Jim Riswold: A Retrospective
Few copywriters have had as much influence on modern advertising as Jim Riswold of Wieden+Kennedy. Beginning in the late 1980s, Riswold's pioneering work, primarily on Nike, helped usher in a new sensibility in ads?one that tended to be hip, self-aware, slightly absurd, and completely original. Among Riswold's most memorable works: "Bo Knows" featuring Bo Jackson, a slew of great spots featuring Michael Jordan, the inspired teaming of Jordan and Spike Lee in the Spike and Mike commercials, "Hare Jordan" featuring Bugs Bunny, "I am Not a Role Model" starring Charles Barkley, Lou Reed selling Hondas, "I am Tiger Woods" to name just a few.
After 21 years at Wieden+Kennedy, the 48-year-old Riswold 'who has battled leukemia for the past five years' has decided to scale back on advertising, though he will remain involved with the agency on an "as needed" basis. Meanwhile, he also plans to pursue his newest passion, art. (Riswold specializes in quirky, unsettling photographic and silkscreen images featuring tiny toy figures of Hitler, Napoleon, and other power-mad characters.)
On February 15, The One Club will honor Riswold with a special screening of his work in New York. In the meantime, one checked in with him to talk about past, present and future.
You came out of an unusual background, heavy into philosophy. How did you end up working in advertising?
I went to college for seven years, piling up degrees, because I had no f---ing idea of what I was going to do. And I enjoyed going to school, because it's a great country club for the mind and there's a lot of girls there. But to support that, I needed multiple jobs because my parents sure weren't going to pay for seven years of college. One of my jobs was as a glorified errand boy for the Seattle Supersonics. And their advertising agency at the time was Nike's first ad agency, John Brown and Partners. I met some people there and thought, "Well, maybe this is something I could try my hand at." And that's how I got into advertising, working for a couple of small agencies in Seattle. Then I went to my first award show, the Northwest Addys, and there was an agency I never heard of run by a guy named Dan Wieden that kept winning all these awards. At the end of the night he told me he was looking for a writer. Three weeks later, I was living in Portland.
Do you think that eclectic background 'the philosophy and all the other stuff you studied' served you well in advertising?
Without that background, I'd have been a bigger hack than I already am. I think the best advertising comes from a combination of solving the problem at hand, but solving it by coming at it through a door that nobody else would have thought of. And so that eclectic background, as you call it, probably does help, it affects the way you look at the world, makes you see things a little differently.
Let's talk about a few of your most well-known spots. The Lou Reed commercial for Honda scooters, that was kind of a first, in terms of using somebody as a spokesperson who was a bit risky.
It's true. At the time advertisers didn't put people in commercials who had a long history of drug addiction, and of course he was a man who at one time in his life was married to a man, and that man was a transvestite, so I guess you could say he wasn't your typical spokesman. But if you looked at who we were trying to sell scooters to, it was natural. Actually, when you look back at that commercial it seems pretty damn tame today.
But it also still stands out as one of the first commercials that looked more like a little film than an ad.
Well, the idea was, you wanted to make it look like the star, Lou Reed, made the commercial himself. And the same with the Spike and Mike commercials, you wanted it to look like Mars Blackmon cut it at home, making his own commercials in his room.
You decided to use Spike Lee after you saw his first movie, which was still pretty obscure at the time. Was it hard to get that campaign done?
It all came together pretty easily. Spike was a huge Jordan fan and he was not yet Spike Lee, he was a guy that answered his own phone. And so we made a phone call here and there, and three months later, we were shooting. I think the Spike and Mike stuff helped introduce Nike to popular culture and set a blueprint for a lot of what came after that.
The Bo Jackson spot would not have happened if Spike and Mike didn't happen; I think it set the whole tone for that kind of advertising.
You became known for using pop culture in your work, for mixing in all these cultural elements, a filmmaker like Spike Lee or a rock star like Reed.
I always tried to take an element of something that I was interested in, and mix it with something else to create a hybrid that was different. You know like, what would happen if you put these opposites in a pot together and shook it up and took it out? That's what I tried to do. A lot of it is instinct, no amount of research would have told you, "If you put Bo Jackson with Bo Diddly, the kids are gonna love it." Or if you said you were going to use Bugs Bunny, people would say, "That's old." But the idea is, you use it to create something new. And I think that becomes a stronger form of communication because you're creating popular culture, rather than just taking it. I think a lot of ads now go right after popular culture and just take stuff. I can look at a lot of commercials and say, well, they got that from Seinfeld, and that came from an old SportsCenter commercial, and so on. But that kind of borrowing doesn't really work. Often by the time they produce the commercial on what they thought was hot, the culture has moved beyond it and they just look foolish.
Was it fun working with all these legendary athletes like Jordan and Tiger Woods, or was it hard because of how huge they became?
It was definitely fun. I mentioned in a speech recently at [W+K], I've been a kid in a candy store who got paid to be in the candy store. It wasn't difficult working with those guys, though I think it gets more difficult over time as the next generation of athletes come along and say, "I want my Nike commercial." But in the early days, when it was new, it was fun for everyone involved, including the athletes.
What's it been like working with Dan Wieden all these years?
Dan is like a second father to me. And as all father and son relationships go, there have been times of great joy, and times when "Dad" would get mad at me and I'd go stand in the corner. But the key with Dan is, he lets people do their jobs, it's that simple. And of course he finds great people. Environment, plus talent, equals something special. From the time I came into this agency, I was given carte blanche. And I owe everything to that blind willingness to let me go off into crazy areas. That kind of thing would not happen in the industry today.
It wouldn't? Has the industry changed?
I think so. The difference I see now is that people 'both agencies and clients' are afraid to make mistakes. And the best advertising comes from people who are willing to make glorious mistakes. Is this new? No, Bernbach was saying the same thing in the '60s, so maybe it just cycles through, and now we're in a period where a lot of people don't want to make mistakes. Nothing will come of that kind of advertising. Another thing is that right now everybody is so focused on the changes going on in media, but at the end of the day, whether you are communicating on balloons or skywriting or whatever, it still comes down to this, you have to have a great f---ing idea. People aren't talking about that much, but it remains the constant: You need a great idea that moves people, hits them in their gut.