Kevin Carroll puts spring in Nike's marketing step

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Unless you have some spare room in your wallet don't ask Nike's Kevin Carroll for his business card.

"Which one?" he asks. "I have six."

They are all imprinted with different historic black and white images, mostly of famed Nike innovator and coach Bill Bowerman and his runners. Each card bears a different theme with the words: Motivator, Innovator, Dreamer, Teacher, Believer and Visionary.

Flip the cards over and you see Mr. Carroll's exact title-which isn't much help either.

"Kevin Carroll. Katalyst."

The title and spelling are the brainchild of Mr. Carroll, who came up with the moniker while watching a lunar eclipse. "I was thinking about interaction," he said. "So I grabbed my chemistry book, and looked up catalyst. It said, `an excitatory agent that speeds up a process without using up all its energy."'

In the purest sense, Mr. Carroll is a motivator who helps Nike designers and marketing executives shake up their creative juices. He also speaks at many business events and conferences around the world.

story teller

In Los Angeles last week at the Promax & BDA conference, the TV industry's convention for marketing, creative and promotion executives, he gave an unusual hour-long speech, exhorting his audience to take chances. His motivational mantra is that one must "tell the story" of a brand via design and convey that story in marketing communications, a point he illustrated by showing several Nike commercials from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. He also pushed his audience to create their own personal "brands."

"He's highly motivating," said James Chabin, CEO of Promax & BDA. "We had to open an extra ballroom to accommodate more people. It felt like half-time at the NBA Finals with Michael Jordan sitting on the bench."

At a time when the TV industry is struggling with low ratings, more competition and fewer creative and financial resources, Mr. Chabin said Mr. Carroll was invited to spark inspiration and discuss why TV creatives need to embrace risk.

Mr. Carroll, 44, has an eclectic background. Before his current stint at Nike, he was director of sports medicine for the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers. He worked in sports medicine for other professional teams, as well as college athletic teams, and his diverse background also extends to a 10-year post with the Air Force, where he was a language translator. (He speaks Serbian, Croatian and Czechoslovakian and is conversant, he said, in Russian and German).

Five years ago he was brought to Nike by Mark Parker, now co-president of the Nike Brand, to aid with innovation. He went to work, but in a somewhat different way. "We weren't talking about innovation; we were talking about processing," he said. "So I started boycotting meetings. But I would leave stuff in the meetings-about innovation-before anyone got there."

human focus

He had a hand in Nike's award-winning "Tag" and "Play" campaigns and has worked, he said, closely with Dan Wieden. Currently, Mr. Carroll works with designers "on their storytelling abilities for their concepts. My whole focus is on the human side. I'm looking to find ways to maximize the genius of our creatives."

To create that state, Mr. Carroll, before the beginning of a Nike design season, may send out designers for some unusual assignments, such as doing music therapy, or sports-related tasks. "I sent them to this high-altitude training center at Flagstaff, Arizona," he said.

His unscripted speech at Promax was diverse, filled with audience participation, black-and-white still images and his engaging personal story about being abandoned by his parents as a young child.

The response to all this?

"In the history of Promax, there have only been two standing ovations," said Mr. Chabin. "Oprah, in Chicago, seven years ago, and Kevin Carroll yesterday."

The creative process can be difficult to pin down. For some business executives, Mr. Carroll's work can be a little passe, a little too `60s touchy- feeley. He responds this way.

"I've been accused of being too happy," he said. "They say, `Here comes the happy guy. How can he be so happy? Do you really have a job, Kevin? What's your accountability, Kevin?"

He answers with this quote from novelist James Michener.

"The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does."

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