In an average day in the increasingly peripatetic world of Wieden & Kennedy, Dan & Dave, the agency principals, are in the Philadelphia office (opened to servi" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" data-auth = "" >

Sneakers: running a high-stakes footrace By Ann Coope

In an average day in the increasingly peripatetic world of Wieden & Kennedy, Dan & Dave, the agency principals, are in the Philadelphia office (opened to servi

In 1984 Jim Riswold was only the second writer the agency had ever hired after Dan Wieden. His TV initiation came via Honda and Lou Reed. Then came Riswold’s inspired pairing of Mike Jordan with Spike Lee. The Bo Jackson “Bolympics” followed. Last year Riswold cast hero Jordan with another icon, Bugs Bunny, in a Looney Tunes take-off. Next Riswold had Charles Barkley battling Godzilla and dancing on Broadway.
Riswold’s forte is ideas–translated onto the screen via his witty, provocative brand of story-telling. Riswold is the kind of guy who salts his conversation with exclamations of “Jeez” without sounding dorklike. Born in Seattle, he is an ordinary jock who studied philosophy, history and communications at the University of Washington and has a penchant for Plato and Nietzsche, as well as a passion for sports and Bugs Bunny.
“The reason why the work’s still good,” he says, “is that the general philosophy hasn’t changed. We’re basically still talking to an intelligent person on the other end of the TV or print. The guiding principle behind the work remains fairly simple. Although a Charles Barkley spot looks complicated, it really isn’t. And it works.”
Of that there is no doubt. Nike’s sales continue to rise. (Total sales in ’92 were $3.4 million, compared with $2.7 million for Reebok.) “We’re always pleasantly surprised by how well Nike does in the U.S.,” says Riswold. “We kind of look around and say, ‘we’re not so smart; why are we so successful?'”
Over at W&K’s 16-person Amsterdam office, someone has just gotten mugged and Susan Hoffman’s belongings are still packed in boxes piled in corridors. Hoffman, who joined W&K in 1983 and was its 15th employee, was the brains behind the “Revolution” spot, among others. She heads up the fast-growing European operation. “Europe’s a few years behind us in believing exercise is good for you,” she says. “We can’t talk to people as we do in the States. We have to be less aggressive.” But one thing that does remain true is the Nike attitude. “We tend not to be real commercial about everything we do,” she says. “People here don’t understand the workout ethic. We don’t have the clubs or fanatics that there are in America.”
Nike’s pan-European push introduces Charles Barkley, the Olympic runner Quincy Watts and Ukrainian pole-vaulter Sergey Bubka via a mix of billboards, posters and TV. A new campaign set to break next month features all three in operatic mode. In “Barkley of Seville,” Charles sings, “My name is Charles, I’m misunderstood. Wicked I am not. I have a noble heart.” “Angel of goodness,” sings the cheerleading chorus. Explains Hoffman: “After listening to kids who loved our U.S. work, we felt an extravagant approach was justified.”
Back in Portland, the Dan-and-Dave appreciation society waxes lyrical along similar lines. According to Michael Prieve, who brings his Vizsla hunting dog into work with him every day, the question he gets asked most at seminars is: “What’s it like to work at W&K?” His reply usually concerns freedom and the chance to work on a number of different things.
Charlotte Moore joined the agency three and a half years ago. “It’s as if there’s a creative bubble over the creative department and we all feel protected,” she says. “Dan and Dave treat people very well. They have a keen notion of each individual and of how their strengths should be developed.”
Moore works on the women’s sneaker campaigns, where a conscious decision was made not to use celebrity or professional athletes and to focus on health and personal endeavor. In the “Empathy” campaign, which broke two years ago, women are told, “Someday, since you are human, you will notice your body has changed and your face has changed and your kneecaps look more like Winston Churchill than ever before.”
“There’s a key difference between advertising to men and women,” says Moore. “We had to downplay the whole issue of competition. We realized how important stress was in women’s lives. Women are more interested in attitude. We tell them, ‘You are not goddesses.’ And we try to be extremely honest and deal intelligently with what it means to be female and physically fit. Creatively we don’t look over our shoulders. It’s dangerous. We see Reebok, but we don’t pay much notice.”
Stacy Wall joined W&K from Deutsch/Dworin, N.Y. early last year after penning “Your mother wears Nikes” for rival British Knights. A line which clearly impressed Dan and Dave so much they decided to offer him a job. “I sent my book out and the timing was right,” says Wall modestly. He was there within the week. Wall says working for Dan and Dave is quite simple. “Those two guys run the show and you just want to earn their approval. The problem is how do we keep Nike’s edge as sales go up.?”
When 3-year-old Atlas, Citron, Haligman, Bedecarre/S.F. wrested the $5-million Avia account away from Borders Perfin Norrander in September of last year, it beat out the likes of Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein and Carmichael/Lynch to do it. The winning presentation focused on an almost religious reverence for the female body. One spot showed monochromatic stills of women working out accompanied by the musical strains of Enigma and an evangelical voiceover urging, “Oh yes, you listen to me, you have heard the call . . . it’s mind over body . . . the triumph of yourself . . . .. The punch line was, “Avia, the soul of an athlete.”
Avia’s soul, athletic or otherwise, is about to be bared in a new campaign which pretty much follows the religious overtones of the original presentation. Focusing on the fast-growing women’s sector, the fast-growing ACHB hopes the campaign will put Avia back at the forefront of the women’s sneaker market. “Avia has an advantage in marketing to women,” claims copywriter Kirk Citron, “because when aerobics first started, instructors were all wearing Avia.” Even so, he recognizes it’s not exactly going to be easy. “The level of advertising in the category is incredibly high,” he says. “Because Nike’s done so incredibly well in carving out a niche we have to try and rebel.”
Citron’s rebellion takes the form of attitude. “Women work out because they love it and it’s an empowering attitude,” he says. “We use a different tone of voice that speaks to women and has a bit of irreverence, too.”
According to art director Matt Haligman, “On the one hand it’s a category oversaturated with advertising. Nike, Reebok and everyone else is trying for a slice of the pie, and it’s very difficult to come out with a fresh perspective.” On the other hand, Haligman points out that, historically, Avia was a fitness shoe and the No. 1 selling brand–until Reebok and Nike came along. “We see the opportunity to shore up what Avia stands for–a much better high-tech shoe,” he says. “The problem is the average consumer is only interested in image advertising. All they know is the look.”
Research revealed just how much everyone liked Nike and Reebok. While Nike offered women a positive image, Reebok’s voice was more chauvinistic, says Haligman. So in an attempt to come up with something different, Haligman and Citron enrolled in aerobics classes. What women wanted, they discovered, was a feeling of empowerment, of feeling good about themselves.
“It’s a tough assignment,” says Haligman. “In the end, what counts is sheer luck and tenacity. We’re just trying to be the smartest.”
It is just after 10 on Thursday morning at Deutsch/Dworin’s chicly gray Park Avenue South offices where a de rigueur state of coolness gets wafted in through the heating system to be breathed in like oxygen. Outside a glass-walled conference room, the corridor is filled with torn-jeaned, baseball-hatted and gum-chewing Deutsch-ites swirling ’round a be-jeaned beaming Donny, who looks like a charming version of Joey Buttafuoco.
Wednesday night was rough for copywriter Scott Carlson and art director Tom Godici, the duo behind the British Knights campaign. It came at the end of a rough 10 days, including an entire weekend, of working non-stop on a new campaign (not the BK campaign). Two days earlier Carlson and Godici had flown to Chicago to present their finished efforts to this client. Then disaster arrived.
“I hate focus groups,” groans twentysomething Godici, who troops dejectedly into the office 15 minutes after our interview is supposed to begin. “Just because of one guy in a Malcolm X hat, a smart ass,” says Godici, pulling off and on his own black-knitted hat. When the mediator had asked Smart Ass if he thought he were being marketed to, he replied, “Yeah, I feel marketed to and I resent it.”
“Five minutes earlier he was laughing,” says Godici, all drooping eyelids and five o’clock shadow. “One guy says something, then they all say something. A week’s worth of work . . . I’m not in a good mood. You’ve caught us at a bad time.”
Us? His partner Carlson hasn’t even turned up. He calls to apologize halfway through and Godici makes sympathetic noises, then tells him to relax don’t worry and go walk his dog. “He has personal problems,” Godici explains. I nod understandingly. “I won’t read your article,” he says. “I don’t read the press. I’m anti-advertising. I don’t do press or enter awards. I’m only doing this to get British Knights some publicity. I don’t watch TV, either. This ignorance thing really helps me out.”
Godici has worked on BK, among other things, since he joined Deutsch/Dworin two years ago from the now-defunct Fred/Allen and the Nickelodeon account. “BK is one of the most fun accounts to work on,” he says. “There’s no massive testing, there’s no focus groups.” BK’s budgets are so minuscule, focus groups are not even a prospect on the distant horizon–a fact for which Godici seems eternally grateful. “BK sneakers has a rebellious attitude,” he says. “It knows it’s not a Nike, it doesn’t try to be a Nike.”
BK’s genesis is an unusual one. The sneaker was born of the unlikely parentage of the staid Jack Schwartz Shoes, a family-owned, New York-based operation that spent its first 40 or so years making casual shoes. When the company’s flashy, designed performance shoe first appeared in 1986, it was an immediate hit with blacks and inner-city Hispanics.
Early campaigns featured the likes of rapper M.C. Hammer, chosen to increase brand awareness. “In the beginning we were trying to get across an attitude,” says the monosyllabic Carlson in an interview by telephone the following day. “Now we’re more product-specific.”
Last year BK snared endorser Derrick Coleman, the 24-year-old NBA pro known for his scowl, to promote BK Dymacels via a TV campaign composed of cartoon-like shots of stick figures on which Coleman’s head was superimposed. Also last year, a fellow Adweek reviewer described the Coleman spots as “thuggish” and “distasteful,” a description Godici delights in. “We took it as a compliment,” he says. “They’re supposed to be thuggish. They’re supposed to be offensive and intrusive. Coleman’s part of the target market. He’s fun.”
Deutsch/Dworin’s modus operandi is to throw several writers and art directors at every account. While Carlson & Godici oversaw the new campaign (which Godici describes as “a little bit of art”), other creatives–including Libby Brockboll, Bart Dartess, Bret Ridgeway, Mark Girand and Mark Jensen–put it together. In a freak slam-dunk explosion, Coleman’s head comes off and a mad scientist grafts it back on again.
“It’s the guerrilla approach,” says Godici. “I’ve always had the luxury of being able to do guerrilla-like approaches.” And how does this guerrilla approach translate into market share? “Hey, don’t ask me about figures,” he says. “I can’t figure it out. You wanna talk to an account guy?”
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)