"We're not so dissident from what they believed," said the agency's worldwide chief creative officer. "They believed in an honest, engaging way to connect with consumers."
But from a communications standpoint -- hell, from any standpoint -- the world has become a more complicated place, he said. Creative leaders have to be better able to deal with the multimedia environment in which most consumers have grown up. It's an age when traditional media concepts are obsolete.
TOSSING THE RULE BOOK
"No rule book will tell you how to target the masses anymore," Mr. Clow said.
For that matter, the task of connecting brands and people is itself a moving target, he contended, one that today's creative leaders have to approach in a vastly different way than their predecessors.
"The best of us understand the sociocultural realities of people and how they interact with the media," he said. "If we didn't, we couldn't make the kinds of messages that people would be able to connect with."
Under Mr. Clow's guidance, the work of TBWA Chiat/Day has connected in ways that often seem to generate as much admiration for the agency as controversy. That doesn't seem to bother the 55-year-old art director, who has achieved legendary status during his 25 years at the agency.
"I don't think I'm an icon or a poster boy for a particular kind of advertising,' said Mr. Clow, often portrayed against his will as the master of work that cares more about entertainment than sales. "What I've built in my lifetime is the Chiat/Day brand, and I think I've contributed a lot to its soul and philosophy."
FOCUS ON THE WORK
The creative success TBWA Chiat/Day enjoyed in 1997 serves to reaffirm Mr. Clow's belief that to be focused on the work is the only way to go: "The top management of the agency has to be driven by the product of the agency; they have to have the philosophy that the work is paramount."
He points out that while David Ogilvy may have had his rules, "they were about how to communicate, not how to keep an account or keep a client happy."
Many people say Mr. Clow has been reinvigorated in the wake of the 1995 Chiat/Day merger with TBWA International.
"Here's a guy who has taken over a global agency network and dealt with issues like multiple offices and stock and Omnicom and all that, and has kept his focus on the work," said Steve Hayden, president-worldwide brand services for IBM Corp. at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, who worked on Apple's "1984" spot with Mr. Clow.
What makes Mr. Clow such a compelling figure right now?
"If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be resilience," said Steve Rabosky, former creative director of the agency's Venice, Calif., office and soon to be creative director-global brands at Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York. "Lee was always able to deal with whatever upheaval came along."
Added agency co-founder Jay Chiat, "Lee's great strength is his incredible innocence. He is disarmingly honest, and clients really believe him."
Mr. Clow's easygoing nature and casual air also have earned him undying loyalty from those who've worked with him With his trademark beard and shaggy locks, he's most comfortable in shorts and sandals.
Mr. Clow -- who believes bad advertising constitutes at least 80% of the work out there -- accepts the heightened degree of scrutiny his agency's work seems to invite.
"It comes with the territory, but then you have two choices: You can be invisible and innocuous and boring, and then you don't have any of this responsibility," he said. Or, if creatives try to raise standards and do something that gets noticed, "you leave yourself open to the risk of being called irresponsible and controversial and all the other things that people like to tag this kind of work with."