Copywriter Jim Riswold just did it

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Image by Peter Aroner

Few people in advertising have had the impact of Jim Riswold.

Now 66, and frail from living with leukaemia over the last twenty years, Riswold’s career is unique.

Riswold was the first copywriter Dan Wieden hired when he co-founded Wieden+Kennedy in 1984.

Four years later he made history by penning Nike’s iconic tagline, ‘Just Do It,’ inspired, he says, by the murderer Gary Gilmore’s final words as he stood before a firing squad in 1977

I would have loved to have been in the room when that idea was pitched.

Riswold’s first client at W+K was Honda. From the start he approached things differently. Rather than showcase the product (in this case scooters) he pioneered the idea of left field celebrity endorsements.

And so we got a series of surreal commercials featuring Lou Reed, Grace Jones and Miles Davis. They are weird (look them up on YouTube) but I am certain they worked.

But it is Riswold’s work with Nike for which he will be best remembered.

The campaigns Riswold created helped elevate Nike from a reasonably successful company that made sports shoes to a multibillion dollar multifaceted brand (if not one that is universally loved – as anyone that has researched its supply chain over the years can attest).

“What’s increasingly hard to explain to anyone too young to remember those days is just how provocative and culturally significant ‘a really good commercial’ could be in the 1980s and ’90s,” says Joshua Hunt in a recent profile of Riswold.

And those really good commercials came thick and fast. Spike Lee appeared in a particularly impactful one alongside Michael Jordan.

But perhaps the most effective starred the unlikely duo of Bo Jackson and Bo Diddley (again, look it up if you have not seen it).

“No amount of research would’ve come up with pairing Bo Diddley and Bo Jackson in a commercial,” Riswold told the FT recently.

“A marketing company would go: ‘Well, kids don’t know who Bo Diddley is, you’ve got to put a modern musician in there.”

His solution was to “make something so cool that you’re going to want to find out who Bo Diddley is.”

Since Riswold’s health has declined he has focused more on art than ads.

As he puts it, he’s switched from “a career of selling people things they don’t need to making things that people don’t want”.

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