LEE CLOW: TBWA Chiat/Day’s Creative Guru - Lee Clow became the creative director of Chiat/Day in 1977 and has been its guiding force ever since. He talks to Caroline Marshall about Jay Chiat, TBWA, St Luke’s, Apple and winning Levi&rsquo

TBWA Chiat/Day’s ’think different’ campaign for Apple Computer salutes ’the crazy ones, the rebels, the troublemakers, the ones who see things differently’. It could easily have been written about Lee Clow, the chairman of the agency and worldwide creative director of TBWA International.

TBWA Chiat/Day’s ’think different’ campaign for Apple Computer

salutes ’the crazy ones, the rebels, the troublemakers, the ones who see

things differently’. It could easily have been written about Lee Clow,

the chairman of the agency and worldwide creative director of TBWA


At 54 and with another ten years’ work in front of him, Clow is one of

advertising’s living legends, the assured hand behind some of the most

memorable commercials ever made. Through the 70s Chiat/Day attracted

attention with its work for Honda cars (’the Hatchback of Notre Dame’),

Pioneer stereo systems (’have an eargasm’) and Suntory whisky (’from the

bonnie, bonnie banks of the Yamazaki’). Apple’s ’1984’ commercial, which

launched the Macintosh computer and ushered in the era of megabudget

SuperBowl ads, was Clow’s. So was the 1984 Nike ’I love LA’ spot with

Randy Newman. He set loose the ubiquitous Energizer Bunny who romped

through parodies of other commercials. He guided Nissan - still the

network’s largest client by far - towards its ’enjoy the ride’


Over the past year, Clow is considered to have had something of a

creative renaissance - thanks to his and his disciples’ work for Apple,

Nissan, Taco Bell, the Weather Channel, Absolut Vodka, Sony Playstation

and a successful pitch for the Levi’s domestic account.

In an industry and a town that takes its toll on marriages and careers,

Clow has been married to the same agency for 25 years and the same woman

- Eileen, 13 years his senior - for 29 years. Initially an art director,

but always a creative with an instinctive understanding of clients’

marketing problems, he became creative director of Chiat/Day in 1977 and

has been its guiding force ever since.

Like a symbol of Chiat/Day’s legendary renegade aesthetic, his clothes

communicate his attitude to the business: that the work is more

important than the glitz. He wears faded Levi’s jeans and shirt, a

Lumberjack jacket, a gold chain. His out-of-work passion, when not

sailing or walking his dogs near Palos Verdes, where his house overlooks

the ocean, is surfing.

His long, almost mournful face breaks into a reassuring grin as he talks

about Apple’s new ’think different’ campaign.

It came about when Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple who was ousted in

1985 and brought back to salvage the ailing company in 1997, interrupted

a six-agency review to hand the US business - and shortly afterwards the

worldwide account - to Clow. The pair had worked together on ’1984’, a

commercial that Clow says he has never topped.

’’1984’ was special - not just because we had a lot of money and Ridley

(Scott) shot it and we didn’t show the product - but because we had the

chance to introduce the world to something that had never existed

before, something that would change lives.

’I talked to Steve about recommitting the brand to education and

creativity, to quit pretending Apple would ever be the PC on everyone’s

desk. It should be on the smartest, most creative person’s desk, or in

their homes, or in their kids’ bedrooms. We started with Apple users

today - Michael Crichton, Steven Spielberg, Ted Turner. Then someone

stuck Gandhi on a board and that opened up a discussion about

celebrating genius. When Steve saw it, Gandhi was one of his heroes, so

it came very easily. We didn’t have the time to formalise things, the

strategic thinking was done in a very collaborative way. In any case, I

don’t think a strategy can be written by a planner without creative

people having thought about it too.’

Is it working? ’Well, lots of people wanted to write the ’dead guys that

never had a computer’ story, but it’s been out for six months and it’s

clicking with people so far,’ he reports. ’We have to introduce some

product, but Apple’s stock has doubled, they have a course and vision

for the company, it translates internationally.’

Apple’s appointment of TBWA marks the first time the computer giant has

used a single agency worldwide. Global advertising for the brand is

managed from Los Angeles with regional support teams in Mexico City,

Amsterdam, Singapore and Tokyo. Without the Omnicom purchase in 1995 and

the subsequent merger with TBWA, Clow’s relationship with Jobs alone

would surely not have been enough to secure the global account. He

agrees: ’We always wanted to deliver to other parts of the world. We had

big aspirations but London, Toronto and Australia didn’t work out for

us. By virtue of our strength in LA and with the Omnicom deal ridding us

of our financial distractions, we were able to get back to playing our

game. And we liked the way TBWA had built its network (TBWA now has 95

agencies in 86 cities in 60 countries) with some real pockets of

strength but definitely not the service office mentality that is McCanns

or Burnetts.’

I ask if the breakaway of St Luke’s from Chiat/Day London at the time of

the merger still rankles: ’Yes,’ he says. ’London was hard. First it was

born out of Mojo (the Australian network which Chiat/Day bought in 1989

and sold to Foote Cone Belding in 1992) which was a messy deal, and then

it ended up as a burden because it never made money and I don’t think

they did much good work either. So it was not doing a service to our

brand to be in London where everyone cares about good work.’

Clow is still on good terms with MT Rainey (one of the founders of

Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, she was made president of Chiat/Day’s

London office after two years working at Chiat/Day New York) but not

with the St Luke’s founders: ’They were a little snotty when they

seceded from the merger,’ he says. ’I didn’t appreciate that because we

did subsidise them for years, and for them to leave thinking they were

the ones who knew how to fly the pirate flag, and we didn’t, kind of

pissed me off. I’m happy that St Luke’s is doing good, I’m happier that

we are doing better.’

The finale to Clow’s 1997 was winning the dollars 90 million Levi

Strauss domestic account, in a five-way pitch against Bartle Bogle

Hegarty, Hal Riney & Partners, BBDO New York and the incumbent, Foote

Cone Belding of San Francisco.

The win was aided, Clow says, by the new spirit at Chiat/Day following

the merger with TBWA. Instead of signalling the end of the creative

culture Chiat/ Day had defined for itself, Clow acknowledges that the

merger gave the agency ’a new lease of life’, addressing its financial

problems and giving it the international clout it had never managed to

secure alone.

But Levi’s sales continue their slide, so what was Clow’s pitch-winning


It turns out to be a mixture of strategic thinking and well-timed

practicalities, like opening an office in San Francisco from which the

pitch was masterminded.

And of course, on the day, Clow and his team wore the brand: ’I had

Levi’s in my closet and I wore them, this is how I dress all the time,’

he says.

’Levi’s was looking for an agency to think beyond three new commercials

and a new endline. It wants new media, new concepts like stealth

branding and to reconnect with people who grew up with Levi’s, reminding

them that Calvin Klein and Hilfiger got their ideas from Levi’s.

’We said your brand is not about huge, expensive TV commercials. We

argued that Levi’s production values and budgets were actually working

against rebuilding their relationship with kids. We said it was about

what Levi’s should do to be a cool brand. We told them about new ways to

design clothes, we said they should get out of Levi’s Plaza in San

Francisco, we called bullshit on a lot of their supposedly hip


Radical thinking, indeed. And while Clow has huge respect for BBH, he

believes that the cards were stacked against it from the outset: ’I have

nothing but respect for the work Hegarty’s done in Europe,’ he says.

’But how difficult would it have been for one of the great US brands to

turn to a UK agency for its US work? It would basically have said that

every US agency sucks.’

The most common observation people make about Chiat/Day is that its

cultish creative spirit defines it, that it is still a business built on

people and the environment in which they work. It is about to swap its

landmark office in Venice, California - the ’binocular’ building, where

it went, briefly and controversially, ’virtual’ in 1993 - for a large

warehouse nearby, next to a site planned for the new studios of

DreamWorks. The new offices will be fitted with glass walls for

creatives, inspired by cliff dwellings and a mini-indoor ’Central Park’

for New Yorkers such as TBWA Chiat/Day’s president of North America, Bob


This cultish spirit has also worked against the agency. During the lean

years when the agency really needed good account management, its

reputation kept such people from coming to the agency. It is a failing

that Clow acknowledges: ’The dumbest thing we ever did over the years

was not being smart enough to have human relationships with our clients

- Steve Jobs aside, of course,’ he says. ’We ended up making the big

mistake of allowing our account people to think they had the right to be

as arrogant as our creative people, and all the while it was their job

to be friends, to be smart, understanding the client’s real issues. I

think we’ve got better but it was doing a disservice to our creativity

before that.’

How did they get better? ’We lost a few accounts and decided to get

better at the relationship thing. Inventing Desire (a fly-on-the-wall

book written by Karen Stabiner, who spent a year at Chiat/ Day’s Venice

offices - with total access) was written at that point, 11 years


But Clow will never welcome traditional marketers such as Procter &

Gamble into his agency. ’There are always forces standing up here and

saying we’ve got to work on P&G, but I will never work on P&G. I don’t

have a disdain for packaged goods but I do for people who have a

formulaic idea of how you market and how you advertise.’

This leads us to another puzzle. Why did Clow accept the post of

worldwide creative director, when the title seems to embody everything

that he hates?

Notorious for not wanting to stray more than ten miles from his beloved

West Coast beaches, Clow helpfully clarifies the situation: ’The title

is bullshit. I lead by example. I hate this ’spiritual guru’ crap. I

cannot fly into any country and spend a day or a week there and tell you

how to do good ads. The only thing I can do is do the best goddamn work

I can, set the highest standards and make the work as conspicuous and

famous as I can. And if that allows us to attract talent in other parts

of the world then I’m doing my job.’

People describe the yin and yang of Clow’s relationship with Jay Chiat

(with Guy Day, the founder of the agency in 1968 when the pair decided

to merge their two agencies during a now legendary meeting at a Dodgers

baseball game) in similar terms.

For years, Chiat goaded Clow on to do better work than he’d thought

himself capable of, and Clow moderated Chiat’s powerful yet mercurial


Chiat, obsessed with the notion of how big his trendsetting agency could

get ’before we get bad’, was responsible for importing the UK system of

account planning to the US when he hired Jane Newman in 1980. ’He was

the guy who kept raising the bar,’ says Clow, ’challenging us to do

great work. And I was his surrogate in terms of doing it and coaxing it

out of people.’

Chiat has retired now. Does Clow miss him? ’Yes and no,’ he says. ’My

frustration was that I discovered he was never going to be


The best thing about Inventing Desire was the quote from the dust

jacket, that Jay had to ’decide whether he wanted to be immortal or


My approach to life is to have everything where it’s supposed to be and

enjoy all facets of it.’

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