Here’s to the Crazy One. The misfit. The rebel. The ad-maker. The round peg in a square industry. The one who sees things differently. He’s not fond of rules. And he has more respect for The Beach Boys than Status Quo. Twitter quotes him. Disagrees with him. Glorifies but never vilifies him. What it can’t do is ignore him. Because he changed things. He pushed our profession forward… And while some may have seen him as the Crazy One, we saw genius. Because the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the vanilla, timid, data-doting, future-fearing, self-loathing, navel-gazingly discombobulated world of advertising… are the ones who do.
Breaking news. Lee Clow has not died. I just wanted to make that clear amid the avalanche of tributes, retrospectives and quasi-obits currently piling up all over adland. Lee is retiring. Truth be told, he’s shy and retiring. And there’s the rub. Clow is one of the gentlest, most influential figures to have graced our profession in the past 100 years. The avalanche is totally justified. Let it snow…
It’s the mid-1990s and I’m staring, open-mouthed, at a pair of binoculars. Massive binoculars. Traffic-stoppingly gigantic binoculars. Biggest bleedin’ binoculars I ever did see. This is my first and abiding vision of Planet Clow. I was the freshly minted creative director of TBWA\London, we’d kinda merged with Chiat/Day and I’d been dispatched to California for an audience with the great man, to find out what might happen next. 'Appen it was a giant fucking pair of binoculars with an ad agency attached. That’s what was happening next.
Frank Gehry’s Chiat/Day Building in Los Angeles, is known as the "Binoculars Building", for obvious reasons! Fun! pic.twitter.com/RbW47ezNvZ— Arch Journal (@ArchJournal) May 16, 2015
The binoculars loomed large over, and maybe even constituted Chiat/Day’s front reception. This was the handiwork of visionary architect, Frank Gehry. Inside, there were skull and crossbones pirate flags a-fluttering and a boardroom table which had been fashioned from – nay, was – a giant DayGlo surfboard. I’d come from Campaign’s black-and-white world of cheese plants, fire-escape stairs and stern stares. This was tomorrow calling. It was adland, Jim. But not as we knew it.
Turns out, of course, that Lee Clow had not one but two giant pairs of binoculars. One to razzle-dazzle passers-by, would-be employees and potential clients, the other a built-in pair, enabling him to see the future in perfect focus. (Having Gehry and Steve Jobs as sidekicks would have helped that bash…)
There are many campaigns I could cite as evidence of Clow’s future-facing brilliance. But, for me, it’s his "Here’s to the crazy ones" relaunch of Apple, which changed everything. He’d tried and failed to persuade Jobs himself to do the voiceover and had to settle for the second-choice magnificence of Richard Dreyfuss. That’s what I call a lose/win situation. More telling for me was the wilful Americanism of the endline: "Think different." Think bloody different?? Who nicked the "ly"? Lee did, of course. And he tossed it in the same bin as the "s" from "maths’"and the "h" off "herbs". The Calfornication of our world had begun.
And what started as a TV ad soon became a vision. From box to box: the packaging legend "Designed by Apple in California" is one helluva loaded mission statement. This is not America, it’s saying. This is West Coast as nation. And so much of the way we live now echoes the louche, coffee-fuelled Californian lifestyle that had wowed me behind those big binocs two-and-a-half decades ago. Apple ads became inseparable from the product. Everything the brand did under Clow’s guidance was an advertisement for Apple. From the friendly brand name itself, through the then-peculiar pure-white "silhouetted" headphone cables of the iPod posters, to the tactile temple that is the Apple Store. Ad as brand as ad. Told you he could see the future.
Clow's future vision made tech approachable for the masses, fashionable for the very first time. His work saw technology democratised (although probably with a "zee"). Clow and Jobs walked it and talked it. They themselves became the crazy ones who changed our world forever. I am writing this very article on the fruit of their loom. How’s that as a template for perfect agency/client relations? Yet they never got round to boasting about this magnificent marketing miracle because, well, that just wouldn’t be the West Coast way, would it?
I’m proud, honoured, flattered and wowed to have known and worked with Clow. He stood by me when things got tough, cheered me on in the good times and backed me when I went it alone. He’s the main reason I’ll forever consider myself part of the global family that is TBWA. Oh, and don’t you believe a word of this "retirement" nonsense. He’s just updating his Life iOS. To 75. Enjoy the download, Lee. You’ve earned it.
Trevor Beattie is a filmmaker, founder of BMB and former creative director at TBWA\London