Lee Clow on Advertising, Then and Now

Even Though the Biz Has Changed, Legendary Adman Still Sees a Lot of 'Joy' in It

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Lee Clow's coming back to Cannes.

Lee Clow
Lee Clow

After a lengthy hiatus, the ad legend is returning to the South of France as the 2013 honoree of the prestigious Lion of St. Mark award—given to an individual for his or her contribution to creativity in advertising. Only Dan Wieden and John Hegarty have earned the award before Mr. Clow.

When Mr. Clow launched his ad career 40 years ago at the agency then known as Chiat/Day, it had a pair of accounts and 10 staffers. His most known work is for Apple—he was extremely close to co-founder Steve Jobs. Mr. Clow pioneered the discipline of “media arts” and is chairman of TBWA/Media Arts Lab, Apple's lead creative agency.

While in Cannes, Mr. Clow will take the stage with an old friend, George Lois. The two outspoken admen will reflect on the past, present and future of advertising. “George is crazy altogether, and between the two of us we add up to more years than most of the agencies in business,” said Mr. Clow. “We have a lot of history we can reflect on, and [we can] talk about our simple values and discipline back then, when advertising was a respectable business compared to today when there is so much confusion about what powerful marketing communication looks like.”

We asked for his observations on what's changed in adland over the past four decades. Here's what he had to say.


“Brands have the ability and access to connect with people in all kinds of ways and have an ongoing dialogue and relationship with them as opposed to the monologue, how it used to be.”


“We haven't come close to figuring out how to use all these new-media opportunities, and most clients are very conflicted about what media they should use, why and how. They keep thinking there's some new silver bullet in the new-media world that will allow them to save money or find a new way to twist consumers' arms.”


“There's still a lot of the joy and energy [in the ad business] but it's ultimately harder. We seem to be doing so much more interesting work, but only a small fraction of it ends up seeing the light of day. The disappointment in the industry is that clients know less than they ever have in terms of how brands should behave. That makes our job incredibly difficult due to the number of fresh ideas we invent, and then clients' trouble with making decisions and pulling the trigger.”


“Our business is supposed to be this incredibly creative [business]. But the creativity that we bring to [how we get] paid for these beautiful ideas is archaic. Clients want to have the lowest bidder do the job, and we are so desirous [for business] that we take it on the low bid. Every other creative industry has figured out intellectual property, but we don't get paid anything for genius ideas that wind up being a huge asset for the brand, like Ammirati & Puris' idea about BMW being the "Ultimate Driving Machine.'”


"I came into the industry when it was moving from a less-respected creative form to a more-respsected one by virtue of the ideas and artfulness of how brands were telling their stories. Like DDB and Volkswagen. There's always been a respectable tier of advertising and a bunch of crap. Now a lot of it is being regarded as old school crap instead of new school, artful communication. The reason I've been calling what we do media arts for the last five years is because I would like the definition to change and the respectability to come back to big advertising networks. We have to claw our way back to respectability. I keep saying and wishing it's time for another creative revolution to harness all these new media ideas and execute them in artful ways. It's not been done yet. We are clumsily trying to get to the place we want to be. Ultimately, it will be the next generation of my company and the industry that does it."

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