Happy Birthday, Just Do It.
By Scott Bedbury
On a hot August night 30 years ago this month, three words appeared on the screen of a commercial that changed the future of a struggling Oregon shoe company. As words go, they weren’t much. By themselves they meant little. But in the hands of Nike’s advertising agency, led by founders Dan Wieden and David Kennedy, they became magic.
Despite three decades of enduring creative success, despite being emblazoned on tens of millions of t-shirts from Beijing to Berlin to Bozeman, few today know how the campaign came to be, how it rose from the ashes of a commercial that never ran, and how it became a battle cry for a company that had laid off 10% of its employees a year earlier.
In the Fall of 1987 I joined Nike as director of advertising and took my place among the walking wounded. Reebok had unseated Nike as #1 in the US, sending Nike sales into a spiral with their new product category, aerobics, a move that drew millions of women into what had been a boy’s club for jocks. My predecessors in Beaverton had dismissed women dancing in soft glove leather shoes to music in a gym as a fad. Surely, they must have thought, this can’t last.
A few weeks after joining I stood before eight hundred Nike sales reps at a sales meeting in Palm Desert to present “Hayward Field,” a reverential commercial about the birthplace of Nike, where the jogging movement began in America and the hallowed track where running legend Steve Prefontaine set so many records. Much was riding on the commercial. It had been months in the making and each rep would use it to sell in Nike’s back-to-school products.
After a reverential but less-than-electric response from the company’s front line brand ambassadors, nearly all of them runners, Phil Knight, Tom Clarke — then Nike’s head of footwear product management — and I met backstage to discuss the commercial. In the prior six months Nike had lost its head of marketing, its creative director and its advertising director. “Hayward” was an inward look back at where Nike had been, not where it was going. For the better part of a week before the sale meeting, Wieden, Kennedy and I had tried different edits to make it better. But in the end, we were putting lipstick on a pig.
“We can do better,” Knight had said backstage, not at all happy about where we were.
“What do you think we should do?” I asked naively. It was my eleventh full day on the job.
“That’s what I hired you to figure out,” Knight said. And then he turned and walked away.
The following evening, on a red eye to Philadelphia for a shoot with Charles Barkley, his first solo effort, I wrote a one-page redirect to the agency. They had produced a great commercial six months earlier, Revolution, scored to the Beatles song of the same name. It demonstrated the spirit of sports and fitness in grainy, 8mm black and white film. It was a creative tour de force that revealed how sports and fitness could move people. In the absence of its marketing leadership, Nike had regressed.
The rebrief was to the point: We need to capture a more complete arc of the emotional and physical rewards of sports and fitness. You did it with “Revolution.” Take it further. We need to make the brand more relevant to more people. We need to open up the access point to the swoosh.
Dan Wieden’s initial response was equally to the point.
“Well, we’re not going to make another damn music video.”
I set the guardrails wide for the small agency of 35 full-time employees. Like Nike it resembled a startup. Few people were much over 30, most in their 20’s. I had somehow convinced Knight to double the agency’s retainer fee before leaving Palm Springs. I told him they were behind schedule, understaffed, unfocused. Nike did not have a single agency person working full time on its account. I argued we would need all the help we could get to make the brand relevant to women and anyone over 30. We would also need to begin making Nike more globally relevant. Six percent of revenues were overseas that year, a considerable amount of it to dump product we could not sell in the US.
The second week of January I met with the agency to check their progress. Sales reps were out there selling the most important season of the year — 65% of Nike’s annual revenues — without any tangible marketing tools. Days counted. Wieden had called me that morning to say they were ready. Get down here. We nailed it.
Writer Jim Riswold began the presentation holding a stack of foam core boards with a blank one up front. “We heard you,” he said. “We don’t need to preach. We don’t need to tell anyone they need to lose 20 pounds or why running is good for you. We don’t need to tell them to do anything. They already know what they need to do.”
With that he let the front board fall to the table and revealed three block letter words stacked above a swoosh:
“JUST F*CK IT.”
You can unscramble the missing letter as you wish.
“Obviously, we can’t say that,” Jim snickered, “but we can say this.” He let the offensive board fall forward to reveal one of the most pedestrian things I have ever seen then or since.
“JUST DO IT.”
No one felt the room move in that moment, much less the bolt of creative lighting that had struck the team a few days earlier. Years later Wieden would say he took inspiration for those three words from convicted murderer Gary Gilmore’s final statement before his electrocution. “Let’s do it,” he had said. “Just Do It” was likewise direct, simple and easy to remember and didn’t require loss of life. It acknowledged that we’re all in charge of our own lives. We really do know what we have to do.
Then Wieden jumped up like an excited eight-year-old on Christmas morning discovering a new bike, a train set and a thousand-piece Lego set.
“You are not going to believe what we can do with these three words,” he exclaimed. In the next half hour, he showed 15 commercial ideas, all storyboarded. He said it was limitless what we could do. In that moment Nike was no longer limited by the imagery, the language and the history of competitive sports. We already owned that. We had just unlocked how one brand could stand for something much bigger, more powerful, more relevant. We could inspire the world, rather than have it aspire to be like a professional athlete.
On Sunday night August 9, 1987, the first three spots ran during “60 Minutes,” kicking off what would be eight commercials over four weeks. It was all we could afford. Eight million dollars in media and two million dollars in production. For us it was always impact over frequency. Say it well and you don’t need to say it often. Make the idea bigger and the logo smaller. We marched to different rules then. And we never pretested creative concepts.
One of the first commercials to air that night was an 80-year-old San Francisco jogger, Walt Stack, a running icon in the Bay Area who ran 17 miles a day, usually with no shirt, white chest hair flying as he waved to traffic while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. To this day, no one has embodied the spirit of those three words, or Nike at its best, quite like Walt. Watch him run again here. God rest his soul.
And happy birthday, Just Do It.