Lee Clow: The Ad Industry's Creative Godfather

And at 62, a Legend Still in the Making

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- In 2005, during the annual madness of Cannes, word got out that TBWA chief Jean Marie Dru was going to make a break for Havas. Lee Clow hopped a plane to Nice, where he was met at the airport by Mr. Dru, with whom he'd forged a close bond.
Photo: Stephani Diani
As he approaches the autumn of his career, 62-year-old Lee Clow is keeping as tight a hold on his surfboard as he is on his creative genius.

Companion Feature:
Photo Journey Through a Lee Clow Day

Creative mastermind
"He came to me as a friend and a brother," said Mr. Dru, who describes Mr. Clow as "somebody more stubborn than me." He wouldn't say, however, what the agency's creative mastermind said to persuade him to stay.

Mr. Clow, however, divulged the bones of the conversation: "I told him we could walk away with something that can be a very triumphant end to a great career," Mr. Clow said. In short, they could meet Jay Chiat's challenge -- a challenge that has become an eternal conundrum in the world of huge, consolidated agencies: Become big without being bad.

In a sense, the conversation between the two men was a mission statement for the last chapter in Mr. Clow's storied career. Could he oversee the addition of once-dreaded package-goods marketers to the TBWA roster without the agency becoming a bureaucracy or a commoditized production line for cookie-cutter creative?

Media Arts Lab
The answer appears to be yes. Mr. Clow, Mr. Dru and the rest of the agency's brain trust had framed a plan to reinvent the agency with a new concept called the Media Arts Lab, and even back in 2005, Mr. Clow already thought it was working. "I basically told him we were pulling it off," Mr. Clow said.

And, showing off a pragmatic side that complements his considerable creative skills, he also cautioned Mr. Dru that he'd find a snake pit at Havas and would be "used by Havas and [Vincent] Bollore."

Yes, Mr. Clow still shows up at the office in shorts and sandals, the boyish uniform of his Malibu surfer youth. But the fact remains that, at 62 (he'll be 63 on Aug. 3), one of the industry's preeminent creative minds is approaching retirement age. And while he's not one to talk about hanging up his surfboard, or relinquishing his title, the chairman-chief creative officer of TBWA Worldwide has shown signs he's thinking legacy.

Chips on their shoulders
For many years, the surest death knell for a Chiat/Day creative was to be viewed as -- or worse, actually designated by press release -- Lee Clow's heir apparent. The half dozen or so creatives in that league "ultimately left with a chip on their shoulder," said one high-ranking TBWA creative.

But that's changed. Chuck McBride, who works out of the San Francisco office, has the title of North American creative director, and Rob Schwartz took over the Nissan account in Playa del Rey. Earlier this year, Mr. Clow took the stage in a tux at a Los Angeles advertising dinner honoring Mr. Schwartz as "Leader of the Year." Mr. Clow and a bikini-clad babe took the stage to present Mr. Schwartz with a handmade surfboard.

To many in the audience, the eye-welling presentation felt almost like a ceremonial changing of the guard. Not so, Mr. Clow said. The surfboards have been handed out to many. And Mr. McBride, among those mentioned as a Lee Clow successor, believes TBWA will never be able to roll out a replacement. "Nobody's going to replace Lee, Dan [Wieden], Jeff [ Goodby] and Rich [Silverstein], [John] Hegarty, [Phil] Dusenberry," Mr. McBride said.

Madison Avenue legends
Mr. Clow's account of the Dru affair, though, is one of the rare times he has publicly acknowledged thinking about the end of a career that started in 1968. The past few decades have put him in league with Madison Avenue legends Ogilvy, Bernbach and Dusenberry, and seen him amass a portfolio that includes the Energizer Bunny, the Taco Bell Chihuahua and, of course, the Apple "1984" spot, arguably the greatest of the 20th century.

All of that work was created at what is now TBWA/Chiat/Day, one of few agencies at the time that would allow Mr. Clow to remain close to one of his true passions, surfing. Unwilling to move to New York after graduating from art school, he joined N.W. Ayer's Los Angeles office in 1968.

Then he heard about Jay Chiat and Guy Day's agency in Los Angeles, and undertook one of the most pivotal ad campaigns of his career: a two-year self-promotion he dubbed "Hire the Hairy." He put stickers in parking places at the shop. He put a beard on the jack in a jack-in-the-box and sent it to the agency. "Guerilla marketing before its time," he said.

1984 L.A. Olympics
It wasn't the last time Mr. Clow fired up a guerilla effort -- he was the architect of the supersized Nike billboards for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which jump-started the ambush movement -- nor was it the first time he had turned on the marketing charm for a personal crusade.

Back in 1963, he supported his surfer-dude lifestyle by working in a bowling alley. There he met his wife, Ilene, a woman 14 years older than he, who had two children. "She was very cute, and I would hang around and take her out for coffee. I wasn't old enough to drink," he said. Some acquaintances, though, didn't think the match was a good idea. "I am an obsessive person, and when I find something I want to do, I make it happen. I didn't listen to [them]."

For 25 years, Mr. Clow and Mr. Chiat created a fresh, upbeat California style of advertising perhaps epitomized by their 1985 spots for California Cooler, a wine and fruit drink, filmed at Mr. Clow's surfing spot.

"I consider myself the luckiest person on the planet," Mr. Clow said. "Having something I care that much about is a blessing."

Smartest, simplest marketing idea
At work, Mr. Clow stands at a large bench where art can be spread out. From there, he practices what has become a hallmark of West Coast creative leadership: a hands-on approach he hopes will serve as an example and inspiration to those around him. His genius, contemporaries say, is to synthesize, to look at a wall full of creative ideas sketched out on thin paper, and extract the smartest, simplest marketing idea, whether it be one of his own, such as "Dogs Rule," for Pedigree, or one thought up by the staff, such as "Impossible is Nothing" for Adidas and "Shift" for Nissan.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Chiat introduced Mr. Clow to Steve Jobs. That led to a collaboration that spawned some of advertising's most celebrated work: the "1984" spot for the Mac; the iPod silhouettes; and, Mr. Clow's personal favorite from his entire portfolio, the 1997 "Here's to the Crazy Ones."

The impact of the Apple work, the "1984" spot in particular, still reverberates.

Myth of the Super Bowl commercial
"He created the myth of the Super Bowl commercial. ... It's still the gold standard. Generations of people have been trying to do the same thing. It's impossible," said Alex Bogusky, executive creative director of today's hottest shop, Crispin Porter & Bogusky. "Advertising was one thing. After Lee, advertising was another thing."

Of course, not every piece of creative Mr. Clow touched in his career has been a resounding success. He was, in effect, taken off the Nissan account after the expensive campaign tagged "Life's a journey. Enjoy the ride" (the Mr. K spots). And Taco Bell left after the popular "Yo Quiero" effort failed to ring up enough people-food sales.

Although they worked side by side, Mr. Clow acknowledges he and Mr. Chiat frequently didn't speak. Fred Goldberg, a retired former Chiat/Day executive, was present when the Chiat team gathered before its final meeting with Steve Jobs for approval of the "1984" commercial. "Jay arrived from New York in a surly mood," Mr. Goldberg said, and proceeded to vent at everyone, including Mr. Clow. "Lee took a lot of shit from Jay. Lee is a saint."

Management by 'nudging'
Sainthood, naturally, is in the eye of the beholder. Mr. Clow has been known to mix it up and has a reputation among some younger creatives as "mean." Others, however, take his outbursts as "passion" for good creative that are not to be taken personally. Still others say Mr. Clow manages by "nudging," placing a stack of ads on a desk as a "hint" of what he likes or wishes the agency had done. "I tell people what I expect of them, and they figure it out by themselves," he said.

A conductor's baton given to him as a gift is cause for reflection. "I was a pretty good soloist when I joined the orchestra," he said. "But I think I'm a much better conductor than I was a soloist. If we can make beautiful music, that makes me happy. ... And different people end up getting to do the solos and get the standing ovations. ... I'd love to have the most famous virtuosos on the planet working in this network."

That's why he's not planning on giving up the podium just yet. "Why would I want to retire when I get to hang out with very smart young people who think I know something and ask my advice?"

Oddly enough, one such young person, the guy who just might be the true heir to the Clow surfboard, never actually worked for him. Mr. Bogusky said he attended a seminar once where Mr. Clow spoke. While Mr. Clow was walking around in flip-flops with a backpack, Mr. Bogusky was in a suit. "He was a surfer dude, and I was a surfer pretending to be a businessman." When other speakers talked about battling with clients, Mr. Bogusky said he became depressed and decided, "I can't do this." But when Mr. Clow talked about how his agency had huge garbage bins of work that had been ditched because it didn't make the grade, Mr. Bogusky realized: "I can work hard. That I can do."

'Terrfied of Mr. Clow'
He was "always terrified" of Mr. Clow, he said, even after Crispin won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Recently he has gotten to know him a little bit more, however, and last year did a one-on-one interview with him that was filmed by Creativity magazine (and is available at Adcritic.com).

In that interview Mr. Clow talks about his developing legacy project -- the Media Arts Lab -- which is essentially a way of seeing the agency as a participant in consumer culture rather than as a creator of commercials. "He's changed the business over and over, and it would be foolish to think he can't do it again," Mr. Bogusky said.

Yet, at the end of the typical Lee Clow day, there's a simpler goal: Making ads that don't suck. "I've never wanted another job and never wanted another wife," he said. "Maybe I'm rare and odd. For some reason, I knew this was where I wanted to be and where I wanted to stay."
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