How George Lois Took USA Today From Y&R

Excerpt: Bringing the Adman Before the Newspaper's Brass Was a Risky Move, but the Author Knew the Time Had Come to Take a Chance

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Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines, started as an ad-sales assistant for Holiday magazine. Her career eventually moved her on to sell bigger titles like Travel & Leisure, New York and, eventually (the extremely challenging), Ms. Later she would spend time in the newspaper industry, becoming president of the Newspaper Association of America before she returned to magazines to run the Hearst unit. Now she's channeled her varied experiences into a career-advice book, "Basic Black: The Essential Guide to Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life)."

In 1983, Ms. Black left magazines to become the president of Gannett's USA Today, hired on by its colorful founder, Al Neuharth. She was the third in a relatively short period as the fledgling operation was struggling to build a brand-new media category, the national daily newspaper. Here she recounts just how it came about that George Lois, a radical adman who had just started his own shop, upended established agency Young & Rubicam to win the USA Today account.
Soon after joining USA Today, I took a hard look at the advertising campaign that was promoting the newspaper to readers and realized it wasn't up to snuff. We were a young, dynamic newspaper shaking up traditional notions of journalism, yet our ads didn't communicate that at all. Even though our ad agency, Young & Rubicam, was one of the largest and most prestigious in the country, it just wasn't capturing the message we wanted to get across.

One Monday, I had lunch with a guy named George Lois, a longtime New York adman who had recently formed his own creative shop. Earlier, at the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency, he'd gained fame for a brilliant Volkswagen Beetle ad campaign, and he'd recently done great work for the fledgling MTV channel. George was about as colorful, profane and loud as you could get without crossing the line from exuberance to insanity. My goal for the lunch was to persuade him to buy ads in USA Today for his clients' ad campaigns, but the conversation took quite a different turn when I asked what he thought of USA Today's own advertising.

"It sucks!" he all but shouted, his voice booming through the restaurant. "Your product is fantastic, but you'd never know it looking at those [expletive] ads! I should be doing your campaign!"

Acting nuts
"George, you're probably right," I said. "Our advertising isn't where it needs to be. But as you know, there's a lot of politics involved in any ad campaign." What I was really thinking was, "George, people would think I was nuts if I suggested dumping Y&R for a little agency like yours."

Yet the more I thought about it over the next 24 hours, the more I realized that not only was George Lois truly on fire to do a USA Today ad campaign in a way that Y&R was not, he personally believed in the product. George saw USA Today as a breakthrough, unique newspaper. The Young & Rubicam execs exuded an Ivy League snobbishness toward it. I could picture them commuting in from the Connecticut suburbs, hiding USA Today behind The New York Times so no one would see them reading it -- that's how little prestige and respect the paper got in those early days. But George Lois really got what the paper was about.

So, would it really be crazy to invite him in to do a presentation? Or, as I had begun to suspect, would it be crazy not to? It was early enough in my tenure at USA Today that my colleagues were sure to look skeptically at such a radical suggestion. But if George was capable of creating a better, more exciting ad campaign, wasn't that all that mattered in the end?

Any time you shake up the status quo, you're going to face opposition. People don't like change, especially if that change involves undertaking new tasks without absolute certainty of success. There will probably be immediate negative repercussions -- say, a bumpy start for the new employee or grumbling from colleagues who don't want to learn a new way of doing things. But stay the course, bearing in mind that the only result that matters is the end result. Learn to ride out the flak you receive in the interim, because attitudes will change quickly when your risk ultimately turns out well.

Fresh, exciting, bold
I asked George to put together some prototype ads, and within two days he called to say, "Come on over and have a look." Already, this was a huge difference from a major ad agency, which would have taken at least three months to do brand studies, research, focus groups and on and on. By this time I had shared my secret project with Ray Gaulke, the president of Gannett Media Sales, who, like me, was new to the company. Ray and I were kindred souls and great pals and we'd already found ourselves pitted together against the Gannett incumbents and "old-style" culture. He had also been president of his own ad agency and a creative director to boot, so I enlisted Ray to come with me to George's office to see what he had come up with.

George's ads were fantastic -- fresh, exciting, bold. His in-your-face humor really shone through, and by the end Ray and I just looked at each other with big smiles on our faces. We knew we'd found our man, and a breakthrough, sock-'em-in-the-stomach ad campaign.

But here was the tricky part. I'd done all this without mentioning any of it to my boss, Al Neuharth, so already I'd gone pretty far out on a limb. Now it was time to inch out even further. I needed to get Neuharth's OK for George to show the rest of the Gannett/USA Today team his work. And I needed to do it quickly, since Young & Rubicam was coming in that Friday to present its new campaign.

Have you ever wanted to suggest something new at work, only to back down for fear people would think it was a dumb idea? Or shied away from offering an opinion or making a decision when just starting a new job because you didn't want to rock the boat? Although these are natural and understandable reactions, they also show a lack of confidence in your own instincts.

Instilling self-confidence
Think of it this way: If you're convinced your idea is a good one -- or at least, that it has a high enough potential upside to offset the risks involved -- why would you expect others to torpedo it? Believe in your own instincts and sell your idea. If you don't, who will?

The day before the scheduled Y&R presentation, I went to Neuharth. "Al," I said. "I've invited George Lois in to show us some prototype ads. He wants our business." Neuharth looked startled. "Tell me more about this guy," he said. I explained who George was and how our invitation to him had come about, and Neuharth didn't hesitate. "We brought you in here for new ideas," he said. "So bring this guy in, and let's have a look."

The next day, Y&R presented its new campaign to the top team from USA Today and Gannett. And despite the agency's wealth of creative talent, you could see that nobody was excited. The ads just didn't capture the energy of this bold new newspaper. Responding to our obvious lack of enthusiasm, the Y&R people began suggesting changes -- perhaps this headline could go with this image, or maybe we could tweak the copy -- but as is usually the case, the more they fiddled, the worse things got.

When the presentation finally, mercifully, ended and the Y&R account and creative people left, I told the group that I had a surprise. "George Lois is here to make a presentation," I announced. I looked around the table, and almost every face registered confusion -- who was George Lois? All I could think was, "You're about to find out." At that moment, George came bounding in like a 6'3'' teenager hopped up on Red Bull.

To the wolves
George gave an Academy Award-winning performance. He flung his jacket to the floor, tore off his tie, then flashed one prototype ad after another, prancing around the room and keeping up a running monologue sprinkled with jokes and profanity. It was epic; almost scary. I was thrilled. When he was finished, the room sat absolutely silent. "Oh, God," I thought, looking around at all the dumbstruck faces. "They hated it." I glanced at Ray Gaulke, who raised his eyebrows ever so slightly at me. We were both thinking the same thing -- how could everyone just sit there? Those ads were so damn good! My heart was pounding, and all I could think was, "We're about to get thrown right out of this room, along with sweaty, wild-eyed George Lois."

Neuharth sat absolutely still, his expression hidden behind his dark aviator glasses. Then, mercifully, Charles Overby spoke up. A former newspaper editor, he was then working as Neuharth's executive assistant. I had always liked Charles. And although our backgrounds were very different, with his in editorial and mine in marketing, we always saw eye-to-eye about USA Today and most other things. Charles' sense of humor had saved many a raw moment, and I wondered how he'd break the ice now.

In his distinctive Southern accent, Charles drawled, "Welllll, George, I don't know much about New York ad agencies, but those ads are the first ones I've seen that seem exactly right for USA Today." On cue, as if we were watching a tennis match, all our heads swiveled to look at Al Neuharth, who paused before slowly taking off his glasses. With a smile, he said, "We've got it." Ray and I were so excited, we almost danced on the conference table, and I promised myself silently that I'd follow Charles Overby off a cliff for his show of support.

No doubt
We hired George for the ad-promotion part of our business, a move that, predictably, was greeted with surprise and skepticism within the industry. Once again, we found ourselves being questioned for an unusual decision -- for taking a risk. It would have been easy to second-guess ourselves at that point, but I never doubted we'd made the right choice. And soon enough, that fact was clear to everyone.

George did such a great job that within a year, we gave him all of our consumer-advertising business as well and let Y&R go completely. His ad campaign not only won awards, it changed the perception of USA Today practically overnight. As Charles Overby later put it, the decision to bring in George Lois was the turning point where the old Gannett faded, and the new Gannett began. He called it "breaking the egg." The George Lois story also perfectly illustrates my favorite risk-taking secret: It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.

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Adapted from "Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life)" by Cathie Black © 2007 Cathleen Black. To be published Oct. 23 by Crown Business, a division of Random House. Available online or wherever books are sold.
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