If you’ve read my bio you may recall I worked for a guy named George Lois out of college. That’s George over there on the left, about 30 years before I ever met him. I came across this piece today where George kind-of-but-not-really lays claim to being the real-world inspiration for another anti-hero of mine, Don Draper. I thought it was worth sharing a reflection on him.
Who’s George Lois?
No one is better at telling George’s story than George, so here’s the topline:
George Lois is the most creative, prolific advertising communicator of our time. Running his own ad agencies, he is renowned for dozens of marketing miracles that triggered innovative and populist changes in American (and world) culture. In his twenties he was a pioneer of the landmark Creative Revolution in American Advertising. He introduced and popularized the Xerox culture; he created the concept and prototype design for the New York supplement for the Herald Tribune (the forerunner of New York magazine); made a failing MTV a huge success with his “I Want My MTV” campaign; helped create and introduce VH1; createda new marketing category, Gourmet Frozen Foods, with his name Lean Cuisine; and (by inventing yet another new marketing phenomenon) persuaded America to change their motor oil at thousands of Jiffy Lube stations. He made the totally unknown Tommy Hilfiger immediately famous with just one ad; and saved USA Today from extinction with his breakthrough “singing” TV campaign. In 1994, almost overnight, he changed the perception of ESPN from a “Demolition Derby” sports channel to the number one sports network with his dynamic “In Your Face” campaign. Additionally he created the winning ad campaigns for four U.S. Senators: Jacob Javits (R-NY); Warren Magnuson (D-WA); Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-PA); Robert Kennedy (D-NY). His list of breakthrough ad campaigns goes on and on. Additionally, the only music video he created, Jokerman by Bob Dylan, won the MTV Best Music Video of the Year Award in 1983.
George Lois is the only person in the world inducted into The Art Directors Hall of Fame, The One Club Creative Hall of Fame, with Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Society of Publication Designers, as well as a subject of the Master Series at the School of Visual Arts.
George has seen it all, done it all, sold it all, smoked it all, drank it all, and shot hoops the next day at 5:30 in the morning. His press sheet (.pdf) is 34 pages long. I always felt he could take me when I still had the body of a division I football player and he was 70. The guy is a force of nature.
What I Learned from George
I learned a lot from George… about how to sell, about what clients really want, about how to protect the integrity of an original thought, about the value of creating a personal brand, and about the personal price of believing you’re as good as the world thinks you are, especially when you are very good indeed.
But the most important thing I learned was that advertising that doesn’t get your attention “ain’t worth shit.” That advertising boils down to getting people’s attention long enough to communicate a simple, compelling thought in a way they will never forget.
What You Can Learn From Him
While the era of social marketing presents us with new tools to obtain that attention – an arguable shift from the loud and well-endowed (at advertising’s worst) to the useful and truthful (at social marketing’s best) – that last part – delivering a simple, compelling thought that moves the target to action – remains elusive.
Is there a simple, compelling thought at the core of your social marketing effort? What do you need people to take away from it, really, for it to impact your business?
If you don’t know off the top of your head, your target doesn’t either.
A gratuitous story, if you’re still interested.
I was working on the ABC Sports account with my first boss and still good friend, the great Andy Brief of DeVito-Verdi. Dennis Swanson, the High Overlord of ABC Sports at the time, was unhappy with Andy over something stupid I’ve long forgotten, and had summoned George and the GM of our agency, Jon Tracosas, to their offices on Central Park for a Big Meeting.
The tension was thick. As we sat down in an old growth mahogany conference room, and attentive skirted attendants poured our iced water into crystal glasses, Dennis began.
“This doesn’t require a meeting, George. We think a lot of Andy, we would just like to bring a new face onto the team, and the chemistry with some of the folks here at the network could be better. We’re very happy with the agency and your work, and really do wish Andy the best as you transition him off our account. We’d just like to bring in some fresh blood, in the context of our great and ongoing relationship. Has there been a misunderstanding we need to clear up?”
“No,” said George. “No misunderstanding.”
“Your guy says get rid of my guy, and I say ‘fuck you.’ He’s my guy, and he’s good. Maybe you should get rid of your guy, and we can talk.”
Then George stood and began to leave the room.
There was a moment that lasted a lifetime. Those of us from the agency stood to follow him, flushed with anxiety and pride, while the network execs sat frozen, eyes on Swanson. A true clash of titans, and the first one who spoke would lose.
“George, George, calm down…” said Dennis Swanson, the hand-picked successor of Roone Arledge in the most profitable division of the #1 network in American television. “We can work this out. Maybe I over-reacted…”
Andy worked on that account for another 4 years before moving on, on his own terms.
Anyway, that’s George. Much to learn from a guy like that.