RUNNING TO THE TOP WITH NIKE'S PHIL KNIGHT

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"I'm Phil Knight and I hate advertising."

This, according to legend, was how Nike's chairman and founder introduced himself to Dan Wieden back in 1980, when Wieden & Kennedy was pitching the Nike account.

After 11 years of groundbreaking advertising from the Portland, Ore., shop (interrupted by a three-year stint at Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif.), the man who once hated advertising will next week accept Nike's Advertiser of the Year award at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes.

"Not a bad place to go to accept an award," Mr. Knight mused in an interview with Advertising Age last week.

While flattered by the award, Mr. Knight doesn't see the honor as Nike's excuse to rest on its laurels. "It's flattering but awards by themselves don't buy much. But I see it as a statement to Europe, where we've only been selling seriously for about five years, that Nike is coming of age."

Mr. Knight's first meeting with Mr. Wieden is recounted in a revealing new book about Nike called "Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World" (see excerpt on Pages 20 and 21). Author Donald Katz was allowed unprecedented access to Mr. Knight, Nike's behind-the-scenes operations, even Nike corporate files. Mr. Knight's review: Thumbs up.

"He's a first-rate writer who worked really hard to understand our company. There were some very specific things and points of view I disagree with him on, but he tried to take a hard look and I think he did a good job," Mr. Knight said.

Looking back on Nike's advertising past, Mr. Knight sees it in two stages. There was the Nike that grew from infancy in 1972 to a $1 billion powerhouse in 1987 "without hardly any advertising. But then we hit a wall."

Mr. Knight saw it coming at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, when a Chiat outdoor campaign featuring Olympians like Joan Benoit "got a lot of attention and was artistically successful but it didn't make the needle move."

So Nike went back to Wieden to reach the next level.

"Our image as a leader in the industry was pretty well understood," Mr. Knight said. "What we needed was greater awareness."

And thus, the second stage, in which Wieden turned Michael Jordan into a prime-time gravity-defying myth; made "Just do it" into the athlete's mantra; and elevated Charles Barkley into an antirole-model and pop culture icon. The ads entertained, provoked and even irritated. And sometimes, they failed to showcase or even mention a Nike product. But they helped Nike punch through that wall and grow into a $4 billion company.

Among Mr. Knight's favorite campaigns was Nike's 1990 Super Bowl spot called "Heritage," another effort that "failed to move the needle." He described it as "a lonely runner runs through the streets of a city as large images of athletes are super-imposed on walls."

Mr. Knight praised Wieden, citing the agency's marketing savvy and "capacity to work their asses off." Wieden's intense relationship with Nike is the envy of the industry, and Mr. Knight knows it. "It gets heated, and there are insults thrown around that would ruin any other marketer-agency relationship. But every day we get up, wipe the dust off each other and go back to the drawing board."

Is there room for improvement in this dream marriage? "We can do things quicker. What happens is, we plan out a budget and campaigns eight months in advance, but ... anything can change."

Looking into Nike's advertising future, Mr. Knight sees home shopping and interactive media as part of Nike's marketing arsenal. Currently, it's testing home shopping shows with QVC.

"I have no idea where it will go," he said. "But it could lead to something more extreme."

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