It was May 12th, 1997.
On this day, 220 football players from all walks of life, ages, genders and religions gathered at the spiritual home of Sunday league football, otherwise known as Hackney Marshes for a Nike ad. Originally the home to a staggering 120 full size pitches.
Not a single soul knew the idea, that was kept under wraps, but it was all rather exciting.
So, what led us all to the arse end of London, surrounded by council block flats, water coolers and blokes in vans dishing out bacon rolls and burgers?
After all, this was going to be a Nike ad.
Don’t they do Hollywood glitz and razzmatazz with highly polished visuals and all the film wizardry that the budget can stretch to?
Yes. So we decided to go a different way.
Let’s go back to how this all began.
Writer Tony Malcolm and I were working at an agency called Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow and Johnson (phew!) or Simons Palmer as it was thankfully abbreviated to and their client Nike was in a spot of bother.
It just wasn't gaining traction in football.
Nike was on top when it came to basketball and running, but as far as the beloved game was concerned, it just didn’t have the credentials.
The business problem it had was that if I don't believe you understand the game, I won't believe you make good quality boots. It was seen as trying to buy its way into the game with big athletes and national kit deals. The previous Nike football advertising had celebrated the stars and their skills in a fun and epic way, but not shown it understood the game itself.
Nike at its best always showed a really deep understanding of the sport but they hadn't found that yet in football. Umbro, Adidas and Puma were way ahead of Nike and it was pissing them off.
The cultural perception was that American's didn't understand football and as an American brand neither did Nike.
At a client briefing in Portland, Oregon, it became obvious straight away that this was the case.
"We need a great ad for soccer using our assets", they’d say. We replied, "you mean a great football ad featuring your players". They looked at us a tad confused.
And a great ad we needed. The management at Simons Palmer made it very clear that we had to create something that was better than the last ad they’d done, which was the brilliant ‘Kick it’ commercial written by Chris Palmer and Mark Denton, shot by Tony Kaye. This film collected two D&AD silver pencils amongst loads of others, so no pressure there then.
Back in the office we met up with Pete Bracegirdle who is a hybrid account man/planner and had a chin wag about the direction we should take.
He had been wrestling with how to write a tight brief. He wanted to capture the nation’s passion for the game, what it meant to all of us, why we cared, the unique place it had in our culture, but that didn’t fit into the standard proposition. Instead, he wrote something somewhere between an ode and a love letter to the game. It was personal, emotional and full of evocative detail. It set the stage.
Pete’s point was this; Somehow, we needed to authentically demonstrate that we understood the nation’s shared love of playing the game.
The blank layout pad looked incredibly scary.
As part of the creative process, Pete had organised us to go and meet the players that were earmarked to take part in whatever we would eventually write. Maybe talking to them would spark something. Hmmm…not a sausage.
Then one morning, whilst on the train to the office, I was reading a copy of The Sun (another one of our clients) and on the back page was a shot of an elderly man with the headline ‘The Grand Old Man of The Marshes’. It was an article about this guy who at 101 years old still played football every weekend on Hackney Marshes.
Well, I’d never heard of this place (I’m not a big footie fan whereas Tony is a lifelong Fulham follower) so I asked Tony about this place and said we should go and visit it. Armed with a disposable camera we jumped in a cab.
As an art director, as soon as we got there, I was immediately blown away.
I was going mental about the images that presented themselves.
Being home to 120 life size football pitches, from certain angles you get goal after goal after goal receding into the distance with a backdrop of a water cooler or council block.
I loved it and started taking snaps of a few teams down there having a kick about.
I took the rolls of film round to Snappy Snaps, got them developed and they were laid out on my desk within two hours.
Studying them, nothing immediately jumped off the page, so we left them there and continued staring at the blank layout pad.
Now during this process, we’d amassed all kinds of footie magazines that were strewn everywhere and looking up at me was a picture of Eric Cantona, his arms outstretched victorious with a backdrop of thousands of adoring fans.
Then something started to click.
I took a pair of scissors and cut out the picture of Eric and crudely stuck him on one of the snaps we’d taken. The background was nothing other than a block of flats and a couple of goal posts.
Studying this with Tony, we thought we were onto something.
I then found a tiny picture of Robbie Fowler and his head was about the same size as one of the guys in one of our snaps. With a quick whizz of a scalpel, he was reborn as we transplanted his head onto someone from a pub league team.
Now things were getting exciting.
We’d been talking about how good these top players were and that they were in a different league.
But of course, they didn’t just get to where they were overnight, they too started somewhere, and finding out that Ian Wright first started playing on Hackney Marshes nailed it for us.
Every man, woman and child who plays football on a Sunday morning wants to be a star.
We’d seen it ourselves. Some of them had their idols shirts on, names emblazoned on the back as they slid around a muddy patch dodging the dog shit.
So that’s how the end line and overall thought was born:
‘Whatever league you’re in. Just do it’.
As we were chatting, someone put some money in the jukebox and the next minute Blur’s Parklife came blurting out.
On a job like this, you constantly need reassurance, we needed more confidence.
We asked around the creative department to see if anyone knew a director who really liked his football, and someone mentioned that they play footie on a Sunday with a bloke called Jonathan Glazer. Would they like to introduce us to him?
Now, Jonathan wasn’t at the dizzy heights he is now. He’d done a couple of Radio Head promos and was starting to make a bit of a name for himself.
We met in a little pub off of Oxford Street and presented him with our thoughts. He really liked it, but wanted to go away and think about it.
As we were chatting, someone put some money in the jukebox and the next minute Blur’s Parklife came blurting out. We all looked at each other.
The following day we got a call from Jonathan and he asked if we could pop over to see him.
He had a video tape in his hand and he brashly said "unless you let me do it like this, I’m not interested."
He put the tape into the VHS machine (who remembers those?) and he began to play us the music video ‘Devils Haircut’ by Beck. We immediately spotted what he was referring to and we loved it.
Basically, the video froze at certain points and the camera zoomed into the still image to concentrate on what was happening in the background.
‘I want to pass from one shot to the next, as if it was a football’ beamed Jonathan.
We skipped out of the production company happy as Larry.
So now we had the little hurdle of selling it to the clients, and it wasn’t easy.
Armed with a rough storyboard and my crude collaged snaps we went to see the big cheeses.
"But where are the fireworks" the clients said. That "Au Revoir Cantona moment, we need it".
They clearly didn’t get where we were coming from and this wasn’t going to be an easy ride.
I can’t remember how many meetings we had before the button was pushed, but it was a lot. It was exhausting and it really took the wind out of us. Little niggles started creeping in as to whether this was going to be the next big award winner that was expected of us.
But eventually we managed to persuade the clients that the whole idea was full of fireworks and we were off.
However, there were still a few important loose ends to tie up.
Firstly, the music.
Although we’d instinctively felt that Blur’s ‘Parklife’ was perfect for what we were trying to communicate there was a lot of pressure to be ‘more modern’.
Biosphere had just done the music for Levis ‘Drugstore’ and The Chemical Brothers were all the rage. Could we do better than Parklife? Come on chaps, it’s bloody three years old!
Well, if you want to build up your music collection, get working on a Nike film.
Weirdly all the big music publishers can smell it and we had so much music sent to us, the CD’s went from floor to ceiling. EMI, Sony, Warner, Universal etc.
Music is one of those areas in making films that is so subjective that all creatives can very easily sway with the collective wind and our knees were getting a little shaky.
Even Jonathan Glazer questioned it and suggested ‘Song 2’ from Blur instead because the best bit of the ‘Parklife’ track was 52 seconds long and being a 60 second film we’re 8 seconds short.
He had a very good point and we needed to fix that.
Our ears were bleeding listening to stuff, we were beginning to seriously lose the plot.
Then, almost in desperation, I peeled off a cassette tape literally sellotaped on the front cover of some kind of football fanzine and popped it into the player and put on the headphones.
It was some kind of pirate tape with random football sounds and commentary, then I heard "Football. Football. Football. We get nothing but football morning noon and night" and then Brian Clough chipped in "Shut up whilst I’m talking".
I loved it. I quickly did an edit on the double cassette player. I chopped out the bit ‘…whilst I’m talking’ from Cloughie and listened to it again.
Everything about it was perfect, the voice, tone, everything. And to cap it off, it was exactly the length of the intro that we required.
We made a copy and excitedly sent it over to Jonathan.
The phone rang ‘Brilliant fellas. You’ve cracked it’. We were over the moon.
Making it brought about some very fond memories.
The first day of filming involved lots of pick-up shots of normal people playing, bits of orange peel, spectators and dogs running across pitches.
It was on the second day that the stars were scheduled to turn up.
As I mentioned earlier, this was top secret. Everyone knew it was a Nike ad but no one knew what for. That is, until this happened.
Jonathan, Tony and I approached a couple of semi-professional teams who were having a game between themselves and we asked one guy who was the number 7 if he minded sitting the next few games out.
He was furious. He was a plumber and he’d come here just to play football, so we could all just f**k off.
We tried to reason with him. "But you see, we want you to sit it out because this bloke wants to take your place".
Eric Cantona emerges from the middle of the film crew, strides onto the pitch with his hand outstretched and says ‘Hello. I am Eric Cantona’.
The plumber scoffed and commented ‘Nice look-alike’ only to suddenly realise he was the real deal and all of a sudden, the secret was over and crowd control became a problem.
When word got out what we were doing, provoked by a three-page spread in The Sun, all the local school kids bunked off school to come to the shoot.
The day that Ian Wright was there, a real local hero in East London, we were mobbed by hundreds of kids with no way to control them.
The client was frantic but the players loved it.
The kids were really well behaved and respectful. They just loved Wrighty and he loved them. A classic moment was when he arrived in his Addison Lee, stepped out of the car and was immediately surrounded by a screaming crowd 20-30 deep. He just stood in the middle with his arms in the air receiving the adoration.
But by and large the shoot went pretty smoothly.
There were the obvious injuries you’d expect with football plus a few fisticuffs but we were all relieved none of the players got injured.
Cantona took a real interest in the shooting of it and would always be beside the monitor listening to how it was coming along and suggesting things.
Editing the film was a real challenge. Jonathan flew over an editor from New York. He’d worked with her on a Michael Jordan ad and he was confident she’d do a great job but unfortunately it just wasn’t so. The edit lacked soul.
Feeling a bit down in the dumps we sat in reception waiting to have a chat with Jonathan when top editor Rick Lawley walked past. He took one look at our faces and said "It’s not happening is it? I’m afraid being American that other editor doesn’t get English football. I’d love to edit your film for you. Let me have a go".
Well, we were like a dog with a bone and got Rick on the case. He did a brilliant job.
People to this day still say to me ‘It was a brilliant touch to start with the egg and finish with the orange - bookending it like that is inspired’.
Well believe me, it wasn’t planned that way, it was just the way we cut it.
Firstly, part of the reason it worked so well was that it didn't look like anything else.
It looked different to how games were shot and promoted by Sky/BBC etc.
It was different to how Nike and other brands had presented the game in ads. These were focussed on the players and the skills but in fictionalised and glamorised contexts and locations.
But it did look like the grassroots game that everyone recognised.
It was completely authentic and real but fresh and different at the same time.
The authenticity is why it hasn't aged.
Fancy camera techniques and typefaces go in and out of fashion but how the game looks on a Sunday afternoon on Hackney Marshes doesn't change.
Parklife established Nike's football credentials in the UK by showing it understood and respected the grassroots game.
It received a huge amount of very positive publicity and became one of the most remembered and loved ads of all time.
The Nike brand and football business went from strength to strength in the UK to become the biggest football brand in the country.
Plus the film went on to win three D&AD Yellow Pencils in one night, beating ‘Kick it’, so I was well chuffed.
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