Reflecting on Dan Wieden’s most famous moment of creation.
August 3, 2009
Ah, the moment of creation…
Adweek.com has a 3-minute video featuring Dan Wieden discussing the creation of one of the world’s most famous tag lines: Just Do It. I don’t even have to name the agency or client. We know this, and so much more, from only those three words. My personal favorite tag line: “Nothing runs like a Deere.” However, I fully recognize the transformative, culture-changing power of Nike’s call to action versus the quieter declaration of performance by John Deere.
Unlike a lot of creative directors, I adore taglines. Like to think of them. Like seeing them on the page. The two most famous examples associated with me are polar opposites. They are the “Curiously Strong” mints for Altoids and “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
What’s interesting about Dan’s story is how isolated the moment of creation really was. The night before his agency’s first big creative presentation to Nike, Wieden feared none of the commercials they’d prepared hung together. He wanted a thought that spoke to novice and pro athletes alike. In 20 minutes, he crafted a tagline to unify the campaigns. Unbelievably, Wieden credits convicted killer, Gary Gilmore’s infamous last words to his executioner as inspiration: “Let’s do it,” he’d said before being shot by the firing squad.
I’m willing to bet there’s a robust case study supporting “Just do It” crediting planning, research, insights and a raft of other people, places and things behind that famous mantra. Altoids had a doozy even though it was for the most part retrofitted.
Fact is some of the most inspired creations are made in a vacuum. This holds true for all arts, including persuasive communication. Dan doesn’t mention cohorts or proprietary tools during his moment of creation. We gather it was a birth based on necessity (tie up a campaign), fear (big meeting) and intuition (speak to novice and pro).
One could argue the latter point was based on a collaboratively gleaned insight, perhaps from the agency’s planners. Only problem back then planning was not part of American advertising.
Just like Nike’s rogue founder, Phil Knight, who sold prototype running shoes from the back of his car, Dan Wieden acted alone. For that matter, so did Gilmore but I digress.
I’m not against teamwork. Far from it. I’m proud of the camaraderie at our agency. But I do have to call bullshit on agencies that take credit for one person’s intuition. It happens all the time and it has always bugged me. When the creative muse comes to us in the shower, we are likely alone.
Leo Burnett rhapsodized about the “lonely man,” working late, pen to paper, inhaling one Marlborough after another, until he’d gotten something. That figure still exists, though he or she is probably smoke-free!