George Lois in 1965
The season premiere of Mad Men this Sunday provided the perfect opportunity to catch up with our old pal George Lois, the legendary creative guru who redefined the art of advertising. (If you’re familiar with the slogan, “I want my MTV!,” or Esquire’s dazzling run of covers in the early ’60s, you know at least a portion of his peerless work.) George’s brilliant new book from Phaidon, Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!), is an indispensable trove of hard-won wisdom from one of the world’s greatest communicators. Buy it today for a friend (with talent)! Then read what he has to say about Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce …
Standard Culture: Excited about the new season of Mad Men?
George Lois: [Laughs] It’s funny. The other night Tina Brown and Newsweek had a little party for it and she asked me to come down. So I go down and I walk up to [Mad Men creator] Matthew Weiner—who has said a lot of things about me, like, “Oh, George Lois is a legend, but the show’s not talkin’ about him!” He doesn’t know anything about anything. So I went up and I said, “Mr. Weiner, my name is George Lois.” He almost had a fuckin’ heart attack. I mean, he backed up about a foot. He was almost afraid of me, so I said something to calm him down so he knew I wasn’t coming there for an argument. I congratulated him on the show and he was just like, “Oh, no, George Lois, you’re great! You were so important to the show!” I mean, come on. He’s full of shit.
Sounds pretty intense.
It was. But listen. Then I go up to Jon Hamm and introduce myself and I mean, my God, was he nice. The guy was like, “Wow, you’re terrific,” and he really meant it. He was thrilled that he was meeting the quote-unquote original Mad Man, ya know what I mean? He was so sweet and so excited about meeting me and after twenty minutes I was leaving and he ran after me and said it again. He kept calling me sir! Hey, I’m eighty. I’ll take it.
You hadn’t met Weiner before?
Nope! I got a phone call. This was before they started the show. They were shooting the pilot and everyone in town knew there was going to be a show about advertising in the ’60s called Mad Men. I got literally dozens of calls from people saying, “Hey George, they’re doing a show about you!” And I’d say, “Nah, I don’t think so. I think I’d know!” But then, finally, I get a call from Weiner’s guy and he said, “Mr. Lois, we’re doing a show called Mad Men.” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard.” And he said, “We’re talking to people who were the original Mad Men and everybody we’ve talked to said, ‘Did you talk to George Lois? Because he was advertising in the ’60s.’” At this point, I said, “Whoa, whoa, time out: You’re doing a show on advertising in the ’60s and you’d never heard of me? You’re fulla shit!” By then I was kinda pissed, so I said, “If you wanna know what happened in the ’60s, I wrote a book when I was 40 called George, Be Careful. Read the goddamn book and you’ll find everything you need to know.” Then I hung up. So then out comes the show and it’s exactly what I expect it to be: a show about a normal, asshole, fuckin’ hack ad agency that’s smoking and drinking like it’s no big deal. I mean, people didn’t drink at ad agencies, even the agencies he’s talking about.
Papert Koenig Lois staff in 1961
It didn’t feel real to you?
The smoking, sure. I mean, everybody smoked back then. But the drinking? I worked at Doyle Dane Bernbach in the late ’50s and that was fuckin’ unheard of! And by the way, there were twelve copywriters, and six of them were women! If you ran around harassing women? Impossible! I mean, maybe on the side, but when I started my agency women were treated with respect. The kind of agency they’re talking about? Maybe. They sucked, and they were hacks. We’re talkin’ about the WASP world. The ad world was driven by WASPs who were anti-Semitic, racist, male chauvinists …
Ha. Anti-ethnic, sure. There were no ethnics in the business. I never heard of one. But that all started to change when the ad guy Bill Bernbach had his epiphany after working with [influential graphic designer] Paul Rand. He realized that you needed two people to make great advertising, and created the world’s first so-called creative agency with the idea of a team of an art director always working with a writer.
What did they do before that?
Before that, art directors were nothin’. They’d sit in a room with their thumbs up their asses waiting for the copy writer and the account guy to come down to their office and give them a piece of paper and say, “Make a layout.” Not, “Design an ad.” “Make a layout.” They didn’t get involved in the creative process. Advertising had always had great writers but what it lacked was visual impact.
1) George’s most famous cover from the Esquire days. Warhol loved the image so much he traded one of his Campbell’s soup paintings for the original. 2) In 1962, Lois chose controversial boxing champ Sonny Liston to play Santa. Within a month, over 700,000 outraged readers had canceled their subscriptions. 3) The Nixon campaign was less than thrilled with this one. 4) His iconic Kennedy tribute 5) Years before the mainstream media was talking about Vietnam, Lois put it on the cover of Esquire. Recognize the model?
Which is where you came in.
Right. So, eventually, me and a few other guys from the agency got it into our heads that there was room for a second creative agency and on January 3, 1960, we started Papert Koenig and Lois, which, by the way, is the same week the goddamn Mad Men show starts! We took a space in the Seagram Building. We didn’t take any accounts—I wanted to start clean—but within a month we’d hit the jackpot. Everyone in the country was talking about us and looking for our ads. I was a fucking rock star. If I went somewhere in the streets people would stop me!
Yeah, I’m tellin’ ya! Oh, and the womanizing thing: It was normal womanizing. It happens all the time. It wasn’t this culture where guys are sittin’ there trying to figure out how to schtup their confused secretaries. Everybody involved with the talented agencies was too busy working hard!
Were you ever a big boozer?
The only drinking I do is a glass of good wine with dinner. I’m Mediterranean. My mother would give me about an inch of red wine from the time I was four-years old. She’d put the glass down and say, “For the blood.”
Excerpt from Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!)
What about cigarettes?
Ne-ver. I knew they were bad for me. People say, “Oh, we didn’t know!” But you had to be out of your mind to think that you could put smoke into your body and you weren’t hurting your body. You had to be stupid. Even when I was growing up and kids in my neighborhood were all smoking at nine or ten years-old. It didn’t make any sense to me. I also play basketball. I never even had a thing of marijuana in my mouth, either. Not that I’m braggin’, or nothin’.
How is that possible?
Never, never. I mean, at one point in the ’70s it was like everybody you’re with was just handing it to you, but I’d always say, “Nah, no thanks.” [Bob] Dylan would say, “What’s the matter, George?” And I’d say, “No, I don’t need that shit. I create my own fuckin’ highs.”
So what happened after Weiner said that?
Right, that. So he was very cordial but also very uneasy. He’s backing off a bit and I’m sayin’ nice things about his show. I’m not sitting there bustin’ his balls. I’m a gentleman. But the harm the show has done is that it’s made every fuckin’ young person in the world think that that’s what the advertising world was like in the ’60s. And the excitement of the ’60s is that it was a heroic fucking period of these seven or eight creative agencies that changed the world of advertising. I’m outspoken, yes, but I’m just protecting my work and the advertising we did. That’s another one of my lessons, by the way: If it looks like shit, and it smells like shit, and it tastes like shit, you’re eatin’ shit, baby! And if you’re eatin’ shit and you’re working at a magazine, or you’re a fashion designer, or you’re a decorator—no matter what creative job it is—you know you’re eatin’ shit. And you know what? Stop eatin’ shit and go and get a better job and do something’ about it. Creating products, creating brands, creating companies—it’s instinctive. You know in every ounce of your body when something is right and the culture is ready for it. I don’t go to people and ask, “Gee, do you think you’d want something like this?” I mean, Steve Jobs did everything he did and didn’t give a fuck what anybody thought. He didn’t give a fiddler’s fuck.