Nike's Phil Knight On How He Became A Believer in Advertising

And Why He Forgives Athletes

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Advertising Age Player

I was prepared for Phil Knight to be one cantankerous dude, hiding behind those fierce sunglasses you see in pictures of him.

But when he arrived for our video interview (sans sunglasses), the chairman emeritus of Nike was unguarded and unassuming, still bearing a resemblance to the runner he was more than a few years ago at the University of Oregon. The press clippings said he ran a 4:10 mile back then, but when I mentioned the time he said "close enough." I asked him what the actual time was and he said 4:13. "I like 4:10 better," I said. "Me, too," he said.

Phil Knight, left, and Rance Crain talk shop.
Phil Knight, left, and Rance Crain talk shop.

So that's how our conversation got started. Dan Wieden, who introduced Phil at the Advertising Hall of Fame induction last week, said he had to talk Phil into the "Just do it" slogan, but Phil told me his reputation for not liking advertising was misunderstood.

"First of all," he said, "The only constant is change, and while I did introduce myself to Dan Wieden saying I don't really like advertising, what I was really saying was that I don't like traditional advertising. And so Dan Wieden with his creativity and intensity made me a big fan of advertising."

He added that the kind of media buzz that Nike advertising often creates is also key. "When we get it right, they go together. It's not easy to do, but getting those two things to go together behind a great product is what makes a successful campaign."

The recent ad for Tiger Woods, headlined, "Winning takes care of everything," created lots of media buzz, and Phil acknowledged it was "not entirely positive."

I asked him if he cared whether the buzz was positive or negative. "It depends. Obviously, there is certain negative buzz that we don't like at all. But in this case, it was kind of a unique situation, in a sense that that was his personal quote in response to how long is it going to take you to get back to No. 1. And so he had just made it to No. 1. They, of course, took it in a different context and to some extent, [we] were trying to tweak the media's nose a little bit, which succeeded a little more than we really wanted to."

Nike has a forgiving nature when its athletes go astray, Phil said. "Athletes are human so they're going to make some mistakes from time to time. You just have to see what the nature of the mistake is.

"In Lance Armstrong's case we stood by him for a long, long time. ... But he insisted that he wasn't cheating, and the drug tests proved him right, up until a point where he then confessed that he had been cheating. And then we no longer had an endorsement agreement with him.

"In Tiger Woods' case, we saw that as sort of a situation where he kind of went off the reservation for two or three years, but that doesn't define the man, and we stuck with him."

The company has also stuck with Wieden & Kennedy through the years.

The story has made the rounds that Wieden got the idea for the "Just do it" slogan from the words of an about-to-be executed killer who said, "Let's do it." But Phil said to me, "I've never heard that story till today."

Phil said he was working very closely with Dan at the time that he came up with the campaign. "And the original concept was, we were going to say, "Out of Eugene," for the tagline. "Out of Eugene, the small town, the kids trying to take on the big guys. And where the birth of Nike really was, on the running tracks of Eugene.

"And we tried it on a focus group of our salespeople, and it fell flat. So we had about a week to come up with a different campaign. And he came up with "Just do it,' and that was a common expression around our offices, and his offices, too. It says, "quit fooling around, just do it.' The idea that it came from a convicted killer is news to me."

Phil believes that Nike's advertising has to cut through the clutter of all other advertising, not just shoe ads—and being controversial helps.

"For us, part of good advertising is getting the consumer's attention. And controversy under the right circumstances might be able to help. I kind of look at it this way. Coca-Cola, which is a terrific company, has terrific advertising. They have four times as much money to spend on advertising as we do. So how do we get through all the clutter that's out there? ... We have to find ways. Sometimes controversy is helpful."

When Nike signed Michael Jordan in 1984 it was already No. 1 in total basketball sales, but Converse had the biggest names -- Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas and Dr. J. Nike had great players, Phil said, "but none of them with that degree of notoriety and charisma. We saw that Michael Jordan, coming out of college, with his ability to fly, his kind of charismatic nature and how good he was [he was player of the year], we thought he might crack that lineup a little bit, and he did more than that."

During his Hall of Fame introductory remarks, Dan Wieden enjoyed painting Phil as a driven taskmaster, one who made his agency "swim in uncertainty for the last 31 years. He threw out any hint of predictability, shattered every timeline, made the simplest tasks a matter of life and death and destroyed the playbook."

I must have encountered a kinder, gentler Philip H. Knight. After I asked him what his proudest accomplishment was, he turned the tables and asked me, "as a co-inductee," what mine was. I said it was helping to keep Ad Age strong and vital.

Phil's answer?

Not surprisingly, he's proudest of the company that he started selling running shoes out of the trunk of his car. "Basically, it started from nothing and it's come to be a sizable company on the New York Stock Exchange. It's got 44,000 employees. I'm hugely proud of that. And I concern myself about being able to continue so that my grandchildren don't say "What was a Nike?'"

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