THE NIKE BILLBOARDS ARE nearly ancient history now, measured by the attention span of the advertising business, a business dedicated to divining what consumers are thinking and feeling and projecting about themselves in the ever-present. The year, in any case, was 1984, and it was a very good one for Jay Chiat and his Los Angeles-based advertising agency Chiat/Day, whose billboard campaign for Nike athletic shoes during that Olympic summer decorated Los Angeles and 10 other cities with painterly images of Carl Lewis, Joan Benoit, John McEnroe and other stars of sweat and field. The billboards were perhaps most notable for what they lacked: They brandished no overt sales pitch to obscure the majestic figures of the athletes, save for the quiet splash of the Nike logo in one corner.
The billboards were in keeping with the spirit of Nike, a young Oregon company started by athletes who were said to be wary of media hype. And the campaign's unorthodox style was also what people in the ad business had come to expect from Chiat/Day. The award-winning creative agency specializes in the "big hit," or what chairman Chiat likes to describe as "crashing through the rubble," a reference to the 20,000 advertising messages that he estimates the average American is subjected to every week.
The billboards indeed crashed through the rubble for Nike. When the Olympics were over, most Americans thought Nike had been the official shoe of the Summer Games, much to the chagrin of Converse, which had paid $4 million for that designation. But the understated campaign, accompanied by the Nike "I Love L.A." television commercial with Randy Newman in his convertible, was possibly a bigger breakthrough for Chiat / Day itself. Combined with the publicity it received earlier in the year for its controversial "1984" commercial for Apple Computer, Chiat / Day performed its own Olympic feat: It leaped the bounds of anonymity that had contained even the most profitable ad agencies on Madison Avenue and elbowed its way onto the evening news and into sports columns.
The agency's rising profile, as it happened, fell flat with the executives at Nike, who grew uncomfortable with what they saw as the admen's opportunism. It takes two to make an ad, they felt, and they had contributed much to their winning marketing image. "They got very upset about it, something we didn't really understand," Chiat says. "They were a great client. They came to us and pushed us to do something crazy."
Today, the Portland agency of Wieden & Kennedy handles Nike's advertising, while Chiat / Day is producing those surreal commercials for arch-competitor Reebok. Nike and Chiat / Day have gone their separate ways to success, and for Jay Chiat that has meant building his agency into the largest in the West, an achievement that required going East.
Though the ride to the top has been steady during this decade, it has sometimes felt like a roller coaster: a surge of new accounts, the sudden loss of others. In 1986, Chiat lost both Nike and Apple, which had been his biggest and most prominent account. Then, one year ago, he snagged the heftiest piece of business in the company's 20-year history, the $150-million Nissan Motors account, one of the richest in the United States.
Making good on the gamble of expansion to New York seven years ago, Chiat has led his agency from near-obscurity at the time to its position as one of the hottest creative "shops" in the country, turning out distinctive ads for Reebok, Ricoh copiers, Drexel Burnham Lambert, Yamaha motorcycles, Arrow Shirts, Christian Dior and others. Combining a healthy unconventionality with a philosophy of "creative environment" developed in Los Angeles, Chiat stands on the verge of establishing the first outside agency to survive and flourish in Manhattan. In the process, he has become one of the most talked-about admen on either coast.
Many in the L.A. advertising community point to the chairman's powers of self-promotion as a key to his success. Chiat makes certain, his competitors say, that the right people are regularly informed about the agency's accomplishments. He has also found time to model his "bi-coastal style" in GQ magazine.
"Everybody who's mundane and boring sits around and criticizes Chiat / Day," counters Hal Riney, the leading San Francisco adman, who persuaded large numbers of Americans that Gallo's Bartles & Jaymes Wine Coolers were manufactured by a couple of rubes named Frank and Ed. "They're a little trendier, a little hipper than we are. I think our ads are a little more thoughtful. But they set the standard we try to compete with."