Damn good advice

He hates the label, but George Lois is one of the original Mad Men. In extracts from his book, Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!), he shares his thoughts on creativity along with some of his iconic work.

George Lois, the original Mad Man
George Lois, the original Mad Man

My Anti-Slogan: "George, be careful!"

Looking up from my crib on a dark and stormy night, God commanded: "George, be careful." (I remember it well.) My earliest childhood recollections were punctuated by three words (in Greek) from the lips of my mother, Vasilike Thanasoulis Lois: "George, be careful." They have been a refrain throughout my life - a sincere admonition from the lips of people who have always meant well but never fathomed my attitude towards life and work. In the act of creativity, being careful guarantees sameness and mediocrity, which means your work will be invisible.

Better to be reckless than careful. Better to be bold than safe. Better to have your work seen and remembered, or you've struck out. There is no middle ground.

When I was 14, I had an epiphany that inspired my life. Maybe it can be yours!

In the early twentieth century, Kazimir Malevich changed the future of modern art and led the Russian avant-garde into pure abstraction. Thirty years later, as a freshman at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, I was asked to create similar compositions every day in a basic design course. The more we ripped off a Malevich, (or Klee, Bayer, Albers, or Mondrian), the better Mr. Patterson liked it. Bo-r-r-ring!

In the last class of the year, when Mr. Patterson (sternly) once again asked us to create a design on 18 x 24 illustration board using only rectangles and called it a final exam, I made my move. As my 26 classmates worked furiously, cutting and pasting, I sat motionless. Mr. Patterson, eyeballing me, was doing a slow burn as he walked up and down the classroom, peering over the shoulder of each student. Time was up. Growing apoplectic as he stacked the final designs, he went to grab my completely empty board, when I thrust my arm forwards and interrupted him by casually signing "G. Lois" in the bottom left-hand corner. He was thunderstruck. I had "created" the ultimate 18 x 24 rectangle design!

I had taught myself that my work had to be fresh, different, seemingly outrageous. From then on, I understood that nothing is as exciting as an idea.

All the tools in the world are meaningless without an essential idea.

An artist, or advertising man, or anyone involved in a creative industry (or even noncreative professions such as a doctor, lawyer, electrician, factory worker, or president) without an idea, is unarmed. In the graphic arts, when that original idea springs out of a creative's head and intuitions, the mystical and artful blending (or even juxtaposition) of concept, image, words, and art can lead to magic, where one and one can indeed be three.

But creating ideas without a work ethic to follow through is inconceivable to me.

If you don't burn out at the end of each day, you're a bum! People watching me work ask me all the time why I'm not burnt out, how (especially now at my age) I manage to keep going. The fact is, I'm totally burnt out at the end of each day because I've given myself totally to my work - mentally, psychologically, physically. When I head home at night I can't see straight. But I love that feeling of utter depletion: It is an ecstatic sense of having committed myself to the absolute limit. But after recharging at night, I'm ready to go the next morning. Isn't that what life is all about?

A Big Idea can change world culture.

MTV, now regarded as a "sure thing from the start," was an abject failure after its first full year of operation. But in 1982 I got rock fans to phone their local cable operators and yell, I want my MTV. Overwhelmed, the operators called the Warner Amex cable-TV network and begged them to stop running my commercials because they didn't have an army of telephone operators to answer the calls, and Warner Amex immediately surrendered. MTV was alive and rockin.'

A few weeks before, when I had presented my campaign idea to their execs, they insisted that no rock star would assist MTV because music publishers feared the MTV concept would kill their business, record companies swore they would never produce music videos, advertisers considered it a joke, ad agency experts snickered, and cable operators scoffed. But with one pleading phone call to London, I convinced Mick Jagger to help (for no dough), and 20 years before the bad boy of rock became a knight of the realm, I anointed Sir Mick the patron saint of MTV. Within a few weeks of the premiere of Jagger picking up the phone and saying I want my MTV, every rock star in America was calling me, begging to scream I want my MTV to the world.

The lesson (which most ad agencies have never understood) is that great advertising can perform a marketing miracle!

Reject Group Grope.

Think about this: Decisive, breakthrough creative decision-making is almost always made by one, two, or possibly three minds working in unison, take it or leave it. Collective thinking usually leads to stalemate or worse. And the smarter the individuals in the group, the harder it is to nail the idea. Certainly, in my experience as a mass communicator and cultural provocateur, I know this to be absolutely true: Group thinking and decision-making results in group grope.

Reject Analysis Paralysis.

Get the Big Idea, think it through - it all fits, you know it's right, you know it's ambitious and aggressive, it thrills every cell in your body. Does it work in print? Yes. Does it make a gangbuster TV spot? Yes. Put it all on paper and sell it to your client. Do not analyze it. Trust your gut. Trust your instincts. In all creative decision-making, analysis involves conjuring up not only the pros, but also those hidden, spooky cons - and discussion about the cons is, ipso facto, analysis paralysis.

If all else fails, threaten to commit suicide.

At Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1959, I created a Passover subway poster for Goodman's Matzos. My headline was in Hebrew with two universally understood words (at least in New York), Kosher for Passover, and under it, a gigantic matzo. When the account man came back with a resounding no from the client, I went to my boss, Bill Bernbach, and insisted he make an appointment with Goodman's honcho, an Old Testament, bushy-eyebrowed tyrant, a master kvetch. The matzos maven yawned as I opened with a passionate pitch. When I unfurled my poster, he muttered, "I dun like it." I disregarded him and pressed forwards, selling my guts out. The tyrant tapped the desk for silence as one, then two, then three of his staff registered support for the powerful Hebrew headline. "No, no," he said, "I dun like it!" I had to make a final move - so I walked up to an open casement window. As I began to climb through the window, he shouted after me, "You going someplace?" He and his staff gasped at me as if I was some kind of meshuggener, poised on the outer ledge three floors above the pavement. I gripped the vertical window support with my left hand, waved the poster with my free hand, and screamed from the ledge at the top of my lungs, "You make the matzo, I'll make the ads!" "Stop, stop," said the old man, frantically. "Ve'll run it." I climbed back into the room and thanked the patriarch for the nice way he received my work. As I was leaving, he shouted after me, "Young man, if you ever qvit advertising, you got yourself ah job as ah matzos salesman!"

It helps when you have a sharp-eyed client.

When asked to create a poster by Garry Kasparov's handlers for the World Chess Championship between Kasparov and his brilliant challenger, Anatoly Karpov, at the Hudson Theater in Manhattan, I created the ultimate confrontation in the fierce combat of chess. Kasparov's business managers insisted that Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess player in history, would be oblivious to it - and forbid me to show it to him. But after an argument lost in translation, I defied them, and when I presented the poster to the Russian chess genius, the white chess piece between his profile and Karpov's hit him like an emotional illumination, and he gasped the words "Na Zdorovye,tovarich! Kasparov and Karpov, nose to nose, and betveen them, ah vite kveen!"

Great work must be presented to the person that has the power to accept your creations. The problem is that the underlings in any business or enterprise can always say "No" (and many times do), but have no power to say "Yes" - so you must get past them and present to the decision-maker!

"Too many notes, my dear Mozart, and too beautiful for our ears."

Emperor Joseph II

I've worked for plenty of tough clients. I relish working with benevolent tyrants - I usually get them to okay my work (not just my work, but my moxie!). I've made a few startling miscalculations - mistakenly assuming I would be working for an entrepreneurial personality with balls and passion. When I found out that I was completely wrong, and great work fell on the deaf ears of a bureaucrat, I (politely) walked. Big Ideas in any creative industry should be reserved for clients of vision and imagination - who can recognize talent and are determined to milk that talent to its limit. Don't waste your time on the Emperor Josephs of the world.

Sometimes, what the hell, go all out and be totally outrageous.

Sometimes I've gone (knowingly) overboard. In 1985, a young fashion designer with a boyish grin and an unpronounceable name was totally unknown when he was launched with a Tommy Hilfiger store on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The first ad in my campaign (and an identical outdoor billboard blatantly placed across the street from the offices of the schmatta kings) challenged the reader with an outrageous, audacious claim. Overnight, the burning question in town became "Who the hell is T____ H_______?" Tommy Hilfiger became instantly famous and set off an avalanche of national publicity within days. This original Tommy campaign was a self-fulfilling prophecy because the young Hilfiger soon became the most famous and successful designer brand in the world.

P.S. The Hilfiger ad infuriated the fashion industry. In Newsweek and People magazine, Calvin Klein insisted we had spent $20,000,000 (two zeros too many). A few months after the ad appeared, Mr. Klein, obviously livid as he watched Tommy's growing fame, saw me having dinner with my wife and friends one night at Mr. Chow's, strode over, stuck his finger in my face, and blurted out: "Do you know it took me twenty years to get where Hilfiger is today!" I politely grabbed his finger, bent it, and answered: "Schmuck! Why take twenty years when you can do it in twenty days?!"

Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!) by George Lois.

Paperback, £5.95, published by Phaidon, March 2012.


All images are courtesy of George Lois except where otherwise credited.

Book design by George Lois and Luke Lois/Good Karma Creative.

(c) Phaidon Press

A truly great ad campaign is driven by a Big Idea that contains: 1. A memorable slogan! 2. A memorable visual!

A memorable visual, synergistically blending with memorable words that create imagery which communicates in a nanosecond, immediately results in an intellectual and human response. The word imagery is too often associated purely with visuals, but it is much more than that: imagery is the conversion of an idea into a theatrical cameo, an indelible symbol, a scene that becomes popular folklore, an iconographic image. And this imagery should be expressed in words and visuals or, ideally, both! Shown is a sissy, superstar tour de force of some of the greatest macho sports icons of the 1960s, weeping and moaning I want my Maypo! (an oatmeal cereal) on TV, a single-minded merger of words and pictures that American kids ate up.

Dollars ellebrity: Learn the art of using celebrities to sell a product.

Enlisting a celebrity to sell cat food, an airline, off-track betting, an analgesic, or a lube job would seem to be a delusionary strategy, fraught with irrationality (and seeming suspiciously to be motivated by a starfucker mentality). But let's face it, it's a starstruck world. We're all suckers for a famous face. A celebrity can add almost instant style, atmosphere, feeling, and/or meaning to any place, product, or situation - unlike any other advertising "symbol." The trick is to conceptually choose celebs that will ignite your advertising concept (and then convince them to forgo big buck compensation!). Enlist the perfect celebrity that gives you the power to project new language and startling imagery that enters the popular culture, and advertising communication takes on a dimension that leaves competitive products in the dust.

When celebrity ... is transformed into dollars ellebrity.


In an age when heroes are villainized and villains are lionized, a creative image can make an iconic statement.

In 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused induction into the army, he was widely condemned as a draft-dodger, and even a traitor. When he had converted to Islam, he had become a black Muslim minister, and Ali refused military service as a conscientious objector because of his new religious views. A federal jury sentenced him to five years in jail for draft evasion, and boxing commissions then stripped him of his title and denied him the right to fight, in the prime of his fighting years. This incredibly controversial Esquire cover became an instant iconic symbol of a period of nonviolent protest in those turbulent times. My statement nailed down the plight of many Americans who took a principled stand against the Vietnam War. Three years after I depicted Ali as the martyr Saint Sebastian, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously threw out Ali's conviction.

No matter what stage you are in your career, use your creativity to stand up for our heroes, and protect your culture against the villains.

Why I resent being called the "Original Mad Man" (and why, if you "get it," you have a shot at following in my footsteps).

In the very first week of 1960, at the time the Mad Men TV series is based, I started Papert Koenig Lois, the second creative agency in the world, inspiring and triggering what is revered today as the Advertising Creative Revolution. The 1960s was a heroic age in the history of the art of communication - the audacious movers and shakers of those times bear no resemblance to the cast of characters in Mad Men. This maddening show is nothing more than a soap opera, set in a glamorous office where stylish fools hump their appreciative, coiffured secretaries, suck up martinis, and smoke themselves to death as they produce dumb, lifeless advertising - oblivious to the inspiring Civil Rights movement, the burgeoning Women's Lib movement, the evil Vietnam War, and other seismic changes during the turbulent, roller-coaster 1960s that altered America forever.

The more I think about Mad Men, the more I take the show as a personal insult. So, fuck you Mad Men - you phony, "Gray Flannel Suit," male-chauvinist, no-talent, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-semitic, Republican SOBs!

Besides, when I was in my 30s I was better-looking than Don Draper.

When you meet your mate, don't let her (him) get away. (Your creative juices will flow forever.)

On my first day at Pratt, I spotted Rosemary Lewandowski, a second generation Polish-American, who had come to New York City from Syracuse, N.Y., to build an artistic career and meet cultured people. Instead, she met me. I saw her face, and after a lo-o-o-ng check of her legs, I knew she was the woman who would be at my side the rest of my life. For 60 years she has loved me, fed me, raised our kids, nurtured our grandchildren, was one of the few female art directors of her time, has a career as a dynamic easel painter, and sees (and okays) everything I produce and then some - working with me as a thinker and copywriter on work I usually take credit for.

Having a mate who understands and contributes mightily to your ethos of life and work is a blessing beyond measure.

If you're a man, and you still think a woman can't compete with you, she's about to blindside you, pal.

Jack Nicholson famously said, "These days, women are better hung than the men." In the days before the Women's Liberation movement, men totally ruled in art direction and design - but women have come a long way, baby. Before the Advertising Creative Revolution in the 1960s, a few bravely fought the system (Cipe Pineles and Reba Sochis), but there have been many superb female art directors since then, including: Ruth Ansel, Bea Feitler, Louise Fili, Janet Froelich, Maira Kalman, Nancy Rice, and Paula Scher. These days, if you're a female with talent (and if you've got balls), the opportunities as a graphic designer, architect, film director, fashion designer, interior designer, etc., are more abundant than ever.

Is what we do Art?

Creativity in advertising and graphic design, as I practice it, is art. My professional practice derives directly from romantic ideas of the superhuman artist. I insist on the inviolability of my graphic work, all created with an ethos of allegiance to art rather than science, even though they powerfully serve a commercial purpose. I am an artist - and as it has thrillingly been for artists in the twentieth century, outrage is the dynamic practice of my career. The great creative personality is the archetype of the nonorganization man, and defying convention in spectacular ways should be the driving force of the life of the entrepreneur and all of us who work in a creative industry.

If you're talented and passionate enough, you too will create Art!