Damn Good Advice (for People with Talent!)

There are two things you don’t expect from a book by George Lois. One is that it will be as flavorless and indecisive as day-old chewing gum. And the other is that it will take great care to excise the author from its pages, making sure it sells only the ideas in the book and not George Lois himself.

No worries on either count here.

I recently read a review of “Damn Good Advice” that complained that Lois was too dogmatic in his approach, that he didn’t acknowledge the infinite shades of grey that generate creative discussion. The reviewer also couldn’t stand the fact that George Lois was so clearly the hero of what is, at least purportedly, an advice book.

But who in their right mind picks up a book by George Lois expecting anything else? You want a passionless tome devoid of Lois’s oversized and self-aggrandizing personality? The bookshelves – virtual and otherwise – are literally overflowing with alternatives. You want some terrific advice, some brilliant work, and some wonderful stories that may or may not be entirely accurate? Well, you come to George. And on that score, “Damn Good Advice” delivers.

To provide some context, George Lois was a part of some of the most memorable creative of the last half of the twentieth century. Precisely how much a part has become a topic of some of the best and longest-running bar fights in the advertising industry, so I won’t open that can of worms here. But none of the combatants will deny his involvement with the brilliant Esquire magazine covers. With the ads that launched Tommy Hilfiger. With the crazy simple and yet profoundly memorable “Jokerman” video for Bob Dylan. And with a lot of what made the creative revolution so revolutionary, and advertising so interesting in the 60s, 70s and even 80s.

His advice essentially falls into two categories which he uses his own work and experiences from his own life to illuminate. The first is a series of variations on “Trust your gut” – whether that’s expressed as believing in your ideas when presenting them to the client, or believing in yourself when clients, industry peers and common sense all say you’re wrong, or, and perhaps most importantly, believing in your talent when you’re trying to solve a problem. Curiously, this is reminiscent of one of the threads that runs through Ahmed and Ohlander’s “Velocity”, which also came out in 2012, and which we reviewed here.

The other piece of advice is “Never give up” and again, it has several permutations. Don’t give up learning – creative people who have closed their minds are, in Lois’s eyes, useless. Don’t give up trying to solve a problem – no matter the hurdles, the outrageousness, the setbacks. And don’t give up on yourself – because really, you’re all you’ve got. And while one could look at this advice as merely an excuse for ego, I think it’s more rewarding to think of it as representative of commitment, loyalty, perseverance and hard work – all qualities anyone in this industry would do well to practice.

And then there’s the proof, drawn from Lois’s own experience and portfolio. And while most eyes will focus on the big name national campaigns, I am once again drawn to the smaller, local work. The work that links Lois to his time and place – from political campaigns to Goodman’s Matzohs to the campaign to free Hurricane Carter to New York Off-Track Betting. Work that was attacked with as much gusto and that was as creative and compelling as the bigger name work. Work that Lois must have been able to make pay, both financially and creatively, because there’s so much of it. Work that you rarely see at small shops, for clients you rarely see at big ones. Why is that?

“Damn Good Advice” is small enough to keep in whatever bag you carry and, because it’s packed with pictures (hey, he’s an art director…) and set in large type, a fairly quick and easy read. Indeed his 120 pieces of advice, rants, ejaculations, and provocations, read more like a series of public notices or wild postings – which not only makes them easier to remember, but would also do well enlarged and placed around the office.

I can think of quite a few who agencies who would be wise to put some of them up right now. Can you?

Damn Good Advice (for People with Talent!) was published by Phaidon on 03/12/12 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller ( find one here).

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