Cannes Honoree Nike Has Stretched Creativity’s Boundaries

This Saturday, at the Cannes International Advertising Festival’s final ceremony, Philip H. Knight, chairman of the board, CEO and co-founder of Nike, will be named advertiser of the year. This is the second time he will receive the award (the first was in ’94)—but considering the sneaker maker’s seismic impact on the ad industry and the larger culture, Phil Knight as advertiser of the quarter-century sounds more like it.

Maybe it started in 1984, with Carl Lewis’ hands and a foot extending off an outdoor board in L.A. Like a piece of super-realist art floating in the sky, it had only a small logo in a top corner to explain it. The never-identified hurtling athlete was prophetic: It suggested how much Nike would stretch, and redefine, the boundaries of creativity and branding in the years to come.

At the time, the ad industry’s creative power was still centered mostly in New York, where ads either pounded consumers with “unique selling propositions” or were “outrageous” in ways that tried to mirror the smartly brash, mostly urban dictums crafted by Doyle Dane Bernbach in the 1960s. Into this Eastern establishment came this weird new cultish Nike sensibility: a definite west by northwest, New Age-y, maniacal, running/fitness/discipline subculture. The company was all about the clarity of matching technology to athletic performance—and, in the ads, showing the passion that resulted. It was, to quote the sneaker maker’s own wildly criticized use of a Beatles song at the time, a revolution.

The difference between Nike and most other major advertisers since then is that the McDonald’s and the Coca-Colas of the world have used multiple taglines and myriad agencies, each desperately trying to reposition for a newer, younger age, while Nike has stuck to its roots, its core strength as an authentic athletic brand. And that power and originality resonates.

Let us count the ways.

Branding: Chiat/Day created Nike’s brilliant 1984 Olympics boards and TV spots. Though the commercials were silent (except for the pounding, gasping sounds of sport), the work hit the industry like a howitzer. One guy at McCann-Erickson sniffed that it “wasn’t advertising.” That’s right. It was branding. It stripped away all selling specifics in favor of the more abstract ideas of emotion, allegiance and identification. By the mid-’90s, branding was such the rage that in Tom Peters’ classic and irritating “Brand You” article in 1997, he exhorted everyone to “establish your own micro-equivalent of the Nike swoosh.”

Endorsers: With its unrivaled roster of celeb athletes, Nike was the first to confront, and demystify, the idea of fame, money, power and the cycle of hype that the brand itself helped to create. And it also commented on the perilous nature of sport and ad icon-hood. From what “Bo knows” (he knew diddly) through Michael Jordan’s run-ins with Bugs Bunny and Spike Lee, who called him “Money,” Nike humanized athletes. The ads took what was funniest and most vulnerable about them and exaggerated it.

When Wieden + Kennedy took the words (minus the cursing) straight out of Charles Barkley’s mouth and wrote the famous “I am not a role model” ad, the spot triggered an uproar. Naturally, Nike came back with its own response, a spot showing psychologist Joyce Brothers telling Charles he indeed was a role model. In a concurrent spot, Barkley gave the definitive anti-celeb-endorser, anti-ad rap: “It’s a good shoe. … It won’t make you tough like me, rich like me, rebound like me, handsome like me. … They only make you have shoes like me. Period.” And in the course of doing these hilarious commercials, Nike also was one of the first to get into the self-referential ad thing: making spots that referred to other Nike spots.

Creating social trends: Maybe the idiot in the underwear and nothing else, save his sneakers, who ran through the French Open two weeks ago hadn’t seen the “Streaker” spot, but I doubt it. Normally, advertising takes off on trends, but Nike spots have helped create some. Last year’s amazing Nike basketball series set in Rucker Park, for example, recreated the games played in that famed Harlem spot in 1975. The result? The whole throwback-jersey craze and even the look of a PlayStation game, NBA Street. And then there was “Secret Tournament” for soccer’s World Cup last year, which used “A Little Less Conversation.” That forgotten Elvis song subsequently went to the top of the charts worldwide.

Technical wizardry: When Nike ads are poignant or sentimental, like “Tag” (last year’s film Grand Prix winner) and “Move,” they are so well-executed that the editing is about twice as good as it has to be. The tightly compressed images are integrated into seamless sequences.

Chiat/Day had a short but memorable run with Nike (1984-86), and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners also had a dalliance, resulting in a Grand Prix win in 1998. But the lion’s share of Nike work is a result of 20-plus years of cross-pollination with Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore. It’s a partnership in every sense—with client trust in the shop’s judgment and agency interest in preserving Nike’s integrity—and it allowed both to grow. Together they are taking Nike beyond, in Knight’s words, the “big ad, big athlete, big product launch” in favor of holistic, integrated campaigns.

The story goes that when Knight met fellow University of Oregon alum Dan Wieden, he said, “My name’s Phil Knight, and I hate advertising.” As the only guy in the 50 years of the Cannes fest to be named advertiser of the year twice, Knight is now singing a different tune. “Advertising, if done well and memorably, can be a real benefit,” he recently said. “Why do I think advertising is good now? ‘Cause it works.”

— Barbara Lippert