'Seek a calling' - Nike creator Phil Knight

You have to admire the Nike founder's drive, rule-breaking and determination to build the biggest sports brand in the world - but he omits the role played by the ads in his memoir Shoe Dog.

by Steve Henry
Last Updated: 16 Jun 2016

Phil Knight is the 15th richest man in the world, one of the biggest philanthropists in America, and he got rich by helping people get fitter. What's not to like about Nike?

Well, as in any business venture, there are some skeletons. And this book has its problems, too. One example is the puzzling omission of any mention of Nike's ad campaign. Through their relationship with Wieden+Kennedy, Nike's advertising changed how the world felt about sport. But you'd never know that from this book.

Reluctantly commissioning an ad in 1970, Knight says, 'I still didn't believe in the power of advertising. At all. The product, I thought, speaks for itself or it doesn't.' At the end, however, he's saying this: 'We were trying to create a brand...

More than a product we were trying to sell an idea - a spirit.' But the thing that comes between those two statements, a 35-year ad campaign that won all the prizes in the world - gets no mention at all. You could argue that the advertising lies outside the timescale of the book. But Knight chose the years to write about, and he could easily have appended another chapter.

Another thing I'm not sure about is the level of testosterone. (If Zuckerberg supposedly started Facebook to get a girlfriend, it sometimes seems like Knight started Nike to have a bunch of guys he could josh with - a group he calls the 'Buttfaces'.) Business is always a struggle between competition and collaboration, but Knight boasts about a macho culture, which I personally would hate to have worked in. 'Our meetings were defined by... heaps of abuse. The only thing not tolerated in a Buttface was a thin skin. And sobriety.'

But, despite all this, you can't help liking him enormously. For two reasons.

Firstly, his iconoclasm. One of his favourite quotes - and mine now, too - is General MacArthur saying, 'You are remembered for the rules you break.' He fights with his bank until they fire him. He fights with his suppliers, the government and, of course, his competitors. He gets sued by Adidas and he sues Converse. He's like a sailor getting as close to the wind as he possibly can. He innovates, challenges, drives, ducks and weaves. His energy is prodigious. He never gives up.

Secondly, he makes himself vulnerable. He tells you about being dumped by a girlfriend. He tells you how his kids turn against sport as retaliation for his workaholic life. He breaks his own rule here - in the 'Buttface' meetings he says you can't show your vulnerability, but the book does just that.

It's also fantastically well-written, a relentless page-turner and light-keeper-on-er. I guess what I really loved was how his thinking echoes the maxims of today's start-up culture. He gets laissez-faire management. He gets 'fail fast'. The former he sums up with a quote from another US General - Patton, this time - who said, 'Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with the results.'

Knight says, 'We were the kind of people who simply couldn't put up with corporate nonsense. We wanted our work to be play.' He advises 'men and women in their mid-20s not to settle for a job or profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don't know what that means, seek it... The fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you've ever felt.' God, I love that so much I can almost forgive him not mentioning the advertising.

Nike sparked a revolution in personal fitness, above one of the greatest advertising lines ever written - Just Do It. (A line, incidentally, inspired by Gary Gilmore's last words at his execution.) There is probably only one long-running ad campaign more famous than Nike's - VW. But VW screwed up all the goodwill with the emissions scandal.

Nike, famously, had the sweatshop scandal - and Knight turns to this in the last chapter. 'We'll make our factories shining examples... And we did... We've used the crisis to reinvent the entire company...An official at the United Nations recently said so: Nike is the gold standard by which we measure all apparel factories.' Over to you, VW.

If he'd been English, Knight would have been knighted long ago - but the UK's own Sir Philip is a rather different figure, a man who's been invited to appear at a parliamentary inquiry to answer questions about his business ethics. I've had my fill of one Phil. But the subject of this book is a genuine fillip.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight is published by Simon & Schuster, £20

Steve Henry is co-founder of Decoded and was the founder/creative director of advertising agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Upcoming Events