Q&A with Legendary Ad Man George Lois


Long before there was a Don Draper, there was George Lois, a creative revolutionary and advertising world legend. (Note: That stunt that Don pulled on Lucky Strike in last night’s episode of Mad Men? Pure Lois.) His MTV, Tommy Hilfiger and ESPN campaigns have been oft imitated and the subject of many a marketing class. Lois also did a bid as creative director for Esquire magazine during their golden age of publishing, and is the author of nine books on the subjects of advertising and creativity. We recently had the honor of visiting with Mr. Lois. Check out some choice bits from our conversation — from what Mad Men gets wrong to how he helped save MTV — after the jump.

On his Esquire covers: I had a conversation with Tina Brown about that there are so many magazines these days all still just doing these same bullshit celebrity covers. I had done mostly celebrity covers, you know, at Esquire. They just weren’t kiss ass celebrity covers! Well some where, I mean like when I showed Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King resurrected at Arlington, I was saying they were saints but that’s what I think of them. But Richard Nixon having makeup applied or Muhammad Ali being impaled by the arrows of his critics — those were thought out celebrity images — good and bad.

I still used people as images — I just didn’t always put them in a favorable light if you know what I’m saying. The point isn’t loving celebrity. It’s about people looking at that celebrity as an image, a visual image with an impact and manipulating that person’s image to the needs of the task at hand. To tell a story. The truth was I never considered myself an “art director” at Esquire. I’m an advertising guy. I took them on as a media and communications challenge.

On what he likes in media today: I still like Vanity Fair. Love New Yorker, especially their political covers. If something happens on a Tuesday or Wednesday and a cover comes out Monday and nails it, that’s awesome. They did it with that Obama and Hillary Clinton cover where they are in bed together. With advertising — in the ’60s people would talk about advertising. That doesn’t happen today the same way — except when people rate the Super Bowl ads, that suck I think lately.

On Mad Men: People really think that’s what it was like. Parties and broads and what the fuck. What no one on that show mentions, is all the fucking hard work we did. All-nighters, hours that would make these kids today plotz. Also, the advertising industry in the ’50s was a hotbed of creativity. One big difference was there was never a synergy between the writers and the creative directors before. Bill Bernbach was a big influence back then. He was a wise ass that did things his way and showed that words and images could work together. I went to his agency and then left to start my own and opened up a whole ceiling for the creatives that now saw there was room for more agencies that focused on the creative side. It was a revolution of creativity that changed the culture of advertising in America and was made up of people like me, who where passionate about what we did and didn’t go around schtupping our secretaries. Shit we didn’t have any time to get laid!

On advertising and “poison gas”: I was on a talk show talking about advertising and it was me and the President of J. Walter Thompson at the time, or some agency like that. He said he thought advertising was about doing the research, making the ads and asking for the sale from the consumer. I said, “I think me and this guy are in a different business.” I said, when they got to me, “Well, I think advertising should be like poison gas. It should make you sweat and get you totally excited till you keel over! It should knock you on your ass.” And all over the papers the next day, it’s, “New York ad man calls advertising poison gas,” but I meant it as a metaphor! That it should be something visceral. Something that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go.

On the “I want my MTV” campaign: MTV was in operation and they couldn’t get [cable providers] to pick them up. I told them we needed to get them a rock star and we needed them to get on the airwaves saying, “I want my MTV!” That simple. I wanted celebrities on the air picking up the phones, to show you had to call your cable station and ask for that station back then, saying “I want my MTV!” So we made some calls and I got told Mick Jagger, who we’d reached out to, is on the line. I couldn’t believe it. So I give him the pitch and he’s says that he’ll be in New York the next week and he’s in. So I tell the MTV guys we got Mick Jagger. So we go to the studio, and he’s late, but he finally gets there to my relief, and we shoot the spot. Within six months we had something like coverage within 98% [of the cable providers] in America. The rest is history.