Lee Clow on How a Holistic View Can Stave Off Brand Extinction

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If Lee Clow had to point to the one thing that he was proudest of in a long and legendary career in advertising, it would be the "Here's to the Crazy Ones" work, part of the "Think Different" campaign launched when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997.

"That helped him kind of reclaim Apple before he invented all of the products that changed everything," Lee told me.

Steve, he said, was very involved in all aspects of "Crazy Ones."

"We wrote it, he rewrote it, we rewrote it -- it went through a number of rounds -- but Steve did not just sit back and wait for us to put copy on the desk. He told me personally it was one of the most emotional moments in his life when we restated Apple's ambition and goal with that commercial."

He was even going to do the voice-over until the last minute. "I tried to talk him into being the voice, but he was smart enough to tell me ... that people would think it was about him and not about Apple -- and this had to be about Apple. And I'm sitting there saying, 'This is hard, working for a fucking genius.'"

Lee told me this story during a video interview for his induction into the AAF's Advertising Hall of Fame. The interview took place in what I mistakenly referred to as the offices of TBWA in Los Angeles. But Lee was quick to correct me. We were in the offices of TBWA/Media Arts Lab, which he heads up.
The name reflects Lee's view of advertising, which has broadened over the years, even as he feels the marketer's view has narrowed.

"I coined this notion of media arts a number of years ago -- even before so many new media had appeared as part of our business -- kind of out of frustration. I always felt like the word 'advertising' was limiting. … Our job is to harness the power and tell the stories of brands, and the more I worked with brands I realized that everything a brand does, really, is advertising.

"All things are media, all things are advertising," he added. "But when you say you're in the advertising business, people think, 'Oh, you make TV commercials.' But I think everything is brand building and everything is advertising. So media arts tries to embrace all of that stuff."

Packaging included. "Packaging is something I always loved but it wasn't supposed to be what an advertising agency did," Lee said.

If everything is advertising and brand building, then the TBWA/Media Arts Lab offices are the perfect package. The first floor, bright with skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows, is wide open except for a cafeteria where employees get free eats. (My fave was the banana and Nutella on a bran muffin.)
The second-floor offices are wrapped around the sides of the building looking over the center below. Lee loves dogs, so you can bring yours to work. (The dogs don't get free food because they all have their own dietary issues and allergies.)

Lee's office overlooks the floor below. It isn't fancy -- no doors and half walls -- with a long worktable and an Apple desktop computer. I had heard that Lee likes to direct his own interviews, and he plunked himself down in a plush armchair covered in a canvas black-and-white print of dogs. We set up our cameras accordingly, and we just started talking.

I mentioned to Lee that I bet not too many clients shared his broad views on advertising. "Yeah, it's frustrating." There was that word again.

"Lots of clients want to put you in a box. Particularly in this day and age when digital agencies and media companies have been separated from the ad agencies. They all kind of claim their distinct territory and want advertising agencies to kind of stay in their little lane and not try to branch out and do other stuff."

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That, Lee said, can lead to extinction. "If you can't prove that you can harness the totality of a brand -- the power of a brand's ability to tell stories -- you're basically turning yourself into the proverbial dinosaur.

"I believed it then and I believe it even more now" that it was a mistake when ad agencies spun off the media functions. "Media thinking is so much part of the creative thinking that it was a mistake, and I think you'll see them ultimately come back together."

The agency scene has gotten so "fractured," Lee contended. It created an opening for the chief marketing officer phenomenon, which he described as "these people that show up and decide they're going to change everything and stay for a year and a half and then leave after they've made a big mess."

There's also a lack of institutional and industry knowledge. "Most of the clients as they come up, the new young ones -- now that I'm old, they all seem so young -- I don't think they even have any history of understanding of how brands are born."

And because agencies are not as strong as they once were, Lee told me, the result is that a lot of brands are "wandering around not knowing where they're going or what they're doing."

Unlike Apple, a brand that seemed to know exactly where it was going for the past two-plus decades. Lee's career was deeply intertwined with both the company and its leader. He described his relationship with Steve Jobs as "a rare opportunity" to have "a friend and a genius that allows you to do his advertising."

Apple's most famous commercial, "1984," almost never aired. "We did this amazing film with Ridley Scott. It was very bold, very brave -- what Steve demanded." But the Apple board got cold feet about showing the spot during the 1984 Super Bowl. They said it didn't show the new Macintosh or explain what it did. "We were told to sell off all of the time. We didn't sell off one of the 60s -- accidentally on purpose -- and it ran."

But Lee believes that big ideas such as "1984" are few and far between.

"I've felt my whole career that my ambitions for the brand … probably exceeded the ambitions of the client we were working for—particularly when you're working with an ad manager or some CMO that doesn't meet with the CEO more than every six months. … You're usually caught in the circumstances where the person you're trying to sell a brave 'Holy shit, nobody's ever seen an idea like that before' idea to doesn't want to lose his job and probably just wants to get promoted.

"It basically ends up leaving passionate people frustrated -- terribly frustrated -- that their best ideas are left on the floor. … You'd think that between caring a lot and having a track record of doing some good things that you'd get a little more respect from a 32-year-old kid that just came out of Harvard with an MBA and is telling you how to do advertising. But no."

Lee told me, despite the frustrations, he's had "the most amazing, incredible opportunity to find this business when it was just turning creative."

Lee landed his first job in advertising at N.W. Ayer & Son in 1968. He then spent the next two years running a guerrilla campaign -- called "Hire the Hairy" -- to get hired by Chiat/Day. It worked and he's been there ever since. (In 1997, Omnicom bought Chiat/Day and merged in with TBWA.)

He realizes how lucky he was, "finding Jay Chiat and Guy Day, and staying here for 150 years or however long I've been here and doing what I do. The frustrations and disappointments are totally outweighed by the fact that I've had an incredible history in this business and got to touch some amazing brands and do some amazing work."

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