The latest Nike ad begins with a shot of director Casey Neistat’s hand removing the company’s FuelBand fitness tracker from its case and pointing at the slogan on the packaging: "Life is a Sport. Make It Count." The director included this shot at Nike’s behest. It was the only element of the ad’s creation that the brand exercised any control over.
After making two ads for the FuelBand earlier this year, Neistat and his editor Max Joseph were a little Nike’d out. When it came time to do a planned third commercial, the director ended up throwing away the script the company had signed off on and opting for something else altogether. Something kind of crazy. The original treatment would have shown how everyday people "make it count" in their own lives. Instead, Neistat decided to turn the camera on himself.
The director and Joseph took the entire production budget and rather than make anything resembling a traditional ad, the two shot the world’s most expensive video travel journal.
"My vision for it was forget about what Nike is, forget about sneakers, forget everything; what does ‘make it count’ mean to me?" Neistat says. "And what it means to me is take a huge chance. Consequences aside, if I could do anything in the world, what would it be? Do I really want to produce another regular advertisement? No. I would take this production budget and go around the world and see all these places I want to see."
It was a voyage that included stops in Zambia, Doha, Bangkok, and many other places. An extensive montage of atypical airplane food gives the viewer an idea of how far afield the pair of adventurers found themselves until the money ran out (10 days later). Over a pulsating dance track by Tiga, the two are shown running around and sampling local customs in each new city, culminating in a new tattoo and a gripping slow-motion jump off a ridiculously high cliff. It all looks loose and spontaneous and about as fun a time as anyone in Nike’s athletic-skewing demographic could wish to have. "There wasn’t much premeditation involved at all," says Neistat. "We were just like ‘Fuck it,’ and we took off."
Considering the sizable risk he took, though, one fears for what happened when they came back. After returning from their trip, the director and his editor had captured 29 hours of footage, and they had 11 days to deliver an ad with it. They also had absolutely no idea what they’d shot. There were clips of Neistat running in every city they were in, which had been planned as a connective motif, but everything else was up in the air.
Joseph was able to work quickly and find other patterns to cobble into interesting visuals, though, and the two made it work—interspersing the footage with inspirational quotes from the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Albert Einstein, and Marilyn Monroe. "The quotes represent ideas that are not mine; what I think are universal ideas about what it means to sort of make life count," says Neistat.
The final step was getting Nike on board.
Of course, it’s rare that an advertiser wouldn’t be hovering over a commercial shoot and aware of every second of production time, but Neistat says he has "a great relationship with Nike; they grant me a lot of room." The brand had zero involvement in the production, he says, but by about halfway through the edit, the client was "aware of just what the film was."
"There was a very scary amount of time between when I sent them the first edit and I got back any feedback at all," Neistat says. "I work in both very strict conditions and very loose, more open-minded conditions in advertising, and Nike is by far the most open-minded of all. But there was still a great deal of risk there. When the executive from Nike first came into my office to see what I had, there was some sweating going on, some head-scratching, and it was all on his part, like ‘what did you guys do?’ But I wasn’t nervous. What was the worst that could happen?"
Well, a breach of contract lawsuit is probably the worst that could happen, but that’s beside the point. The best that could probably happen is what did end up happening: the ad is a viral hit (790,000 views and counting in just over a day) and one that is on-brief too. Neistat took a risk and made it count.
"As a director I have the greatest job in the world," he says, "but if I don’t push the boundaries, then what’s the point of having it?"