An Interview with George Lois

George Lois, author of "Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!)" among other things...
George Lois, author of “Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!)” among other things…

What can you say about George Lois that hasn’t already been said – usually by him? He was at Doyle Dane Bernbach when “Think Small” was invented. He designed some of the most famous magazine covers in the history of journalism (see them here). He created the first ad agency that went public. He made the world remember Tommy Hilfiger, he threatened to kill himself in a creative presentation (see the story here at about 1:41), he made us all want our MTV. And through it all he has relentlessly promoted his favorite product: himself. Over the years he has made himself the icon of individualism in advertising, the iconoclast always on the hunt for the big idea, never letting anything get in his way – not the clients, not the account executives, not the agencies. Mr. Lois graciously took a few minutes from his busy life to discuss “Damn Good Advice” (which we reviewed here), advertising, and of course, himself, with us.

the most fun

Agency Review:

One of the things that makes you a legend is that you’ve produced great work across a wide variety of disciplines over the course of your career. Where other creatives stuck to advertising – and often a very narrow definition of advertising at that – you were always pushing the boundaries. But what was the most fun? The covers for Esquire? The ads? Creating agencies? When you look back over the things you’ve done – and when you look forward to the things you still hope to do – what makes you salivate?

Lois:

The most fun? Everything! Creating”marketing miracles” with breakthrough ad campaigns: Xerox, Wolfschmidt Vodka, National Airlines, Braniff, Maypo, Jiffy Lube, OTB, No Nonsense hosiery, The Four Seasons restaurant, MTV, VH-1, Reebok Pump, Naugahyde, 1990 World Chess Championship, Cutty Sark, Royal Air Maroc, The Greek natinal Tourist Organization, Nickelodeon, Pirelli, Tommy Hilfiger, USA Today, Harrah’s, ESPN, Time Magazine, Aunt Jemima syrup, Lean Cuisine, Superfocus, Senator’s Magnuson, Hugh Scott, Jacob Javits, Bobby Kennedy– hell, I can’t remember half the work I’ve done.

Ten books, over 200 logos (my next book will be LOIS LOGOS) Esquire covers, only one music video, Jokerman – but Kurt Loder says it’s still the best music video ever made. And while I was at it, helped get a convicted killer (the innocent Rubin Hurricane Carter) out of jail.

What makes me salivate? Working every day on solving business problems by coming up with Big Ideas, then selling them and producing them.

Agency Review:

Okay, so let me take this another way – why weren’t other creatives as diversified as you? What was it – what IS it – about you that meant you were able to do all these great things across all these different media?  Helmut Krone was a great designer – did he do a music video? No. Phyllis Robinson was a great writer –where’s her screenplay?  What made you so damn special – and don’t tell me it was just talent – lots of people have talent.

Lois:

At the High School of Music & Art, I was inspired by the Bauhaus movement which had ignited a modernist approach in the design world that illuminated new possibilities in 2-dimensional graphics – culminating with Paul Rand, the first major art director in advertising to articulate a new graphic design freedom. The 50s became the Golden Age of Modern Design: Paul Rand, Bill Golden, Lou Dorfsman, Herb Lubalin and Gene Federico were the stars of the “New York School of Design,” and I, of the next generation, was inducted by them as the enfant terrible of the movement. But with that strong design background, I always thought of myself as a Graphic Communicator (because I always created Big Ideas, not “designs.”). To me, creating print and TV ad campaigns, sales films, brand names with logotype designs, editorial design, magazine covers, music videos, architectural designs for my offices, websites, writing and designing books, etc. were all graphic problems that had to be solved conceptually. It all took talent that fed on instinctively fighting against a conservative, indoctrinated society, and I approached all my work as a Cultural Provocateur. But as important as talent has been my work ethic, to the point of being fanatical, much of it influenced by my hard-working immigrant Greek father and mother during the hardships of the Great Depression.

 is it still fun?

Agency Review:

When I’ve discussed the advertising industry today with other ad people who worked in the business in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when I describe agencies owned by large holding companies, the constant cost-cutting and the relentless push for quarterly shareholder return, almost universally the first words out of their mouths are “is it still fun?” And it’s a fair question. But unlike many of them, you continue to work in today’s industry and so you’re uniquely qualified to see both sides of the story – so what do you think? Is it still fun? Or was it ever?

Lois:

I’ve never met one person in the ad business in the past 20 or even 30 years who doesn’t bitch and moan that they can’t sell their “great” work. They come up with a million excuses. (Mostly clients and the bureaucracies they work in.) They all cry to me “Wow, it must have been great back then.” The vast majority of them have no talent, no vision, and certainly, no courage.

You ask me if creating or resurrecting businesses by branding and designing logos and Big Idea ad campaigns is still fun? Holy shit! It’s still thrilling – and there are still clients out there that are sharp enough to say “Yes” to a Big Idea.

Agency Review:

Let me pick up on something you say there at the end – “clients still sharp enough to say ‘Yes’ to the big idea”. You’ve seen millions of clients – good/bad, terrific/terrible. Is there any way to tell, right off the bat, which kind you’ve got? Or at one point do you realize – “ah, this one’s a keeper”, or “jesus, this guy’s a goner”? Or is it always a matter of starting from scratch each time?

Lois:

You can almost immediately recognize a client with an open mind that can accept and revel in provocative, seemingly outrageous concepts that will catch people’s eyes, penetrate their minds, warm their hearts, and cause them to act. If I run into a client that I’m not sure about, I always take a shot at him or her with an edgy, startling idea, but I have never been able to suffer fools gladly, so if I recognize a constipated mind, I dump them fast.

advice

Agency Review:

In spite of the fact that “Damn Good Advice” outlines 120 pieces of advice, in the review, we broadly divided it into two categories: “Trust Your Gut” and “Never Give Up”. First, do you think that’s a fair analysis of the advice, and second, do you think that those are the two most important pieces of advice you can give “people with talent”?

Lois:

A pretty good general analysis – but of course, it all starts with talent – and I wrote DAMN GOOD ADVICE specifically for those with talent. So “trust your gut” (a total confidence in your own ability and your solutions) and “never give up” (the courage to create only superb work – to sell your work and never, ever, allow anyone to force you to do anything less than your best work) is the essence of any chance of joining the pantheon of greats.

Agency Review:

Okay, so let me take the other side of this – gimme an example of when you didn’t trust your gut, or when you gave up. Everyone knows about the time you threatened to jump out of a window to sell your work. Everyone knows about your relentless pursuit of Dylan for Hurricane Carter (Lessons 85 and 87 – see, I did read the damn thing). But there must have been a time, early in your career when you hadn’t learned those lessons and you failed and then said “Fuck, I’m never doing that again.” Or did you exit the womb knowing this stuff?

Lois:

Of all the lessons in DAMN GOOD ADVICE, the one that shakes people up the most is “You can never learn anything from a mistake.” A failure is supposed to give you pause, shake you up, humble you. But that would be the end of being a fearless, creative thinker. Onward and upwards, and never give your “failures” a second thought. The accepted model is learning by making mistakes. Wrong.

excitement

Agency Review:

We’ve argued elsewhere that this is perhaps the most exciting time to be in this business in a hundred years – because of the rapid change and evolution of marketing due to technology, social media, economic challenges, globalization and generational transition. But you’ve seen a lot more of this business through a lot more changes than we have. What do you think? Most exciting? Moderately exciting? Not very exciting at all? Or is the business always exciting for the right kind of person?

Lois:

The evolution of marketing to technology, social media, economic challenges, globalization  – so what? You got it right, the business of creativity is always exciting for the “right kind of person.”

Agency Review:

Okay, then let’s take that a different way; what is the biggest challenge facing “people of talent” in today’s environment – especially the rapidly changing and evolving media world? Or is it the same challenge over and over again – the big idea? And if it is, are today’s creatives less capable of finding it then earlier generations? Are they too blinded by the sparkle of technology, gadgets and gizmos?

Lois:

The greatest challenge to “people with talent” past, present and forever, is to consistently come up with the Big Idea. The more they bury their noses in the computers, frantically fishing, searching, praying for an idea, the more it deadens the mind and soul, blocking inspiration. Additionally, the infusion of cell phones, texting, instant messaging, social media, Twitter (and working in a rooms with dozens of other people) has taken away the ability to concentrate.

top five

Agency Review:

“Damn Good Advice” uses a lot of great ads and campaigns to illustrate its points – and to your credit, not all of them are yours. Which means (much to the surprise of some of your detractors) there have been others in the industry you’ve respected. Okay, so we’ll put you on the spot – give us your all-star top 5 team of creatives. Like a fantasy baseball team – you get to put together your dream team of Copywriters, Creative Directors, and Art Directors from the history of advertising. Who do you pick? And yes, you can only pick yourself once…

Lois:

I have written and passionately spoken about the pioneers of modern graphic design, constantly, for almost 50 years. In DAMN GOOD ADVICE, I list the 13 most important pioneers, and the 12 most talented of my contemporaries – and I dedicate the book top those 25 master communicators.

Read my history of modern graphic design in my first big book, THE ART OF ADVERTISING (1978). It’s a passionate, precise description of the great influences in my life.

I go into pages of detail of many of them in my Assouline book, GEORGE LOIS ON HIS CREATION OF THE BIG IDEA (2008). What’s with your horse shit about implying, or one of my “detractors” having the balls to say that I don’t respect the history of my profession. (And read lessons 112, 113, 117 in DAMN GOOD ADVICE as well!!!)

If you want the list of the five best art director/writer teams in advertising, they are:

  1.  Paul Rand and Bill Bernbach
  2.  Bob Gage and Phylis Robinson
  3.  Bill Taubin and Dave Reider
  4.  Helmut Krone and Julian Koenig
  5.  Me, working by myself (I haven’t worked with a copywriter for over 30 years).

Agency Review:

Really? I’m the first person in the history of the world to tell George Lois he has “detractors”? Where’s my camera, I gotta save this moment for posterity. Because my question wasn’t about paying homage to your heroes and mentors, it was about creating your creative dream-team. The five or six or seven folks that you worked – or wanted to work with – that if time and space and any other issues of physics were not a concern you’d want to build a team with. Which CD – or would you be CD? Which writers – Robinson AND Koenig? Or would you go with one over the other and why? Which ADs? Krone? Rand? Or would Rand be the CD and you’d all work for him? Hell, throw in account people if you’re feeling generous.

Lois:

Why don’t you believe me when I say I never wanted to work with a single soul? (When I was young I wanted to work for Reba Sochis, Bill Golden, Herb Lubalin, and Bill Bernbach because I knew they would recognize my talent, and they did) but my dream team is me, case fucking closed.

You can read our review of George’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). Or you can reach out directly to George here.

Illustration of George Lois by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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