Damn Good Advice from Legendary Ad Man, George Lois: Part Two
In “Part One: Mad Men,” I discussed the television show Mad Men with advertising legend George Lois. To sum up the whole interview in three words: he hates it. But don’t take my word for it, read it yourself. In the intro of that piece, I explain who George Lois is and why he is important to the creative industry. I won’t take the time to do that again here, because I figure you can just read it there or Google him if you are curious.
Or you can listen to what these more-than-respectable publications had to say:
“George Lois, pioneer, innovator … is an advertising genius … Superman of Madison Avenue … America’s master communicator.”
— New York Magazine
“At the pulsating intersection of ‘60s iconography and iconoclasm stood George Lois, genius adman, who went on to sock it to the nation’s eyeballs as Esquire’s cover designer.”
— Vanity Fair
“The brash George Lois was the agent provocateur who triggered advertising’s Creative Revolution of the 1960s. His remarkable legacy continues to set the standard.”
— The New York Times
Let’s just say he’s a legendary ad man who’s done a lot. Among his many achievements, he has 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)
The following entry captures the part of my conversation with George where we cover advertising, creativity and the state of the industry today. He’s got a few strong words for today’s creatives (most of which had to be redacted or censored in some way), so read on to learn more.
Once again, special thanks to my dear friend Lou Congelio for setting this up.
So, enough about Mad Men. Let’s talk about your latest book, which is full of damn good advice. Even says so on the cover: “Damn Good Advice (for people with talent).” I’ve read it and can tell you what my favorite bits are. But I am more interested in what you think. What made you want to write this book in the first place?
The reason I wrote the book is because the editor from Phaidon called me up. I knew her from a book I did about four years ago. She called me up and said, have you ever heard of a book we did called “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be?” It’s a small book, costs $10 and sold two million copies. It was an important book for us and I’d like you to read it.”
So I get the book and I’m reading this book and it tells kids, “If you want to be important, take your business card and re-write it so it makes you more important than you really are.”
It’s full of advice like that.
One page says, “When selling your ideas, never promise a successful result.”
That’s a lesson: “Never promise that you will be successful.”
Another one is, “Always show your client what they want. Not what you think you should create for them.” They’re saying, “Do what they want because they are your client.” They have the money and if you show them what you like, they might not like it.
And here’s another one: “95 percent of a client’s budget should be spent giving him what he thinks he wants. The other 5 percent should be spent doing what you think he should run.”
And another, “Do not put good people on new business pitches; they may come up with something too original. And if it’s too original, there’s a good chance they won’t buy it.”
I mean, this is the “advice” they’re giving?!? So I called her up and I said “What a despicable book.”
She says, “Well, we sold almost two million copies.”
I says, “I don’t care if you sold 20 million, it’s despicable. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
That’s when she said, “That’s really why I called you. We’d like you to do a book and do it your way.”
I was so pissed off at that book I said “You’re goddam right I’m going to do a book and do it my way. I’m going to call it ‘Damn Good Advice.’”
So that’s how this all started then? She asked you to read a book, probably knowing how you would react, and that got you all fired up.
Yes! When I sat down to write my book I sat down pissed off. I decided I was going to write a book that could change people’s lives—not only for a young person, but for anybody in any profession. Not just necessarily advertising. I’m talking to fashion designers, interior designers, etc., etc. etc. So I did it with a passion and thought, “let’s keep this thing at ten bucks” so that for the price of a lousy Big Mac and a lousy Coke, you can get this goddam book that might change your life.
It’s obvious that you put a lot of passion into this book.
I was in a spiritual fervor writing it. That’s the way I felt about it. I talk to young people in communications and advertising programs about my book, and boy I’m telling you they levitate when I talk to them. You can’t believe how excited these kids get.
I’m not sure what advice they’re giving in schools these days. I mean, there are good schools and a lot of the teachers are pros, maybe even people I’ve inspired over the years. But when kids hear these things from me, they go crazy. I mean, I look at them and I kinda yell at them—and they go nuts. Every five minutes there’s a standing ovation. They come up after and ask me how they can have a Creative Revolution again.
And I say, “I’m talking to you, but you’re the ones that have to go and do it!”And I say read the book! What do you think I wrote this f*cking book for—I wrote it for YOU!! Start an ad agency. Do SOMETHING!
If I talk to 300 kids and only 10 of them get it, then it’s worth it.
With 120 pieces of advice in your book, what do you think is the most important lesson?
The most important thing in the book is that you walk away with an understanding of how to do exciting advertising. How to get exciting work. But even when you do that, it’s not nearly enough.
Obviously you also have to sell it. To sell good ideas, to sell great work … to do that, you must be courageous. To win work that’s edgy, different, innovative—you have to sell that work passionately, because often your client will say, “we can’t do that.”
You have to sell it body and soul. Even to the point that you are in danger of losing the account. They have to know you are willing to go that far. To be that passionate about your idea.
That may be hard advice for some to swallow. Especially selling to the point of jeopardizing an account.
You know, I got an email the other day from this bright young kid. He’d taken about 30 of the things I said in the book and wrote a sentence or two explaining what he got out of each one. It was lovely, you know? And at the end he said, “But Mr. Lois, lesson number whatever-it-was…I think that’s one thing you should drop outta the book.” It was the part where I say to never let a client force you to do bad work. He said “If you work for an agency, you can’t just drop an account. It would cost you your job, too. You have to do what you have to do.”
But the minute you start thinking that way, an ad agency can no longer be a great ad agency. If you do that as a creative person, you can no longer be a great copywriter, or a great art director. You have to fight for what’s right. You cannot let a client force you into doing bad work.
If you let them force you into doing bad work, you are less than mediocre. You’re just playing the game.
I tell people all of the time, it’s about courage. It takes moral courage—even physical courage—to stand up and say “Godammit, I will not let anybody force me into doing bad work!”
That’s easy for you to say, you’re George Lois.
It’s not easy for anybody. But if you do it my way and stick to it, you’ll be the happiest person in the world. At the end of the day, you’ll look back and say “Boy, I did some really great work.” If you don’t, then you just end up doing what most ad agencies do: get the client to run something-or-other, even though it’s not your best work.
In that case, why bother? I mean, don’t you want to be the best at what you do? Or at least, don’t you want to do good work? Work you can be proud of?
You have to love it and be passionate about it. To this day, I am thrilled that I get paid to do what I do.
So what do you say to the people who subscribe to advice like “Always show your client what they want. Not what you think you should create for them.”
The guy who wrote that other book was a Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi in London. You know, it’s agencies like that that destroy great creative by buying good agencies. That leaves five or six companies to run most of the advertising in the world. I know people that go work for them then call me and tell me “Gee, it’s no fun over here.”
And I say, “Of course it’s no fun over there. That’s because you are not free to do great work!” Places like that destroy good work within the agency before it even gets to the client.
It’s like this: If you want to be great, you can’t pick and choose which lessons to believe in. You have to have moral fiber, you have to fight for your work and you have to do it courageously.
I drag my clients into doubling their business. I DRAG them! Some clients get it right off the bat. But I’ve had to get tough with clients over the years. The longer I worked in the business, the easier it was to get them to say yes to me. A lot of them said “yes” hesitantly at first, but two weeks into the campaign they call me and say “Oh my God, my sales are up 100%!!”
That’s what it’s all about.
I’m not here to make the client happy. I’m here to make them successful.
You were there at the flashpoint of the Creative Revolution and in many ways, touched it off. So, what’s your opinion of creativity in our industry today? How far have we come and have we gone in the right direction?
I talk to some of the best people in the creative business and they don’t get it. They’re almost embarrassed about selling. They are good at making entertaining television ads, but no one remembers the name of the product.
Like the kids I talk to in their classes. This one kid spends all of this time describing a beer ad to me. Everyone in the class says, “Oh yeah! I love that commercial.” Then I ask the class, “What beer was the guy in the ad drinking?”
These 25 kids had an argument for ten minutes and couldn’t agree on what beer the ad was selling. I look and them and say, “HELLO! That’s not advertising.”
If advertising does its job, it almost becomes a benefit of the product you are selling. If your product is the same as everyone else’s, then you need to rely on the words and images coming together in an exciting way. A way that makes your product seem better. Not by lying, of course. But by featuring the product in an exciting way that gets attention.
If you don’t understand that, you’ll never understand what advertising is all about.
Is there anything being produced today that you feel is great work?
When I was still in my 20s, I had an argument with Bill Bernbach. He loved my work and called me in one day and said to me, “George, what’s the best ad DDB’s ever done.”?
So I told him, the campaign I like the most is Levy’s Jewish Rye. You’ve got a great line “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” And you’ve got great images. It was never a rabbi or anything chomping into that sandwich. It was an Irish cop, or a Native American. It’s that synergy that makes a great campaign.
I watch TV today and find myself watching an ad and when it’s done, I turn to my wife and say “What the hell was that?!?” And I’m not kidding, I’m not being a wise guy. I seriously don’t know what the spot was about. Or what the point was. That goes on a lot. It’s unbelievable. It’s not advertising.
When I talk about exciting, creative advertising it’s got to be cause and effect. It’s got to work! If my advertising never worked, I’d be the biggest big mouth that ever lived. The only reason I can shoot my mouth off is because I created marketing miracles—ads that worked!”
People talk about my Esquire covers a lot. What they don’t realize is that Esquire was close to bankruptcy at the time. But my covers helped sell magazines. They were controversial and cost them some advertisers (mostly in the South at the time), but the sales were big. The only reason they let me get away with the covers I did is because they worked.
Then let me ask you this, what is the best campaign you’ve produced?
The best single ad I ever did was the ad that made Tommy Hilfiger famous. One ad! In about three or four days. When the posters went up, everyone in New York was going crazy trying to figure out who that last name was (see ad below).
I called my friend from Page Six in the New York Post, and he said “we are all going crazy over here trying to find out who the f*ck this TH guy is? The next day Page Six had a headline that said “Who the HELL is T_ _ _ _ H _ _ _ _ _ _ _?!?”
The day after that, the Business Pages runs an article asking “Is Tommy Hilfiger famous because of his clothes, or his advertising?” At the time, Tommy only had one little store you know. After that, you couldn’t get in the place.
On the Monday after the ad hit, Tommy was invited to be on the Johnny Carson Show. Johnny had the ad, brought it out, and had this long discussion with Tommy about his career—which was all of a week old at that point.
So yea, I did an ad and BOOM!
Then a few years ago I asked Tommy for a quote for one of my books. He gives me this, “If I hadn’t listened to George Lois in 1985, I’d be poor today.”
One ad concept made Hilfiger an overnight success.
END Part Two: Advertising, Creativity and the State of the Industry Today
Postscript from the author
From that point forward the conversation turned away from advertising and moved toward matters of a more personal nature: friends we have in common and what they are up to now. What an honor to spend time with one of the most influential ad men alive today. The path he leaves in his wake is clear. But who among us is courageous enough to follow?
Maybe George and I will have the chance to chat again soon. I surely hope so. And who knows, maybe this interview will touch off a series of interviews with advertising legends past, present and future. That’s right, I’m looking at you Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein. Call me.