CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Late in 2007, Nike came to Los Angeles-based 72andSunny with a problem.
While the footwear behemoth had been gaining in soccer for years on the strength of flashy viral campaigns built around jaw-dropping footwork and dazzling creative, it had been losing traction with advanced players, who tended to gravitate toward rivals such as Adidas as they moved into more-serious competition. Sensing that the huge stage of the 2008 European Championships was an opportunity to change perceptions of the brand, Nike asked the 52-person Los Angeles and Amsterdam-headquartered shop to do what it could to stem that tide.
What resulted was the kind of campaign that showed just what a small agency could aspire to. It helped, of course, that 72andSunny had Nike's budget and thirst for groundbreaking creative. But the lesson from "The Next Level" is that it doesn't take a big footprint to do work that measures for perhaps the greatest advertiser ever.
The centerpiece of the program was a striking, fast-paced two-minute film directed by Guy Richie, which shows one athlete's first-person view of taking his game to a higher and higher level complete with pre-match vomiting and requests for chest autographs from comely blonds, as well, of course, loads of action on the field.
Taking the improvement theme further, an online "boot camp" based on Nike's site provided video-based training regiments that athletes could download and use for their own gain.
"When they first contacted us, they were dominant in world football but losing a little credibility with players as they got serious," said creative director Glen Cole. "We wanted to appeal to the core footballer but in a manner consistent with Nike's [usual approach]."
And, indeed, Mr. Ritchie's film managed to make its performance pitch without sacrificing any of Nike's core appeal. As in any Nike ad, there are athletic superstars such as Cesc Fabregas, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo showing off dazzling skill, but their cameos come in the context of all the training it takes to get to the "next level," as well as with a somewhat mischievous take on the trappings that come with it. (Our hero is shown walking a red carpet with a striking brunette, and then taking in a death-stare from her after autographing a blonde fan's chest.)
"The job," Mr. Cole said, "was to create energy at a moment when the world was paying attention."
It's safe to say they succeeded.
The effort drove 50 million unique visitors to Nike's site in six months, a total that doesn't include external websites such as YouTube, where one posting of Mr. Ritchie's film has drawn more than 4.2 million views.
Print and outdoor executions focused on specific elite skills, and challenged readers as to whether they had them while also prominently referring them to the Nikefootball.com website.
The success of the campaign bodes well for 72andSunny's chances of expanding its relationship with Nike, its largest client. The agency was founded in 2004 by Mr. Cole, John Boiler and Robert Nakata, all Wieden & Kennedy veterans with extensive experience on Nike brands. The shop has also worked with the marketer on its Nike+ brand in Europe and, more recently, on a major retail push in Foot Locker stores in the U.S.
What the judges said:DOUG ZANGER: This campaign clearly captured the essence and power that soccer has on people -- especially those who walk onto the pitch. I liked this campaign because it was able to articulate the "story" of soccer in a way that kept its core ideal intact.
BART CLEVELAND: This great campaign's apex is the film that takes the point of view of a player playing, training and improving. The technique draws you into the experience more successfully than similar executions. This campaign is an example of what few successfully achieve: a very realistic experience through a virtual means.
ERIC WEBBER: OK, so this ad cost more to produce than most small agency clients spend in a year. But a big wad of cash and only one medium to spend it in doesn't necessarily mean great work. This was money well spent, though. It's the way broadcast advertising ought to be.