Q&A: Lee Clow and Chuck McBride, Reflect on Adidas' Coming of Age

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2004 saw the huge breakout of adidas, which leapt boldly onto the scene with the magnificent "Impossible is Nothing" Olympics campaign that united past and present athletic phenoms. It progressed boldly throughout the year with spots like "Carry" and "Ball," culiminating with the stunning Gulliver's Travels-inspired "Unstoppable." In 2005, it has stepped out even more impressively with feats like "Made to Perfection" and the Spike Jonze tour de force "Hello Tomorrow" for the One Shoe. Here, TBWA Worldwide Chairman/CCO Lee Clow and TBWAChiatDay North America ECD Chuck McBride reflect on what it took to finally wake the sleeping sportswear giant in the U.S.

C: After what seemed like a bit of floundering, adidas finally seemed to come into its own in 2004. Can you explain what it took to finally break the brand out?

McBride: Every brand needs a navigational bearing and when we first got adidas, they told us straight up they were involved in a few product launches, had a couple things they had to get through, so we kind of had to jump on a running train. Then the client took a step back and "Impossible is Nothing" came to bear and it became easier for both the creative and company to go somewhere when we all knew where we were going. With "Impossible is Nothing" you can now measure your work up against something. The job is not only to say that consistently, but also to breathe life into it, to say it in different ways as many times as you can so that it's not a one-tone culture, but a multi-faceted culture of sport and athletic endeavor, humanity, all the stuff that makes a brand rich.

C: How did you arrive at the "Impossible is Nothing" mantra?

Clow: When adidas first hired us over Leagas Delaney and DDB, we went in the room and basically told them they have a history to celebrate with athletes like Muhammad Ali , Jesse Owens, Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Then we got this Olympics assignment and we basically said, "How can we speak to the fact that this brand has been around five times longer than Nike and has been part of more Olympics and more great athletic accomplishments than any brand on the planet?" We just went in and started looking at the commonality. An athlete like Jesse Owens 80 years ago, had the same desire that an athlete that walks onto a track today does. And athletes don't go out there thinking Impossible, they go out there thinking, "I can do this."

McBride: It was actually our youngest writer in San Francisco who wrote the manifesto, Aimee Lehto, for a campaign within the Olympics assignment. Lee and I were in the meeting, and right when they [the client] saw "Impossible is Nothing" they stepped back. We walked out of that room, and the product designer came up to me and said, "You know what you just gave me? You gave me the tools. I can go to my people and say make it lighter, make it faster, because 'Impossible is Nothing.' You guys don't realize this is huge." And we were kind of going, "Alright, OK!"

C: So at that point was adidas still going with "Forever Sport"?

McBride: Yeah, we were bridging "Forever Sport." Honestly we had talked to them about "Forever Sport," thinking it was a very good position, but the problem was over the course of two years, they had used it and it had failed to gain meaning in a significant way. I think "Forever Sport" to them was what they were, it's just that it didn't feel like it connected to a cultural idiom; it didn't find its way into expression the way "Impossible is Nothing" seems to have. We saw a fairly dramatic shift and we went with it, and at that point it became the mantra for the brand.

C: So "Forever Sport" is now forever retired?

Clow: It's in their arsenal as part of the brand history, and I still think it's a very reverent line for that company, but it's probably not going to pop up any day soon.

C: So what are the difficulties in building a global brand these days?

McBride: I think consistency in terms of greatness is the hard thing. I think what always hurts brands is when they get consistent but they use it in a way that dumbs it down a little bit. Sports culture evolves everyday. It's so dynamic that the challenge for us is to stay current, stay moving so that we're just as alive as the category we feed off of. Globally, multiply that by ten. Every country has a different passion for a different sport, so as we get other offices involved, the challenge is for everybody do something great. Now with focus and a single marching order, why can't we go off and do something great each and every time? You don't want to be a one hit wonder.

C: Lee, can you relate your experience with adidas in any way to the work you've done for Apple?

Clow: One of the really special things that sometimes we do in this business, is that we don't just create an ad campaign, we create a place for the brand to live and a rallying cry for the company. When we went to work for Apple when Steve [Jobs] came back, they were almost out of business. They were in a desperate place. "Think Different" spawned some really good ads in terms of our celebration of creativity, but one of the biggest accolades was that Steve said it helped to reinvigorate and focus the company on making great things like iMac and now iPod. That the advertising helped rally the company was a great Apple success and I think this is also happening a bit with adidas, where "Impossible is Nothing"is making everybody who works for adidas have a new level of pride and say, "Hey we can duke it out with Nike. We don't have to sit believing that we're the second best brand in the world. We've got a history we can stand up and be proud of." The parallel is in both companies getting kind of a rallying cry out of it.

C:So where are you going now? Where are you taking the brand in 2005?

McBride: Now it's not so much the assignments as much as it is the creative within that assignment. It's more about what is the right thing to do because you have the principle which the work has to measure up against. That gives us incredible freedom to think out of the box. Surprisingly in groups when we were showing work on the One Shoe, it's amazing how people walked away saying, "Yeah, that's 'Impossible is Nothing.'" When they start to zero in on that thought, at the back end of an adidas spot, which they certainly identify as an adidas spot, all of a sudden you've got equity. Our goal and our strategy is to continue to build equity.

C: Chuck, you once likened adidas and Nike to two very different kinds of athletes. What kind of athlete is adidas now?

McBride: I think the adidas athlete got more confident, got a little more exposure. Nike's always ran pretty alone in first place, and I think now it's got someone who can run just as fast on the heels. I always figure you run second until the last lap. It's just a simple athletic strategy. Know where your leader is, get right up next to him and say, alright, first one to the finish line. I do believe there could be a passing strategy in all of this, but it's a matter of time and it has a lot to do with how the company performs. But right now from a communications standpoint, I'm just thrilled that people are noticing the difference.

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