Director Joe Pytka has a favorite memory of working with Jim Riswold. "It was the time I tried to strangle him," he recalls. They were arguing over a the soundtrack of a spot—Pytka has forgotten which one. "I just playfully tried to strangle him," he says. "Or maybe it wasn't even playfully."
Most people who have worked with Riswold have a strong reaction to the seemingly soft-spoken creative director. "Jim's rather shy until he really wants something," says Pytka, who worked with Riswold for more than a decade on ads such as Nike's "Hare Jordan" and "Bo Knows." Then, he won't back down, which has led to him, by his own count, being kicked off Wieden + Kennedy's marquee Nike account seven times on both his and the client's request. But he commands respect. "He's one of the greatest creatives of all time," Pytka adds. "He transcends the genre of advertising."
"We used to fight daily. We would fight all the time," recalls Rob DeFlorio, a partner at Mother in New York and former global ad director at Nike in Portland, Ore., who worked with Riswold on some of his most well-known Nike work, including "Instant Karma" and many Michael Jordan Nike ads. "But we always had a mutual respect. … He has his vision, his way of doing things, and you're either doing that or you're not."
Riswold is responsible for some of the most iconic moments in TV advertising history. Most were inspired by his desire to work with as many of his idols as possible, he says. He used Lou Reed and his song "Walk on the Wild Side" in a 1985 Honda Scooter spot. Beginning in 1988 and continuing for over a decade, he paired Spike Lee and Michael Jordan in Nike commercials to tout the Nike Air Jordan line. In 1989, he paired Bo Jackson with Bo Didley, and in 1992, he paired Jordan and Bugs Bunny as "Hare Jordan." He used John Lennon's "Instant Karma" in a 1992 Nike Air Huarache ad. He also put Tiger Woods in the golfer's first Nike ad, in a 1996 spot that addressed head-on the fact that some golf clubs in the U.S. still did not accept blacks as members.
Now, after more than 20 years at Wieden, the 48-year-old copywriter is retiring from the agency—he last worked on the Belvedere Vodka account—to focus on his latest passion: creating art. He has also been battling leukemia since being diagnosed in 2000, which he says is another reason he is retiring. The One Club in New York will host a retrospective of his ad work Feb. 15 at the Helen Mills Theater.
"I've spent 22 years at a place, and a significant amount of my tainted blood has been poured all over the place, but I've had some recent downturns in my health," Riswold says. "The doctor said, 'You need less stress.' It was hard, but it was an obvious decision."
Riswold, an avid Andy Warhol fan, started creating conceptual art about five years ago after being inspired by a toy Hitler he ran across in a catalogue. The father of two (Jake, 12, and Hallie, 14) photographs a variety of toy dictators and fascists, often juxtaposing them with toy dolls and other props. "Hitler's Bunny," for example, is a picture of a toy Hitler and a toy rabbit. "Le Chapeau de Napoleon" is a photo of a newspaper hat with a ribbon attached. Dealing with a touchy subject like Hitler and fascism has drawn criticism from some. "Hitler is a four-letter word to a lot of people," he says. "It must not be uttered without supreme solemnness."
However, Riswold says he is ridiculing, not trivializing, evil with his work, and shrugs off negative comments. "My mom loved it, and that's all that matters," he says.
Riswold started at Wieden in 1984 as a copywriter, after working for small shops on the West Coast and earning three bachelor's degrees—philosophy, history and communications—in seven years at the University of Washington. "He was full of enthusiasm, a likeable kid," recalls shop co-founder David Kennedy. At Wieden, Riswold quickly developed a reputation for his dry sense of humor. "Jim's idea for an ad was a double entendre headline, something to do with sex," Kennedy recalls. "That was sort of his style at the beginning, which changed. He discovered he could use all his heroes [in ads]: Lou Reed, Bugs Bunny. He was always a Warner Brothers freak and would work them into the picture."
Former Nike exec DeFlorio calls Riswold a "genius" for his ability to perfectly conceptualize an idea before it is shot. "He's the only creative person I ever met that had his ideas concepted, shot and edited the moment he presented it to you," DeFlorio says. "He knew exactly how he wanted to do the ad, what it was going to look like down to the final super."
Riswold rarely backs down from an idea, and his unwavering determination has earned him respect. DeFlorio claims Riswold came up with all of his ideas the first two years he was in the business and just continued selling them.
He's earned admiration from the creatives he's worked with as well. Wieden cd Mark Fitzloff calls him a "spectacular" creative director. "It's like having an English professor as your creative director," he says. "He gets in there and dissects a sentence with you, and explains why he thinks it can work one way or another."
Fitzloff also respects Riswold's unwavering defense of his work. "He's a big baby, actually," Fitzloff says. "He'll throw a complete shit fit if his newspaper ad gets killed. Even though it's painful and funny to watch him lose it over something as trivial as that, it's also a reminder of how you have to be to continue to do the work that he's done over the years."
Riswold defends this stubborn quality. "I always thought you're paid for your opinion, so why not give them their money's worth?" he asks. "But I think there's a difference between fighting for what you really believe in and just fighting to show off or be a loudmouth."
He remains grateful for the work he has been able to do. "I've met Bugs Bunny. I was hired and fired by my teenage idol, David Bowie. I learned to speak outer space from Lou Reed," he says. "And I've seen Michael Jordan naked. I'm a kid in a candy store who got paid to be in the candy store."
In his typical controlling fashion, the creative director decided after the interview that he wanted to re-answer all of the questions via e-mail. Here are some of his re-responses (he rewrote some of the questions, too).
Who would you love to work with?
Jesus. I hear it is worthwhile to get on his good side.
Who would be the worst to work with?
Jim Riswold. He is such a jerk.
Advice to young ad whippersnappers:
Make glorious mistakes. Failure is a sign of effort. Failure is much more rewarding and inspiring than anonymity. I made a career out of failure. I've said it once, I'll say it again: I want nothing more than "Oops" on my tombstone.
What was your most challenging ad?
There is no such thing as a challenging ad. Seriously, it's only advertising; it's not open-heart surgery or anything super-important.
How has Wieden evolved, and where do you see it going in the future?
Wieden + Kennedy has evolved from complete pandemonium to organized pandemonium. Actually, I see them really taking off now because that jerk Riswold is finally out of the way.
What inspires your art?
What's your favorite non-Wieden ad?
The Burger King stuff. Finally, a burger marketer who knows who buys their food: stoners.
What's your take on advertising today?
There doesn't seem to be much joy in the work. You can always tell when somebody had fun with what they produced and, unfortunately, I don't see a lot of work these days that says somebody had fun here. ... Advertising, for the most part, follows the country; it's a reflection of what is going on today. Simple math: There is a lot of fear, both real and manufactured, in this country right now; therefore, there is a lot of fear in advertising.
What would you do over in your career?
I wouldn't get leukemia.
What would you do over in your career, Part 2?
"The Charles Barkley Talk Show." God, did I double-fuck that one up: overwritten, overproduced, over-not-funny, over-not-relevant, overboring, overstupid—over-everything, except over-good. I should have just let him talk on a talk-show set that was on fire or something.
Favorite Riswold art piece?
"Heydrich's Skateboard." Oh-so-wrong on oh-so-many levels.
Favorite Warhol art piece?
Anything from his Disaster Series. I like disaster. I made a career out of it.