Muhammad Ali was a singular, iconic, inspiring, and brave athlete, activist, and poet. It is sad that he has passed away, but it’s wonderful that the world is revisiting all of his accomplishments and what he stood for. He was right. He was the greatest. And he said a lot of smart, funny, inspiring, and just plain badass things. However, this is not a Muhammad Ali quote. The Impossible is Nothing manifesto was a long copy ad for Adidas. I know because I wrote it.
In real life, I am a copywriter. Like Peggy and Don on Madmen. I was working at TBWA\Chiat\Day (a partner agency to 180 Amsterdam) on the global adidas account, and it was my job to write a manifesto to sell that tagline, and the campaign, to adidas. If it sounds like Ali could have said it, it should. I knew he was the hero athlete for the campaign, so I was writing something that had to fit with that iconic photograph of him towering over Sonny Liston. And sell that great tagline. Which was written by Boyd Conyer.
I’ll be honest with you. I was brushing my teeth, thinking about the tagline, and the “big word small man” phrase came to me and the damn thing wrote itself from there. I went in to work that morning, my boss said “we need a manifesto,” I sat down to write, and I handed it over to him before lunch. Sometimes that’s how writing happens. But it never happens like that without a great idea first. Impossible is nothing was the idea. My bosses knew that was the idea we had to sell. Everybody knew that was the idea to sell. We just needed the rest of the words to sell it. So I wrote them.
I’ve been hesitating writing anything about this because, well, it’s tacky. But on the other hand, I haven’t stood up for myself enough over my career. (Maybe because I’m a woman, and we’re taught to see THAT as tacky. Or bitchy. Or both.) This ad wasn’t entered into award shows. The TV got recognition, (remember Laila Ali boxing Muhammad Ali?) but not the print or outdoor, which is what this was. Nobody in the industry even knows that I wrote this, unless they know me. And now that it’s getting more and more “internet famous,” I’m in a really fucking weird spot. Muhammad Ali is getting credit for my work slash people believe my words came out of his mouth. That. Does not. Suck. That is incredibly flattering. On the other hand, my work is famous, but my name is invisible. In an industry that is all about publicity. So what’s an AdWoman to do? I’ve been doing nothing. But both doing nothing and doing something have their drawbacks. So what I’m doing is now something in between: I’m writing this, here, where all of five people will see it.
I mean, call me crazy, but it would be nice if my name came up in a search associated with the Impossible is Nothing manifesto. (It doesn’t.) It would also be nice if ESPN, Sports Illustrated, People Magazine, USA Today, , Business Insider, Goodreads, The Daily Mirror, and even David Beckham (who also had those words on a picture of HIM in the SAME CAMPAIGN!) (btw, it also ran on images of Laila Ali) did more than a google image search when researching things they’re calling quotes.
Muhammad Ali had his own way with words. He lived impossibilities. He gave no fucks in the bravest fashion. He was bigger than a person. He was an idea.
What’s my favorite Ali quote? I don’t know. 1. because there are so many and 2. I really don’t want to misquote or miscredit. But, this is on the official MuhammadAli.com and they should know:
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” -Muhammad Ali
That seems to have been his personal manifesto. Not everyone can say the first part. I can’t. But the second part, that belongs to everyone. Everyone can say that. Everyone should.
Thanks for reading.
-Aimee Lehto Schewe