Cannes 07

Lee Clow on What's Changed Since '1984'

Bob Garfield Talks With the Legendary Adman

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NEW YORK ( -- Cannes is upon us, which means all the big creative mucky-mucks will soon be on the Carlton terrace chewing on black olives and the advertising issues of the day. Tragically, Bob Garfield will not participate this year due to a much better offer elsewhere. So he grabbed an opportunity for a pre-Cannes conversation with TBWA Chairman and ad legend Lee Clow.
Photo: Stephanie Diani

TBWA Chairman Lee Clow

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Bob Garfield: Are you an ad guy still?

Lee Clow: I guess I'm an ad guy. I've been at it so long that that's, I guess, the moniker. I found my way into advertising because I loved, kind of, the art of communication. I was inspired by the '60s and Bernbach and all that stuff, that it could be smart, it could be artful, it could be interesting. So I always feel a little bit mixed, because advertising has such a, kind of, a damning definition, and at the same time, I love it when it's done well. And that's what I've tried to do for a lot of years.

Mr. Garfield: Where do you think advertising is headed in a world dominated by binary code?

Mr. Clow: The world has evolved to a place where brands that need to speak to their audience have to understand that everything that they do is media. Everything that they do is telling their story.

It's not as simple as it used to be. You could kind of dominate an audience by GRPs on prime-time television, and that's all you had to do. Now people have become very, very sophisticated. They can ultimately decide how they feel about brands by evaluating all their messages. And their messages include product, stores, packaging, internet, conversations that people are allowed to have about those brands -- whether they're producing stuff in Asia in sweatshops, whether they're as ethical or green or whatever as the world wants them to be.

As opposed to just being this new digital age, I think it's this new age of transparency and kind of obligation that everything that a brand does is a message, and it needs to be done artfully and truthfully and intelligently, because that's how people are ultimately going to evaluate brands that they want to do business with. And I think ultimately brands are going to become media.

Mr. Garfield: Has the creative community not been informed that there's a digital revolution going on?

Mr. Clow: It's been a little bit of dragging traditional creative people kicking and screaming into the notion that we're going to do complete media expressions for the brands we work for, and we aren't going to start with TV; we're going to start with ideas.

Creative people are 50% ego and 50% insecurity. They need to constantly be told they're good and they're loved. And nobody's figured out a way to celebrate the people who do interesting, multimedia accomplishments on behalf of brands. Sometimes it ends up being looked at as just kind of integrated marketing, where everything uses the same typeface and the same color. So it's kind of denigrated by, oh, well, it's just, you know, that old integration, whole egg bullshit. And sometimes it's viewed as, that's the interactive guy's job, and I'll do the main media. ...

We had a conversation that didn't go too far with Ridley Scott's company about creating a kind of alter ego to Cannes called a communication-arts festival in Cabo San Lucas ... to try to figure out how it can celebrate kind of the new forms of film plus other new media and make it a new kind of judging ... a show that tries to flip it all on its head. And it lost, kind of, momentum and enthusiasm, because it's hard to do when you have a day job.

Mr. Garfield: So you agree one issue is creative mentality?

Mr. Clow: You also have a generational thing. I'm, like, the oldest guy in the business, and I think I get it, but so many of the older creative people are just comfortable in what they learned to do and what they like to do and what they care about. The kids that are doing the coolest stuff in our agency are these young bloods and these young, just-out-of-school [kids] who love the idea of doing all media and love the idea of doing underground YouTube films. So it's also going to be a bunch of the older creative people retire or die, you know, and young people smart enough to know what they love doing may be the ones that figure out how to celebrate or recognize it.

Mr. Garfield: They're coming to the agency not wanting just to get their reel together?

Mr. Clow: They just want to do anything and everything. ... I remember when I started at Chiat/Day. ... I wanted to do the brochures; I wanted to do the T-shirts. ... What I've always loved to do is build a brand that's so cool that you want to wear their T-shirt. It's built out of all these media forms, not just the TV ads. It's been a long time coming.

Mr. Garfield: One of my big gripes with Cannes and other shows is that it emphasizes the wrong values, of being hilarious and dramatic and spectacular at the expense of creating connections between brands and consumers.

Mr. Clow: One of the things, as I've gotten older, that's frustrated me with shows is, for the most part, the people I respect aren't judging those shows. They're some, you know, young, newly appointed associate creative director or creative director who's still full of himself, and he's looking at the coolest directors and the funniest spots and the most outrageous stuff as being the criteria.
Lee Clow
Lee Clow Credit: Stephanie Diani

I've always said there should be something that has to do with the degree of difficulty. Do a car commercial that doesn't suck: now, there's a challenge. I've sat at shows where, you know, as soon as a car comes on the screen, they just push the zero button and, you know, want to fast-forward through the spot and not even watch it. You know, they don't care even if the idea of the spot is somewhere in there. ... Meanwhile, then you've got the ... what are those awards that we win all the time?

Mr. Garfield: They're the Effies.

Mr. Clow: Yeah, the Effies.

Mr. Garfield: Can I pin you down here? Cannes does more harm than good?

Mr. Clow: I still think it stimulates creative people to try and be brave and do interesting stuff. And then it seems like it's the agency's responsibility to try and harness the creative talent and enthusiasm and point it at a marketing problem and so on. It's like coaching a basketball team. The players are young, multimillionaire kids that can do amazing shit. And the coach has to make them play together and win championships. If they were left to their druthers, they'd be out there trying to out-slam-dunk each other and not sharing the ball. So you're basically harnessing.

Mr. Garfield: What happened with Wieden & Kennedy and Nike?

Mr. Clow: Wieden & Kennedy is my hero company. I know Dan really well. ... [It's] a great brand to work for. They've, in all media historically, pushed the envelope ... including interactive, including online stuff. ... They were there before anybody, doing it for Nike. They've been there doing packaging for Nike. They've been there doing stores for Nike. They've been a media-arts company for Nike ... except for the fact that Nike ends up hiring a bunch of people who want more control and don't want Wieden & Kennedy to have so much control. As long as Dan Wieden is there, it's the closest thing they have to having Phil Knight still at the company. It's sad and insulting that they took the interactive stuff away from Wieden & Kennedy, because they've led, and they have the ability and the understanding to make it a cohesive part of the brand.

Mr. Garfield: Was that not a "holy shit" moment for every agency manager in the world?

Mr. Clow: I often over the years have said we're in the Rodney Dangerfield business. When they take BMW away from Ammirati & Puris, who invented the whole f -- -in' brand, you know, the Ultimate Driving Machine, just because some new marketing guy shows up. ... Every time that there's one of those insulting, we-don't-get-no-respect moments, I get disgusted with our business. And this is just another one. At the same time it's out of naiveté on behalf of a lot of these chief marketing officers, if you want to call them, in terms of trying to figure out how to do it, that they would pull something like taking the interactive away from Wieden & Kennedy.

Mr. Garfield: Can your agency, as it is structured financially, make any money serving a client's whole marketing agenda?

Mr. Clow: We have to figure out a way to get paid for our ideas, own some of our ideas in perpetuity. If Ammirati still owned the Ultimate Driving Machine and got residuals every year, like the voice-over announcer and the music people do when they rerun spots, it would be a much fairer model. But instead it's just a commodity, and we pay you whatever we pay you, and we own that line forever, and you can't come after it. I'm a huge champion that we're going to -- we should move to a compensation model that has to do with our talent, our creativity and our ideas and the storytelling ability that we have in all media. If we don't do that, we are going to either be sliced up or eclipsed.

Mr. Garfield: If I were John Wren, what advice would you give to try to make that economic transition from a vendor model to a compensated-for-ideas model?

Mr. Clow: I can't tell him what he should do across the board on Omnicom, because that's not the way he does it. I'm just telling him what we're trying. I'm saying we're going to wrestle control of media back. ... We're going to create the ideas that are media, on behalf of our clients. And I'm going to figure out how to get paid for what our brains contribute to our clients' business, rather than just our hourly timesheets and/or the media spin being the criteria by which we get paid.

I just shake my head. This is not a do-able thing.

I think it will be done. Whether it will be done by a giant network like TBWA or whether it'll be done by the small agencies that are being born now, who will grow into the next generation of ... quote, advertising agencies ... I don't know.

But as long as I'm coming to work, I'm going to try and do what I think our clients ... deserve from a company like ours. And hopefully we'll try and figure out how to get paid for it. We get paid for it from Apple. And that's been a very personal deal from the very beginning. As long as we succeed, you succeed. It's a very simple model. It doesn't have to do with anything other than when we're doing good, you're going to do good. If we go out of business, you lose the account. There's a way of being respected for your ideas and your contribution in a new model.

Mr. Garfield: The Snickers spot on the Super Bowl -- what was your agency thinking?

Mr. Clow: You tell that joke in some company, and it makes them laugh. You tell that joke on the Super Bowl, and there's going to be enough people who say, you know, that's anti-gay, or that's offensive, or that's anti- ... oh ... Bubba. That's part of the responsibility we have in terms of trying to push the envelope and do brave stuff.

The Monday after "1984," there were lots of agency types who basically said, "That's the most irresponsible commercial that was ever done. They didn't even show the product. Apple's in big trouble with IBM. How did the board of directors allow that to be run? What kind of stupid people would run a commercial three months ... oh, you know, three weeks before you can even buy the product?" So it comes with being daring that you're going to f -- - up sometimes. But I'd rather apologize than to be so timid as to not to try and do anything smart or brave.
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