Lunch with George Lois

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With a bottle of Greek wine on the table in front of him, George Lois held court on a recent afternoon at one of his favorite New York establishments, the midtown restaurant Estiatorio Milos. The calamari was on the way, to be followed by crab cakes, but there would be no humble pie at this meal; Lois, now in his 70s and semi-retired, is still as boastful and blustery as he was back in the days when he helped lead the Creative Revolution at his upstart agency, Papert Koenig Lois. After decades of jumping around from one agency venture to the next - building a legacy that includes several legendary ad campaigns and some of the most memorable magazine covers ever produced (for Esquire, in the late '60s and early '70s) - Lois has settled into the life of a freelancer, working on projects for a handful of clients. But the bad boy hasn't mellowed. He still wears a black leather jacket, still plays in-your-face basketball at the Y, and still takes on all comers - including the young ad geniuses of today and the Hollywood elite who dis advertising. No one is safe when Lois is dropping bombshells all over the nice white tablecloth.

Berger: What do you think of the creative work being done these days?

Lois: We've gone through a strange period. I don't know what's worse, the marketing stiffs who are forcing agencies to do too much research and end up doing hackneyed stuff, or this whole trend of guys doing advertising that nobody understands. You watch it four times and still say, what the fuck was that? So you've either got the hackneyed shit, or the guys flying by the seat of their pants who don't know what the hell they're doing.

Berger: But shouldn't people be flying by the seat of their pants somewhat - I mean, trying to break the rules?

Lois: But the problem right now is that a lot of people have grown up inundated with the feeling that you should do advertising that doesn't feel like advertising - that it should never be asking for the sale. Everyone gets confused and starts thinking that part of being hip is not being understood.

Berger: You don't buy the notion that if the audience can easily recognize it as advertising, they're going to tune it out?

Lois: They didn't tune out stuff I've done. People aren't tuning ads out. The more they watch commercials, the more they love them - as long as it's great advertising. Great advertising, in and of itself, becomes a benefit of the product. Almost every product in the world is just as good as every other product. But we have to do advertising that makes it seem better than the other product. That's not lying, that's just giving the product a luxury, a drama, a hipness, a sharpness. If you don't understand that, you don't understand what advertising is about. And a lot of young people in the business right now don't understand that. They really do think advertising is something dishonest. And that's why they try to do advertising that isn't really advertising, it's anti-advertising. But I think these people are in denial. The first thing you have to understand in this business is that you're a salesman.

Berger: You did something that was unheard of in 1960 - you left Doyle Dane Bernbach, just as the agency was peaking.

Lois: People thought I was crazy, because it was like nirvana there. When Julian Koenig and I told Bernbach that we were going to leave, he almost fainted at his desk. And he said, "George, you're making a mistake, there can only be one creative agency in the world." He really thought DDB was a freak of nature. And I said, "Well, Bill, I think you're wrong. I think you're the trunk of the family tree, and we're going to be the first big branch, and then if we're successful, there will be other branches." And that's what happened - out of our agency came Carl Ally and Wells Rich Greene and Scali McCabe Sloves, and so on.

Berger: Didn't you once threaten to jump out a window if a client didn't approve your ad?

Lois: That happened while I was still at Doyle Dane. I had only been there a few weeks, I did a poster for matzohs, and an account guy came back and said, "They don't like it." And I said, "What do you mean they don't like it!" And I went to the client, and threw open the window and said I'd jump if he didn't buy the ad.

Berger: And it worked?

Lois: Yeah. But I would never try it again. Because somebody would probably say, "OK, jump, you dumb fuck."

Berger: You guys were serious ballplayers, too, right?

Lois: We played hard at sports, and there would be fistfights on the basketball court. I still play that way. I really am the oldest basketball player in the world. When new guys come in and see me, they kind of groan. And then I get right up in their nose, right in their adenoids. I play like a crazy person. And then afterwards it gets turned off, and I become an old man again, I can hardly walk.

Berger: The famous Esquire covers you designed - Andy Warhol drowning in a soup can, Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian - how different was that from creating ads?

Lois: I thought of it as package design. I had a great product to work with, all I was trying to do was make the covers as exciting as the stories inside, so people would know how good the magazine was. I ended up doing those covers for 10 years.

Berger: Could you express things in editorial that you couldn't do with your advertising?

Lois: It allowed you to really comment on the culture every month. And they let me do anti-war covers, which was important to me.

Berger: What did Ali think about the St. Sebastian cover?

Lois: He comes into the studio, and I had a painting of St. Sebastian to show him how I wanted him to pose. And he says, "This cat's a Christian, I don't think I can do this." Then he ends up putting me on the phone with Elijah Muhammad, who gave his blessing. And Allah be praised, we finally shot the cover. Later, when I was trying to get Hurricane Carter out of jail, I convinced Ali that the guy was innocent, and he became the head of my committee.

Berger: How'd you get involved with Carter?

Lois: I read his book, The 16th Round, and went to meet him in jail. I showed him an ad I wanted to do. It said, "I have been in jail for 4,565 days for crimes that I did not commit." Then in smaller type, "I have 287 more years to go." It showed his cell number with bars around it. Just a tiny ad, which I ran in The New York Times, with my own money.

Berger: It's interesting that some people might be willing to consider the Esquire magazine covers art, but perhaps not your ads.

Lois: That's true. In fact, I was at a memorial service for [designer] Saul Bass and I met Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, who were big fans of the old Esquire covers. They asked what I've been doing since then, and I told them I'm an advertising man. And I could see they thought, Advertising? Like I'd sold out. When I wrote a book years ago and called it The Art of Advertising, a lot of art directors were really disturbed that I would use the word art. And I said "Look, I'm an artist, I don't care what you think you are." Advertising ideas must work on people, but I try to make it inventive, surprising thinking, that looks the way I want it to look. Maybe it's not art with a capital A, but it's some kind of art.

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