Few may have known the name Mike Koelker, but that didn't bother the Foote, Cone & Belding exec VP-corporate creative director a bit. Mr. Koelker, 56, died of cancer June 8 at his home in San Rafael, Calif.
"He had an ego, but it manifested itself very differently than anybody I've ever worked with," said Jack Rooney, senior VP-group management supervisor on FCB's Levi Strauss & Co. account.
Mr. Koelker was utterly uninterested in getting public acclaim. Dedicated to building what he called "brand architecture," he at times even wrote hang tags for Levi's Silver Tab jeans and other products.
Levi Strauss & Co. Chairman-CEO Bob Haas put it this way: Mr. Koelker's Levi's "501 Blues" campaign that ran from 1984 to 1988, the Dockers "Colors" campaign and others from Mr. Koelker "shaped the image of our brands and propelled sales growth."
"During his .... years with FCB, this soft-spoken Midwesterner became the force behind many of the most influential ad campaigns in recent history," said Bruce Mason, chairman-CEO of FCB and parent True North Communications, Chicago.
Born in Omaha, Mr. Koelker spent a year in bed when he was 11, fighting polio. He worked his way through Augustana College writing copy for a small ad agency in Rock Island, Ill., and for the in Davenport, Iowa. Recruited in 1968 by Honig-Cooper & Harrington, then one of San Francisco's largest shops, he was Levi's group creative director when FCB purchased the agency in 1975.
In 1984, Levi's gave a challenge to Mr. Koelker and his creative partner, art director Leslie Caldwell: The marketer needed to reinvent 501 jeans, then heavily cloaked with cowboy imagery.
Mr. Koelker took to the gritty streets of urban America with musicians using a variety of styles and a cast of ordinary-looking performers. His breakthrough "501 Blues" campaign is now part of the Smithsonian Institution's permanent collection.
"What we were trying to say with the `501 Blues' was, whoever you are, you're OK. It doesn't matter if you're black or white, or thin or fat, or athletic or in a wheelchair. You're OK," Mr. Koelker later wrote.
Later, Mr. Koelker undertook the Dockers launch, again relying on his simple creative philosophy, "Make it different. Make it beautiful. Don't copy. Don't do anything ugly."
His creative department was also responsible for other well-known campaigns, including the California Raisin Advisory Board's dancing raisins; Levi's jeans for women; and a serialized effort for Pacific Bell.
Mr. Koelker took a medical leave of absence in March. Paul Wolfe, formerly a partner at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, was named exec VP-executive creative director. Mr. Koelker is survived by his wife, the former Beth Rokicki, FCB associate creative director.
Jeanne Whalen contributed to this story.