Mad MenOxford American ThesaurusEsquireVice: Do you get pissed off that your advertising work is glossed over by people who only know you for your Esquire covers?George Lois:EsquireArt & CopyYeah, it’s that PBS documentary about creative agencies.EsquireEsquireAre these folks disappointed when they find out the majority of your work was for the big bad advertising industry?PsychoThe Man With the Golden Arm
EsquirepsshhoooDid you have any insight as to what the cover-selection process was like at Esquire before you stepped in? Was it a by-committee situation?That’s a good name for it. How were you able to overcome their bad-idea orgies?Esquire
Some of Lois’s most memorable advertisements and Esquire covers.What did he say?That cover turned out to be the one where you called the championship fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, right? You picked Liston, who was the underdog by a long shot.What I really want to know about is Hayes’s liability in all of this. There isn’t an editor working today who has balls that heavy. I’m not even sure it would get to that point, because of the whole group-grope thing you were talking about earlier. Most publishers are so nosy and paranoid that it wouldn’t get past the boardroom.Did you have absolute free rein? There must have been some kind of process during which you discussed cover ideas.What are the tenets of a good magazine cover?Leibovitz at WorkRolling StoneYou shouldn’t look at a cover and think too muchVanity FairNew YorkerSo you’ve got the ears of some of the most powerful editors in the world and they won’t even take your advice, which is proven. That’s really comforting.EsquireVanity FairNew Yorkermimes clapping his hands together to demonstrate their applauseAnd in the end?It’s both sad and absurd that at most publications so much goes into ruining a cover image. Tons of money is devoted to the marketability of these blurbs, when it could go toward funding good stories or something remotely useful.
Vanity FairDo you think part of the problem is that magazines are afraid of losing advertisers and readers if they don’t choose covers that appeal to the lowest common denominator?
Have you seen a single cover from the past few years that you liked?The New YorkerIn a way, I feel like it’s exactly the same with modern ads. I have a theory that creative agencies—and there are exceptions, especially outside the States—lack conviction and are lazy. They play it safe and maximize profit margins by purposefully fucking things up or doing a mediocre job because some marketing goon on the other end has to spend his budget by the end of the year. No one has the guts to say anything provocative. What was different in the 60s?OK, but were people less pussylike and not afraid to try something new? Or maybe all the good ideas are used up by now and we’ve entered an era of ubiquitous mediocrity?creativitySo no one’s doing it right today?But some advertising relies on the collaborative process, doesn’t it? It takes more than one or two people to shoot a television commercial.Creative agencies today seem to put their perceived creativity above the relative merits of the product they’re selling. This results in either two-bit comedy skits or branded content that tries to masquerade as something else. What happened to ads that explained how a certain brand of deodorant is going to make my armpits stink less or why a particular type of vehicle is better built than the rest? The worst part is the amount of money spent on making this schlock.
Who’s to blame for this?So what’s the secret to making a good ad?
The epitome of these types of mnemonics—to me at least—is the “I Want My MTV” campaign you did. It is a prime example of how advertising can change the course of popular culture. MTV was on very thin ice at the time. They had no viewership, the record companies thought videos would kill their business, and people who played and listened to rock thought it was a joke. Then those commercials came out and turned it all around. I always wondered how the rock stars were initially convinced to appear in the commercials? Did you just throw a bunch of money at them?How did you do it?You sold him!thinkhopefullyWere you ever a regular MTV viewer?Jersey ShoreWhen I was conducting research for this interview I discovered that you won an MTV Best Music Video of the Year award in 1983 for Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman.” It’s the only video you’ve ever directed. How did that happen? Did Dylan seek you out?USA TodaySo you were in.mimes masturbating with his handSpeaking of stuff on TV, which shows do you like? I bet you’re a huge fan of Mad Men.gives an exasperated lookPlayboyYeah, you took a giant shit on the show. I’m just messing with you.Mad MenMad MenMad MenThe Sopranoslaughs