If you’re a fan of Nike or have ever heard the “Just Do It” slogan, you’ll enjoy hearing from Mark Thomashow. Mark is a key behind-the-scenes player in the world of sports marketing. He spent 30 years in Nike’s Business Affairs department and helped create some of the brand’s most memorable and successful ad campaigns.
Mark graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1971 and spent four years as an elementary school teacher in Oregon before going to law school. He describes his job success as being in the right place at the right time.
“I clerked for the Oregon Supreme Court for a year, then worked at a Portland law firm for a couple of years, two and a half years. A memo came across saying Nike was looking for in-house counsel…I was lucky because my wife had taught high school with a woman who was working in human resources at Nike…For four and a half years, I had what I consider the best legal job in the world.”
After sending countless cease-and-desist letters to protect the trademarked “Just Do It” slogan, Mark helped the brand solidify its place in sports and pop culture.
“We were trying to register ‘Just Do It’ as a copyright. So don’t do an ad saying ‘just kick it,’ ‘just throw it’…everybody was playing off and we were sending cease and desist letters,” Mark said. “In ‘88, I moved to Special Projects.One of the things I came up with was, ‘What a perfect opportunity if they win the championship. What if we had hats that said, ‘Just Did It, Number One’, and gave them to the Michigan players.”
During the 1989 NCAA championship between Seaton Hall and Michigan, Mark had blue painters cap with white lettering made to give to the NCAA winner. The now iconic hats have evolved to become a championship tradition and even led to Nike reissuing a 50th anniversary commemorative cap in 2019.
Mark’s trailblazing didn’t end there, he helped orchestrate some of Nike’s most iconic campaigns and helped solidify the importance of advertising in sports brands.
“I was doing all of Nike’s sports, marketing, and advertising, then an opportunity came up to set up my own department,” Mark said. “Most people at Nike spent three or four years in a job before moving to another. There are a few jobs that are built on long term relationships…I dealt with the same people in the music industry, talent agents, leagues for decades. “
“There’s a famous story about Phil Knight that when he met Dan Wieden, [of ad agency Wieden+Kennedy] Phil’s first word was ‘I’m Phil Knight and I hate advertising.’ That gives you some perspective on what advertising meant. Nike grew to embrace it over the decades and made a couple of bucks..the pillars at Nike were always marketing the athletes who were the product and making great products for athletes.”
Another one of Mark’s ad creations was the “I Am Not a Role Model” with Charles Barkley commercial which debuted in 1993. The ad featured Barkley saying he was not a role model for young athletes and that children should look up to parents and other mentors instead of athletes.
“In ‘Role Model,’ the premise of the ad came from Charles. Charles talked to his folks at Nike and said, ‘I want to react to this idea that I can be a sports hero…I don’t know your kid. The role model should be an uncle, the barber that the kid has gone to, the school teacher, the person of faith, not the NBA player.’”
Not only did this ad attract the attention of fans and critics, it also led to a longstanding but friendly disagreement between Mark and NBA Commissioner David Stern.
“We went to Stern and he said, ‘Absolutely not. I hate the concept. Our players are role models. That’s how we position our players.’
“And we said, ‘Okay, David. We won’t do it in a Suns uniform.’ And David maintained for decades that he hated me. I would see David once a year at the NBA All-Star game, and he’d say, ‘Tomashow, I hate that ad.’ That was my relationship with David.”
Mark says he had a Nike shirt custom made for Stern that had Barkley on it with the text “Not a Role Model” and Stern’s face saying “Role Model.”
Among Mark’s career highlights is getting sued by The Beatles over the song “Revolution.”
“I would recommend getting sued by The Beatles as a career move by anybody,” Mark said. “I was in the legal department and we came up with revolutionary new technology. Nike had always advertised that it had airbags in the bottom of the shoes, but they never figured out a way to show that until Tinker Hatfield came out with the Air Max, where you had a little window in the bottom and you could see the airbag.”
Mark explains the intricacies of licensing the publishing rights to a song versus licensing the original recording and explains how he got embodied in lawsuits with The Beatles and Capitol Records.
With this impressive track record, Mark has a lot of fond memories to reflect on. He describes himself as ‘retired, not expired’ and says he continues to maintain relationships with former co-workers and others in the sports world.
“You don’t stop wanting to contribute or interact with people and stuff just because you retire. When people ask me, ‘do you miss Nike you miss working there?’ I say, ‘I don’t miss doing deals.’
“My first big deal was The Beatles and one of my last one was convincing Dick Gregory to do a Nike ad. There’s nothing left from the negotiating standpoint. But what I miss is being around young people and continuously being exposed to their ideas, what they’re going through in their lives. So, in retirement, I consult for a creative agency. I’m working on a couple of projects that are fun, but I’m mostly trying to stay in touch with the young people who I’ve had relationships with over the years to see how the Nike careers are progressing or family life or what’s what’s going on for them.”