Mad Man George Lois | Interview, part one
Thursday, September 6th, 2012
Text by Saundra Marcel
Photos by Noah Kalina
Forget the television show. George Lois was there, working on Madison Avenue, famously cranking out controversial covers for Esquire magazine, and creating legendary ad campaigns from the 1960s until he retired in 2000. Ever the straight shooting anti-Don Draper (even now into his 80s), George Lois tells us exactly how it was (and how it wasn’t), and how it is today.
George Lois is a fighter. Literally—he’s a huge fight fan, and he’s fast to assure me that he’s still totally capable of kicking ass in the ring. Or out of it. “I haven’t been in a real fist fight in years,” he says, dreamily. This notorious 80-year-old ad man still boxes, frequents the basketball court, and when he’s feeling frisky, will most definitely rock a pair of pretty darn stylish cowboy boots. No fear. Lois has applied this “just do it” mentality to his entire career. Or, better said in a more Lois-like fashion: “Fuck ‘em.”
It’s this fight—combined with a brilliant creative mind—that’s made Lois such a force to be reckoned with. He’s always fought hard for his ideas, and as a result, his ad campaigns from the late 1950s and 1960s have become legendary. They broke all the oldschool rules; they were the antithesis of what other agencies were doing at that time. Screw what “the man” says and execute a brilliant idea—even better if it’s controversial. Historians now call this time in advertising “the creative revolution,” and Lois was among those to drive it.
Although some people have referred to Lois as one of the original Mad Men, Lois was not like the type portrayed on TV. He worked at ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) for a year, and then left to start his own agency, Papert Koenig Lois (PKL), in 1960. His focus there was solely on the work, and there was no time, nor a desire, for three-martini lunches and scads of schmoozing. If a client didn’t like his idea, well, the client could pretty much just shove it.
“You have to be able to tell clients when they don’t know shit,” Lois says. “Clients don’t know how to judge good work. The minute a client forces you into doing bad work—that’s it—you’re mediocre. You just gave up the chance to be a great designer.” Sure, any client daring to dismiss a concept was just about guaranteed to get a foul mouthful from Lois, but it was not about his ego. It was about the idea. “You have to be courageous every day in your life,” he says. “If a client thinks it’s too edgy, that means it’s just perfect.”
But clients are not the only ones on the receiving end of Lois’ moxie. Today, it’s his entire profession. “No designer today blows me away (other than a handful of architects) and there is no living artist that I ‘follow’ or think will ever join the pantheon of the greats,” he says. And for being such a prolific ad man, Lois has developed a surprisingly strong distaste for most things advertising. “It’s no good anymore. I never see anything these days where I say, ‘Snap! Mother-fucka.’ There’s just no balls.”
Though designers do get his praise...kind of. “It’s not their fault. There are great designers—the talent is out there. But the problem is, they can’t get anywhere. Designers are handcuffed by editors and salespeople, and they can’t do anything unusual."