Women to Watch 2007

The Creativity Interview: Lee Clow

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At the end of 1997, TBWA/Chiat/Day's peak year of the '90s, TBWA Worldwide chairman and creative director Lee Clow valued one achievement above all others - above that year's reunion with Steve Jobs and Apple; above the contagious success of the Taco Bell Chihuahua; above the agency's breakthrough "Yellow" campaign for ABC. Winning the Levi's account, a classic American brand, run out of San Francisco for its entire history, was the topper. Last month, after four turbulent years in which client and agency never quite clicked, Levi's moved its U.S. business, without review, to its U.K. agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty. "The disappointing part is losing the brand," Clow says now. "Losing business out of the West Coast and out of the San Francisco market, that's the sad part of it."

TBWA/Chiat/Day, like most agencies, had a tough 2001. "It wasn't a very good year for launching and making brands famous," Clow notes. "We certainly didn't win a lot of new business, and we lost some. It was one of those bad years." Chiat suffered, like many West Coast-based shops, from the burst of the dot-com bubble, which provided nearly half of the agency's $600 million new-business wins in 2000. In 2001, the agency placed second in the largest pitch of the year, losing out on the $400 million AT&T Wireless account to Ogilvy & Mather/New York. Kmart crumbled all the way to Chapter 11, and Levi's headed east. In a way, it looked like 1995 all over again - the year Jay Chiat sold out to Omnicom and many pronounced the agency over. Just two years later, however, Chiat/Day was again among the top creative agencies in the world. No one, in other words, is better equipped to take the long view than Clow. After 30 years at the same agency - save a youthful stint at NW Ayer spent finding out what he "didn't want to do for a living" - the 58-year-old Clow has been, as he says, "on this roller coaster for quite a while." And, as with roller coasters, the Levi's dip came with a compensatory hill - the Adidas business he has coveted for years. "If you asked anyone to step back and characterize this agency, one of the things we're most proud of is how enduring and resilient this company is and this brand is," he says. "We've lost a lot of great accounts. We lost Apple once and got it back. We lost Nike. But we always find a way to bounce back and do something new and fresh."

"It's a brand I've lusted after for a long time," Clow says of Adidas, which TBWA landed just days before Christmas. "We did a stint with Nike in the mid-'80s, but I always wanted to get my hands on Adidas. It's a truly authentic global sports brand. It's got history." TBWA certainly has the resume for the job. The agency held the Nike account during the 1984 Summer Olympics, and North American creative director Chuck McBride, for one, arrived at the San Francisco office after working on that brand at Wieden & Kennedy.

"We've got some very good credentials in terms of a lot of us having history with either Wieden & Kennedy or Nike or both, and having seen that brand change at least one facet of the advertising industry," Clow says. "You can't argue that Nike led people to rethink how you can stage brands, how you can make them part of popular culture. With a lot of our people having had experience around that brand, and it being one of those categories that demands famous advertising, it's a huge opportunity." At the same time, the challenge for Adidas, particularly in the U.S., will be to succeed where other brands - namely, Reebok - have failed and escape Nike's gravitational pull in the category. Clow says that's a problem that was faced head on in the winning pitch. "Our whole discussion with them was: You do not have to act like Nike. You do not have to take Nike's lead. You should carve out your own reason for being and your own point-of-view on the planet. You have a brand that if we can capture your soul and your passion for sport and for making equipment for 75 years, and then articulate that in a very imaginative, creative way, that is what will make your brand resonate, that's why people will gravitate to your brand. Not because you're an imitation Nike or you're trying to be a fashion brand per se."

TBWA will share the brand's global business with 180/Amsterdam, part of Adidas' previous ad regime. One of the reasons the account went into review was that the company's ad efforts had become fragmented and piecemeal, especially in the U.S. Chiat/Day's L.A. office will take the lead on U.S. creative with global duties split between TBWA and 180 on an assignment basis; an effort to give the brand a clear global message. According to Clow, Adidas' task is clear. "It's to stand up and act like its own brand," he says. "Take its own honest point of view as a brand that's everywhere in the world and isn't trying to pander to the U.S. market but is being itself."

Looking back on the last four years, Clow concedes that Chiat/Day never found that message for Levi's. "We just never grabbed ahold of it with both arms and found a place for them to live," he says. "Partly because they were pretty confused about who they were and who they wanted to be." The agency did good work on the account, starting out strong with an outdoor campaign featuring simple type messages - "Tommy wore them"; "Calvin wore them"; "Donna wore them" - highlighting the debt owed to Levi's by the designers cutting into its core market. A campaign featuring awful, but individual, karaoke performances, and last year's singing bellybutton spot all generated buzz, but these flickers of brand essence never really caught fire - something Clow attributes to client-side changes throughout the agency's tenure. "We were going from one ad to the other, not trying to harness the overall power of the brand, by virtue of whoever gave us the assignment," Clow says. "Each one was developed in a vacuum, as opposed to as part of a continuum."

He contrasts that with the relationship he has with a client who, in many ways, seems like Clow's alter ego -comebacks, legendary leadership and all - Apple's Steve Jobs. "It was a very funny parallel," Clow says. "With Apple - with a single, forceful leader - we sat down and said, 'Let's reforge the brand and commit it to all the values that the brand's about.' And they went about making products that were dedicated to the spirit of Apple. That company's back solid as ever as a very cool, interesting alternative to the giant computer brands. With Levi's, we never had anyone to sit down with and say, 'Let's capture the soul of this brand and then prove it with product and all that kind of stuff.' It was a just a little too decentralized."

Not surprisingly, Apple has been Chiat's most aggressive client in the downturn, launching not only new campaigns but also new products, from the new iMac to the iPod MP3 player. As Clow observes: "Steve Jobs doesn't like to play defense either. In terms of the advertising business, when it hits a downturn, lots of people contract into believing that 'OK, now we got to play defense,' " Clow says of how troubled economies affect creative departments. "You combine that with the fact that most advertising companies play defense anyway, and it's the toughest time to coach an agency through to the light at the end of the tunnel." Clow, however, is strictly an offensive coordinator. "You come up with the biggest and smartest ideas that can help a client deal with a bad economy, that can help a client launch a product even if the timing turns out not to be ideal." He's referring particularly to XM Satellite Radio, which Chiat helped launch last year with a huge ad push despite setbacks brought on by the economy and September 11. "Even in these tough times we managed to launch a new technology and a new product." And despite having created what he calls the "poster-boy for the dot-com era" - the Pets.com sock puppet - Clow thinks such aggressiveness is what will carry Chiat and other West Coast agencies through. "Staying on the offense is the key," he says. "I still think the West Coast media arts community is the strongest on the planet. It's got the most talent and the most ability to view what we do for a living in forward-thinking ways, so I have no concern about the West Coast rebounding. It's just a recession. You deal with it."

As for his own future in the business, Clow, who five years ago talked of passing the torch to the next generation, says he's not going anywhere. "As long as I'm a better coach than anybody else in the company, I'm going to stay and do that. We had our window in the '90s; now we're looking for our window in the 2000s."

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