Damn Good Advice from Legendary Ad Man, George Lois
Passionate creative genius. Cultural provocateur. Defender of the innocent. Iconic advertising legend. If any of those words should end up on my tombstone, I would consider my time on this planet well spent. To have them all apply takes the unhinged mastery acquired from a lifetime spent looking deadlines square in the face without blinking—it takes an Ad Man (not a Mad man, oh no) like George Lois.
His achievements in our industry are many. To list them all would be impossible. But here’s a shortlist of the ground he’s broken:
- He talked a well-known pancake company into making syrup (Aunt Jemima)
- He convinced Stouffer’s to move a backburner idea to the forefront, based on the strength of his proposed brand name (Lean Cuisine)
- He not only launched MTV, he made us want it with his campaign: “I want my MTV!”
- He made Tommy Hilfiger a household name with one ad concept. One.
- He design a series of iconoclastic Esquire covers in the 60s and 70s that now hang in MOMA
- He used his creativity and passion to help free Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from prison
He has also owned more than one successful ad agency and has written a shelf-full of books. His latest book “Damn Good Advice (for people with talent)” was released earlier this year ($9.95, from PHAIDON)
“An Innovation Bible. . .a must-have spine stiffener for artists and entrepreneurs alike.”
- The Huffington Post
“George Lois offers indispensable lessons, practical advice, facts, anecdotes, and inspiration for all those looking to succeed in life, business, and creativity.”
- NPR’s Morning Edition
I recently had the honor of spending an hour with George Lois—a conversation I will cherish forever. And, a conversation I plan on sharing in two parts. Part One is all about Mad Men and his commentary on the rumors connecting him with the Don Draper character. Part Two is a frank discussion about advertising, creativity and the current state of our industry.
Even after almost 20 years in the industry myself, George Lois still managed to open my eyes and teach me a thing or two about what it means to be a creative, courageous, socially responsible member of the advertising community.
So whether you are a sparkling-fresh newbie to the business or a grizzled old vet like me, Goerge has some damn good advice for you … and you may want to listen up.
BEGIN PART ONE: MAD MEN
Having an interview with George Lois and only asking him about Mad Men is like landing an interview with Mick Jagger to talk about American Idol. But, I have to at least ask: There’s a lot of speculation that the creators of Mad Men based the Don Draper character on you. Any truth to that?
People all over the world call me the original Mad Man, the original Don Draper. First of all, I’m talented. Then, I’m not an anti-Semite, not a racist, I’m not a womanizer, etc., etc., etc., etc. Other than that, it doesn’t piss me off. So yes, I am the original Don Draper—if he had any talent or morals.
From what I’ve read about you, your story told as-is would’ve made a better show.
Well, that’s kinda what happened. Before they even started, everybody had heard about this new show coming out that was supposed to be about the exciting period of the 1960s and advertising. Everybody was calling me up saying, “Hey George, they’re doing a show on the Creative Revolution. They’re doing a show about you.” And that went on and on and on.
Finally I get a call from Matt Weiner’s right-hand man, who was rounding up people from the original Mad Men era to videotape or something. I said look, it sounds like you guys are going to be doing a show about a scumbag agency and I don’t like the whole thing. I know you are going to do that! If you really wanna know what was going on in the 1960s, I wrote a book called “George, Be Careful” in 1972. If you want to know what was going on in the 1960s, buy that book. Then I kinda hung up on him.
He calls back about a week later and says, “Oh my god! We are all going crazy here reading your book! We could’ve done a show about YOU!” Then he starts describing six or seven scenes from my book, like the time I threatened to commit suicide [by jumping out of a window] during a client meeting because the owner of the company wouldn’t buy my concept, even though everybody else loved it.
I’ve read about your exploits. Some of them are so outrageous, they make the Mad Men look like a bunch of angry little boys. It sounds like they wanted to tie in to your experiences, but still make the lead man a scumbag. That doesn’t sound like you at all.
Yea, I kinda kept my mouth shut for a while. But I just kept getting called the original Mad Man, and it made me mad.
About two years later, Playboy Magazine calls me up and says, “We’d love to have you write something for the two year anniversary of Mad Men and talk about the show.” And I said, “I hate the goddam show.” They said, “Great! Can you write something about hating the show?”
So that’s when I wrote something about it and wound up saying, “The more I think about Mad Men, the more I take the show as a personal insult. So f*ck you Mad Men, you phony grey flannel suit, male chauvinist, no-talent, starched white shirt-wearing racist anti-Semitic sons-of-bitches. Besides, when I was in my 30s I was WAY better looking than Don Draper.”
Pretty strong words.
I’ll say. But what’s funny is that about a week ago I met Matthew Weiner and John Hamm. I showed up at a party with my son, Luke. There was a mob around Matthew Weiner.
I went up to say hello. I said, “Hey Matthew, my name is George Lois.” And his head went back about two feet. He said “George Lois, I can’t tell you how important you are to our show!” Whatever the hell that means. He went on and on, kissing my ass—but you could tell he didn’t want to be there.
Then I went over to meet Jon Hamm. Hamm went nuts; he was so thrilled to meet me. He said “I know all of your books and looked at everything you did. I know everybody was calling you the original Don Draper. I can’t thank you enough, sir.”
I love being called “sir.” He was a real sweetheart and we got a great photo together.
Mad Men is set in an incredibly volatile time period. A sea of change was just beginning to rise in this country, and it seems as if the show falls short of addressing the positive role advertising played in reshaping social opinion.
I hate seeing the racism in Mad Men. Back during that time period, there was still incredible racism. Separate drinking fountains and everything. Back in the late 50s/early 60s, Cassius Clay [who George worked with closely] couldn’t even get a hamburger at the same lunch counter as a white guy in the South.
And then there were guys like me. A big part of my book [“Damn Good Advice (for people with talent)”] is about doing the right thing. And it’s hard work! There are plenty of opportunities to do the right thing. A lot of them came my way back then, and I grabbed them. If I could use any of my talent to get a guy out of jail who was falsely imprisoned for murder, like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, then I did it and gladly paid the consequences.
In the midst of the publicity storm I helped create to free Rubin Carter, my Cutty Sark client called me to his office. This is a five million dollar account to my agency, remember. Without as much as a hello, he says to me “Lois, stop working for the [racial slur omitted] or I will fire you.” I didn’t blink and told him that I believed that Rubin Carter was innocent and I wouldn’t turn my back on him. The next day, he fired my agency. I’ve always been proud of doing the right thing.
Jack Kennedy was assassinated. Dr. King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The terrible Vietnam War. Civil rights. Women’s Lib. These were all going on back then. Really exciting and dramatic things were happening along with the Creative Revolution in advertising. Great things and terrible things. But we had passionate men and women who lived to do great advertising. We were changing the culture. We made everything brighter and sharper and smarter.
I think Mad Men missed this entirely.
A lot of people can point to certain TV programming that was instrumental in their pursuing advertising as a career. Bewitched. Bosom Buddies. Thirtysomething. These have all portrayed our industry in a fairly positive light. Do you think Mad Men will have a negative impact on the next generation of advertising professionals?
I am astounded when I hear young women at my college lectures say something like “Boy, watching that Mad Men show. It must’ve been fun back then.”
Fun?!? First, I don’t like being associated with the behavior on Mad Men. And, what’s fun about being a woman and being harassed? There’s nothing fun about that. That’s how they treat women on that show.
Obviously, it’s a soap opera. And a lousy soap opera. I get so tired of being called “The Original Mad Man” and “The Original Don Draper.” If I did mediocre advertising, I’d be like them. If I was a womanizer, which I am not, I would be like him. I’ve been married to the same woman for 60 years! Your wife and family are the most important thing, so don’t do anything to jeopardize that. Ever. Ever. Ever.
When I watch Mad Men I sit in shock, revolted at what’s going on there.
When I lecture at colleges, the kids I talk to say they love the romance of the show. And I say, “What’s romantic about that?!? I mean, somebody get up and explain what’s fun about it?”
Out of class of 400 kids, no one can answer.
When I explain to them what was really going on back then with the Creative Revolution, they almost rise off their feet they are so excited.
So, maybe there’s hope.
END PART ONE: MAD MEN
And so ended my conversation with George Lois about Mad Men, with a message of hope. In essence, George hopes that people will be inspired by Mad Men. But his hope is that they will be inspired to rise above the “scumbag behavior” glorified in every episode and become the exact opposite of what you see in the show. That is what George really means by “maybe there’s hope.”
Once we got the Mad Men part of the discussion out of the way, things really got rolling. Be sure to check out Part Two of my conversation with George Lois, where we actually talk about advertising, creativity and the state of our industry today.
SPECIAL THANKS: To my dear friend Lou Congelio … thanks for setting this up with George. Maybe when you are 80, you can be as famous as he is. Wait, you’re not 80 yet, are you Lou? That would be embarrassing.