partnership has lasted more than three decades. Today, Wieden+Kennedy’s work runs all over the world in every conceivable medium, from virtual reality experiences to sticking plasters. ‘Just do it’ is one of the most recognised phrases in the English language. And Nike is a multi-billion dollar business. From small beginnings, as Nike grew globally, so did Wieden+Kennedy, expanding into new markets and new sports, with the London office helping to launch running events like the Run London 10K and Nike Grid, and collaborating with W+K Amsterdam on ‘Write the Future’ for the World Cup. Nike was W+K’s founding client and has been the first client – usually as the result of a competitive pitch, Nike never allows us to get complacent! – of most of the offices in the network as we have grown. In a place that has few rules, it’s still a rule that no trainers other than Nike may be worn in a W+K office.
2018 was the 30th anniversary of the launch of the slogan ‘Just Do It’ and in the last year Nike has once again reminded us that a huge part of their success is down to their courage and their conviction that they should be prepared to stand up for their beliefs. Recent campaigns have challenged the conventions of femininity in sport, breaking taboos in markets like Russia and the Middle East. The work has challenged biases about gender, age and disability. We have confronted the attitudes that lead to over-protective Chinese parents restricting their kids’ ability to play sport. With the ‘Nothing beats a Londoner’ campaign we have connected with the spirit of youth by tapping into the grass roots of sport in the city. And with ‘moonshots’ like Breaking2, Nike attempts things that people said were impossible, like running a marathon in under two hours.
Nike never pre-tests creative work. And there’s no brand identity book with rules about how to make a Nike ad. It’s a difficult, demanding account. They approach marketing like the athletes they are – we’re here to win. And we’ll do whatever it takes. You can see that spirit in the work – There is no finish line. You don’t win silver – you lose gold. It’s only crazy until you do it.
In September 2018 a tweet was heard around the world. “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” With that thought, Nike and Colin Kaepernick ignited a campaign that set the world alight. The work went on to win fans, enrage haters, create controversy and dominate the conversation. People set fire to their Nikes and posted videos online. Marketers debated whether it is appropriate or relevant for brands to take a divisive stance on social issues. Spike Lee said the brand was “on the right side of history.” A Republican senator said Nike was “on the wrong side of the American people”. The President of the USA tweeted, ‘What was Nike thinking?’ Many commentators – along with Trump – predicted commercial disaster. Nike didn’t blink. Revenue soared over the year, online sales jumped over 30% and soon after the launch of the campaign, Nike’s stock hit an all-time high.
It’s this courage, combined with the desire always to create culture rather than simply follow, that has kept Nike moving forwards. The bravery to speak about issues above and beyond the product, the relentless drive for excellence. They are one of a kind.
And Phil Knight still hates advertising.