Dan Wieden, Chief Culture Officer at Nike

Dan wieden for nike [this is a passage from Chief Culture Officer, to be published in December]

Dan Wieden for Nike

By the mid-1980s, the running boom was giving way to a fitness craze and Phil Knight, founder of Nike, wanted his company to take part.  Knight didn’t much believe in advertising, but competition with Reebok was fierce, and he had began to work with a  small shop in Portland called Wieden + Kennedy.  Dan Wieden, Portland native and second generation ad man, proved an essential asset. 

It was Wieden who coined the slogan “Just Do It” in 1988.   Most slogans are about the brand (“Coke is it.”)  They may make a promise (“You can do it.  We can help”) or they evoke a mood (“Bilbao, now more than ever.”).  Rarely do they tell the consumer what to do.  But “Just Do It” was an imperative, impatient, presumptuous and, well, a little rude.  This was not the sort of thing consumers had heard very much.  

Acting as unofficial CCO, Dan Wieden had looked into the life of the consumer.  He saw someone struggling to get off the couch into fitness, someone suffering aches and pains, someone tempted by excuses.  In “Just Do It” Wieden found the three words that allowed Nike to intervene.  Acting as unofficial CCO, Wieden had found a way to help Nike ride the fitness wave. 

Wieden is the author of a 2001 ad called Tag.   This TV spot features a young man on his way to work in a big city.  It could be Chicago, New York, or San Francisco.  (It is in fact Toronto.)  All of a sudden, the kid feels a hand on the shoulder.  He’s been tagged.  He’s it.  Pedestrians scatter.   Plazas empty.  The chase is on.  He almost tags one woman as she enters a bus. 

He almost tags another but she dives into her car.  He almost tags a policeman as he pulls away in his cruiser.   Our hero is a Wildebeest, charging wildly, hoping for contact.  Finally, he comes upon a hapless guy in the subway, the only man in the city who doesn’t know the game is on.  Tag.  He’s it. 

Frame for frame, Tag is probably the most exciting ad ever made.  It had the drama of the chase scene in The French Connection.  It won the admiration of the industry and a Cannes Lion Grand Prix.   

But it’s an odd ad.  It takes 20 seconds before we understand what’s happening.  For a while it’s just people running around on a plaza, forcing us to puzzle things out on our own.  Advertising is famous for its simplicity, repetition, and sometimes sheer stupidity (“But wait!  There’s more!  Act now…”).  In the world of advertising, 20 seconds is a client-provoking eternity.  Wieden dared tinker with the rules. 

For all that, Tag is a straight forward piece of advertising.  It is playful.  It makes Nike the friend of spontaneity and urban athleticism.  It brings the viewer off the couch to the edge of his seat, the very point of the Nike proposition.  Every commuter would love to see the tedium of travel exploded this way.  Certainly, every athlete (and Nike is filled with athletes) would love to see the city as a competitive space.

And there were deeper resonances.  Since the 1960s and the era of the be-in, the city was being proposed as a platform for spontaneous expressive events.  Street theatre was now agitating public life and the pages of Time and Life.  In the TV show, Mork and Mindy, Robin Williams brought the idea of Improv to American living rooms. 

Americans were giving up the Northern European idea that public behavior ought to be guarded and expressionless.  They were beginning to tinker with the notion that the world could hand you a proposition and you would “go with it.”   (I remember being thrown a “ball” by a passing mime in Hyde Park in the late 1970s.  I threw “it” back.)  Some of the raves that became so popular in the 1990s had precisely this quality, perfect strangers assembling “just in time” in abandoned warehouses.   Somehow culture from accident seemed more interesting than culture that was planned.  

Tag also resonated with ideas of order that were less theatrical and more scientific.  The physicists sent to the desert during World War II to create the atomic bomb stayed on in Santa Fe.  They were interested in how complex order could issue from simple rules.  The game of Tag is based on a very simple rule, and, sure enough, it makes the disorder of city life give way to pattern.  Somehow culture that was “emergent” was more interesting than culture that was organized.

Tag evoked a third trend we might call “the generous strangers.”  For many of us, first notice came in the form of a bumper sticker that read “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty,” a phrase so influential, it now has its own Wikipedia entry.  Several thousand years of cultural practice and religious teaching had encouraged us to think of generosity as a personal gesture that passed between known parties.  The “generous stranger” trend suggested it was better when things passed between perfect strangers.  Hollywood picked up the theme belatedly and not very successfully in a couple of films: Pay it Forward (Mimi Leder 2000) and Serendipity (Peter Chelsom 2001).

With the help of digital technologies, “generous stranger” projects were (and are) suddenly everywhere.  Bookcrossings has people conceal books somewhere in public for other strangers to find.   In Geocaching, people search out caches using GPS coordinates posted on line, and when they find the cache, they take one thing and leave another.  In Phototagging, disposable  cameras are left in a public place and the finder is asked to take one photo and pass the camera along.  In Where’s George, people register dollar bills, put them back in circulation, and ask finders to record the bill when it passes through their hands.    It wasn’t always clear why this was interesting.  Somehow it just was. 

Howard Rheingold took things a step forward with Smart Mobs, encouraging people to meet together in public, to freeze for a moment in Grand Central Station, shop in slow motion at WalMart, or act out letters in department store windows.   Rheingold’s book didn’t appear until 2002.  But the spirit of his book could be detected in the Nike spot.  Wieden had heard something stirring in our culture four years before.

Max Weber, the German sociologist, believed that as the Western world grew more rational, routinized and commercial, our experience of this world became disenchanted.  The personal, the traditional, the sentimental, the human scale, all of these were diminished.  Tag and its companion trends seemed to offer a restoration.  Apparently, even strangers can make the city more playful and less predictable. With Tag, Wieden had made Nike a party to a re-enchantment of the world.  

And that’s all very well.  But of course Nike is not a philanthropic organization.  It sells footwear.  And here Tag performed brilliantly.  It helped Nike fight off competitors who believed that the game was merely about “sports performance.”  Tag gave Nike what Theodore Levitt, god of the Harvard Business School, called “meaningful distinction.” Wieden has delivered the “central part of the marketing effort.”  As Theodore Levitt says in The Marketing Imagination, “All else is derivative of that and only that.”  

Katz, Donald.  1994.  Just Do It.  New York: Random House.  p. 138. 

Marshall, Caroline.  2001.  “I’ve only done great work for Nike.” Brand Republic.  June 22, 2001.  http://www.brandrepublic.com/Campaign/News/46980/
Hunsberger, Brent.  2008.   Nike celebrates 'Just Do It' 20th anniversary with new ads.  Playbooks and profits blog.  July 17, 2008. 
See Tag on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOzIZwRiN-I. 
Names of creative team: Director is Frank Budgen, Creative Director, Dan Wieden, Hal Curtis, Art Director, Andy Fackrell, Monica Taylor, Agency Producer, Andrew Loevenguth, Copywriter, Mike Byrne, Production Company, Anonymous, Gorgeous Films, Executive Producer, Paul Rothwell, Shelly Townsend, Producer, Alicia Bernard, Editorial Company, Lookinglass Editorial, Editor, Russell Icke, Telecine Company, Company 3. 

See the work of Improv Everywhere at Youtube http://www.youtube.com/user/ImprovEverywhere.  And at http://www.improveverywhere.com.

Kauffman, Stuart A. 1995.  At home in the universe: The search for laws of self-organization and complexity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Culp, Kristine. 2003. "Paradise Lost,” found in a phone book in Edmonton, National Post. January 4, 2003.

Rheingold, Howard.  2002.  Smart Mobs.  New York: Basic Books. See ImprovEverywhere on YouTube and it’s own website at http://www.improveverywhere.com. 

Weber, Max. 1946. Science as Vocation. Pp. 129-156, in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Translated and edited), From Max Weber: Essay in Sociology.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Levitt, Theodore.  1986.  The Marketing Imagination.  In The Marketing Imagination.  New York: The Free Press, p. 128.  For more on Levitt, see Hanna, Julia.  2008.  ‘Ted Levitt Changed My Life.’  Working Knowledge from the Harvard Business School.  December 17, 2008.  http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6054.html

[this passage is from McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  New York: Basic Books.  (to be published December 1, 2009.)]

4 thoughts on “Dan Wieden, Chief Culture Officer at Nike

  1. John Frost

    What an insightful passage. I just added the book to my wishlist. One detail I hope you can correct in the final text – Mimi Leder’s movie was “Pay it Forward.”

  2. Bruce Philp

    I’m very excited to read this book, and I doubt you’ll find a more committed believer in the idea that brands are a leadership imperative.

    I met Dan Wieden in 1995 and spent a day at his agency. He seemed to me unequivocally the real thing. I recall breathlessly asking him whether his agency’s recent addition of strategic planners to the mix was a way of ensuring that W&K maintained a ‘cultural antenna’ in the face of growth and a more diverse client list. He kind of snapped back, “I expect everybody in this place to be a goddam antenna.” It wasn’t until years later, attempting to helm my own firm, that I appreciated the honest truth of that remark. If something isn’t in the culture, it isn’t in the brand.

    Best of luck with the book, Grant.

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