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The deal that saved Nike
Air is unlike any film you have ever seen. Air is the story of a single pitch - one meeting - aimed at convincing one man to join a partnership. And yet, that man (Michael Jordan), does not even say five words the entire film.
Instead, Air focuses on Nike’s efforts to woo Michael Jordan’s mother.
Today, Nike’s partnership with Michael Jordan is so obvious that it is difficult to remember how improbable it was in 1984.
Back then, the sneaker market was dominated by running shoes. Converse was cool. The NBA was struggling for relevance. Michael Jordan was an unproven college dropout.
Nike’s deal with Jordan changed all of that.
You don't need to be a fan of basketball, Nike or Michael Jordan to enjoy Air. This is the underdog story of how a small team at Nike overcame some incredible odds to form a pivotal partnership. It also helps that the film’s three stars are each Oscar winners: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Viola Davis.
The key scene of the film, in my view, is not the climactic boardroom pitch to Michael Jordan and his parents.
Earlier in the film there is a 4 minute scene that captures the central message of the film: one person with a vision and a story can change everything.
The Pivotal Scene in Air
In this scene a Nike executive named Sonny Vaccaro sets out from Nike headquarters in Oregon to North Carolina. Sonny arrives unannounced at the home of Michael Jordan’s parents - Delores and James. It is an act of desperation. Sonny knows that Michael Jordan is deciding between signing an endorsement deal with Adidas or Converse. Not Nike.
But Sonny decides to make a direct plea to the Jordans at their home to consider Nike.
In the front yard, Sonny introduces himself to Delores Jordan. She asks him “Do you make it a habit of showing up to people’s houses unannounced?”
Sonny responds with a line to pry open her heart:
Maybe the worst of all my faults, and believe me, there are many … I don’t like to take no for an answer. And I actually think your son should be endorsed by someone with that exact mindset.
Delores invites Sonny into the backyard.
But the odds are still stacked heavily against Nike. Sonny knows that Adidas and Converse have more money than Nike. They can offer Michael Jordan more enticing terms. To counter those advantages, he needs to sow doubt in Delores’ mind about her son's plans.
I’ll tell you exactly how those meetings [with Adidas and Converse] are going to go. And if I’m wrong, don’t take a meeting with Nike. But if I’m right, please consider that you and Michael come out [to Nike's headquarters].
Vaccaro then walks Delores Jordan step-by-step through the tactics that he expects the Jordans will hear in the pitches from Adidas and Converse.
Lastly, Sonny plants the questions that he wants Delores to ask each company.
I’d love it if you would ask Converse “How is Michael going to stand out, how is he going to be different?”
Ask Adidas who is running their company? If you ask four different people there you will get four different answers.
What you can learn from this scene
You may need to be audacious to get your deal done.
You might have to send cold emails, like Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, sneak past security like Steven Spielberg or travel halfway around the world, like a young Elon Musk did with SpaceX.
But how will you use that opportunity once you have it? You need to be clear with yourself about what your objective is.
In this scene, Sonny is bold but careful not to overstep. He knows that his task is not to make a direct pitch for Nike. It is too early for that.
Sonny’s task is to secure an in-person meeting. For that, he must do two things quickly - build trust and sow doubt about the competition.
In building a relationship, you need to be purposeful about how you move from introduction to a substantive conversation to an agreement.
The Lesson in Air
Companies don't do deals with other companies. People do deals with other people.
And those deals begin with one person who has a vision and a story about how tomorrow can be better if we work together.
Why can’t that person be you?
Just do it.
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PS - you may be wondering whether or not this conversation between Sonny Vaccaro and Delores Jordan actually took place. Based on interviews, Michael Jordan was planning to sign a deal with Adida. His mother was instrumental in his deciding to sign with Nike. And during Nike's courting Michael, Sonny Vaccaro called Mrs. Jordan at home and they formed a warm relationship. Yet there is no record of Vaccaro arriving unannounced at the Jordan's doorstep.