Beginning in the early 1960s, George Lois helped make advertising interesting. As art director at various ad agencies, he was a key player in moving the medium away from the tame and prim and towards the hot and cool.
During the same decade, George helped reinvent the art of the magazine cover while working for Esquire. In 2008, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City devoted an exhibit to the cover images he created.
Lois swears a lot, talks fast, and has a great Queens accent.
Given that your work in advertising was always towards the end of selling something, how much of your artistic vision was defined by business-minded compromises? Well, I’m the wrong guy to talk about compromise. Not because I’m arrogant, but because when I was running an ad agency, I knew that every campaign I did had to be mind-boggling. When I showed the work to a client, if he didn’t look at it like I was nuts, I knew I had nothing. That’s the first problem you have to solve in advertising: how do you make it surprising? It needs to be surprising even before it needs to be good. Every time I showed something to a client, I would stun them. Their heads would go back a foot they were so surprised. But they eventually got it. And if they didn’t get it, I wouldn’t accept them as a client.
Were you able to have the same attitude before you made your name? I was always a bitch. When I was working for Bill Bernbach at DDB — I left there in 1960 — the art directors weren’t allowed to go sell the advertising to the client. I didn’t get it. In my third week, I showed an account guy a poster I did for Goodman’s Matzoh. The poster had Hebrew-style lettering on it — beautiful stuff. The account guy had no idea how to sell something like that. Oh my god, it was different! Of course the client didn’t like it. So I said, “Fuck you” to the account guy and I went and showed Bernbach the poster. Bernbach says, “That’s wonderful! George, that’s brilliant.” I told him the client killed it. He said that’s too bad. I said, “What’s this stuff about the art directors not being able to present to the client. My account guy doesn’t get what I’m doing. I know the consumers will get it, but my guy has no fucking clue.” I was talking to idiots when I was dealing with the account guys. So I said, “Bill, make me an appointment with the Goodman Matzoh people.” He agreed to do it.
Did you make the sale? I’ll tell you. Goodman’s Matzoh was in Long Island City in Queens. Ten minutes on the subway from our office. When people found out me, an art director was gonna go present, Everyone in the agency was like, “This young punk is gonna get his ass handed to him.” So I get to Matzoh place and meet with Goodman — this, like, 90-year-old Talmudic-looking Jew. The whole family is there. They were all ready for me. I get there and start selling my ass off, and one-by-one the younger family members say, “Gee, grandfather, I like this poster.” Still, he says, [Yiddish accent], “I don’t like this.” He does this twelve times. So I go to a window, climb out, and I hung out there holding my poster with my left hand and hanging on to the ledge with my right hand so they could see the way it would look from a store window. And while I’m out there, I yell, “You make the matzoh, I’ll make the ads!” Then I go back inside and Goodman is looking like he’s had a heart attack. He says, “Alright, run it. Run the ad.”
But before I left, he says, “Young man, if you ever quit advertising, I’ll give you a job as a matzoh salesman.”
What’s the lesson of that story? There was no way that an account guy could sell my work as well as I could. I was even more of a bitch when I started my own ad agency, because I wasn’t afraid of hurting everybody’s feelings. I literally didn’t know how to compromise. No art director should know how to do that. 99% of the time the compromise is what kills the good idea. Everything you show to a client should be outrageous. Let them understand it later. You can’t castrate advertising if you want it to be effective. You can’t research a great idea. Everyone will, “Oh I don’t know about that. I don’t know if you can do that.” The client almost always will say that if you give them a chance to. And then they kill it. The minute a client says to me, “Suppose you do this” is the same minute I say, “Forget about it.”
Have you gotten feedback on your work that you thought was valuable? I’ve taken input, yeah. I’ve gotten ideas from other people. I can’t think of any examples right away, but I know I’ve listened to clients and gotten ideas before. I did a book called the Big Idea and what I tried to teach was that you have to understand five, six thousand years worth of ideas of art and culture. When you can do that, you’ll see that ideas come from the things around you. So when you’re assigned some sort of creative problem, you have to then you find out as much as you can about the idea in question — and the competition for that idea. I’m talking about three or four days of just learning. After you do that, there will be an idea there. You just gotta give yourself a chance to discover it. The idea will be there. I’m not being mystical. The idea is fucking there. All you gotta do is use your intelligence and instinct and find it. Sure, a part of it is maybe mystical, but the method I’m talking about begins with gathering hard information.
What’s the last creative thing you did? I’m always working on a big idea. Right now, I’m doing something for a restaurant in Washington, D.C., but I can’t tell you anything about it.
Why not? Because it will surprise the shit out of everybody.