INTERVIEW BY ROCCO CASTORO
PORTRAITS BY TIMUR CIVAN
George Lois was one of the primary architects of the Creative Revolution in American advertising in the 1960s—yeah, yeah, like on Mad Men. He was a leading figure at the world’s first creative agency and cofounded its second. This was a time when “creative” was a way to describe someone who had original ideas and not, as the Oxford American Thesaurus puts it, an “advertising buzzword… that simply means new or different.”
Lois wholly or partially created some of the most exceptional and memorable ads in history. For better or worse, behemoths of consumerism such as Tommy Hilfiger, Jiffy Lube, ESPN, MTV, and many others have ingrained themselves in American culture because of his indelible campaigns. The qualities that set Lois’s work apart from that of today’s advertising industry are a) his stuff was unapologetic and transparent about the fact that it was selling a product, and b) he used ideas to hawk products rather than the other way around.
Considering the breadth and quality of his advertisements, it’s all the more impressive that Lois is best known for his work at Esquire, where he created a staggering 92 of the most iconic magazine covers ever published in a mass-market magazine. They were visual battering rams, catalysts for dialogue about topics people found uncomfortable. With full backing from editor in chief Harold Hayes, Lois was given complete creative control. Sometimes Hayes didn’t even know what he was getting until the finished cover arrived. It was the type of arrangement that would be impossible in today’s sycophantic and flaccid media industry. Some have criticized Lois for exaggerating the scope of his influence and claiming other people’s ideas as his own. Regardless of the particulars, his work has undeniably had a lasting influence on the media world and will continue to until we’re all dead.
Most journalists and television producers want to speak with Lois about his creative process or how he came up with so many unforgettable concepts. But I had a different agenda. I visited him at his stately full-floor apartment on West 12th Street in Manhattan to ask about his take on why the advertising industry—and, really, the media machine as a whole—has been cascading down a bottomless pit of mediocrity for at least the past two decades.
Vice: Do you get pissed off that your advertising work is glossed over by people who only know you for your Esquire covers?
George Lois: I really am a magazine lover. Magazines are great. I love the idea of picking them up, flipping through them, and looking at the ads. Sometimes you get knocked over, and other times you just say, “Piece of shit,” and drop it. When you get a good one and you’ve got it resting on your lap it’s like a lap dance. I’ve played with the iPad and it’s like the difference between looking at porn and having sex. But yeah, sometimes writers or filmmakers or whoever just forget about my main line of work. They never mention the advertising and keep calling me “the art director of Esquire during the 60s.” Other people just get it wrong… have you seen that film Art & Copy?
Yeah, it’s that PBS documentary about creative agencies.
I didn’t think it was particularly terrific. It was all over the place. I mean it was OK, but it was done by someone who doesn’t understand. Nice guy. Good documentary filmmaker, but he didn’t understand the Creative Revolution in advertising—what was going on in the 60s and how it all started. When they first edited it, the guy said, “We have 40 minutes of just you. We can’t do that. We’ve got to cut it down.” The whole thing felt conflicted, but it airs all the time. Every goddamn day I get phone calls from people who saw the movie. I’ve received hundreds of emails from young people who didn’t know me as an advertising guy. They knew me as the guy who did the Esquire covers. I wasn’t ever at Esquire! I was an advertising guy who happened to do some good covers for them. I swear, it never stops.
Are these folks disappointed when they find out the majority of your work was for the big bad advertising industry?
Four or five years ago there was a memorial service for a great graphic designer by the name of Saul Bass. It was at Cooper Union in the Great Hall, where Lincoln spoke. Saul did amazing title sequences for films like Psycho and The Man With the Golden Arm. Anyway, I gave a speech about him, and then Martin Scorsese did a half-hour lecture about the importance of Saul’s movie titles. Afterward somebody was like, “Georgie, you ever meet Marty?” and I said, “No, I’ve never met Marty.” So the guy takes me to the other side of the room and there are like 200 advertising guys around Scorsese. We broke through the crowd and he introduces me. Scorsese went apeshit, like, “My God! I didn’t know you existed.” He started going on about the Esquire covers and how much he liked them. After about ten minutes of this he said, “Well, what happened to you? Why didn’t you keep doing it?” And I said, “What do you mean? I stopped doing that because it pays less than… You don’t understand. I’ve always been an advertising guy. I did those covers on the weekends to help out Harold Hayes.” Scorsese just said, “Oh.” It was like the air came out of the balloon—psshhooo—like I was a fucking sellout or something. It’s weird how people perceive me.
Did 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?
I call it group grope.
That’s a good name for it. How were you able to overcome their bad-idea orgies?
Hayes called me up one day—he must have read about me in a newspaper or something because my agency was getting all sorts of press around then. He gave me a ring and introduced himself as the editor of Esquire and I said, “What the fuck do you want from me?” It couldn’t have been advertising, because editors don’t go begging for advertising. They do the work. A few days later I was having lunch with him at the Four Seasons—I was doing all of their design work at the time. He described how they selected a cover: “Well, I get my design staff and other editors…” He named like 12 people. “Once a month we all get together and discuss the new issue for an hour or so—what it should be about, the topic, etc. Then two days later everybody comes back in with ideas for the cover. We discuss them and argue and usually choose four of five to be mocked up.” I said, “Holy shit. Group fucking grope! Obviously you don’t have somebody there who can do it, because if you did one of your people would come in and say, ‘That’s the cover, motherfucker!’ And you’d all go, ‘Wow.’ You have to find someone from the outside.”
Some of Lois’s most memorable advertisements and Esquire covers.
What did he say?
He was confused. “How can anybody outside do the covers for my issues, what we created?” he asked. I said, “Easy! I’m in advertising. I do advertising for products. I don’t do the product. They come to me, and I give them something that shows them I know more about their product than they do because I know how to sell.” I started to say, “Well, maybe this guy could do it.” Then he interrupted me and said, “Wait a minute, pal. You’ve got to do me a favor. You’ve got to give me just one cover.”
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.
The fight was coming up, and I knew the sports writers were full of shit. I knew that Vegas was full of shit. They had Patterson favored 10 to 1, but I knew Liston would just go into him and beat the living shit out of him. I just absolutely knew it. When I was younger I was the only white kid allowed to play ball in Bed-Stuy. I used to go see Floyd train a couple of blocks away. I knew he was going to get killed. What’s better than predicting a fight that everyone had wrong, for a men’s magazine?
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.
When I showed it to Hayes he told me he really liked it but he was nervous. “You’re calling the fight against Patterson,” he said. “You’re crazy.” I said, “No, no. I’m not crazy. You’re crazy because you’re going to run it. Look at it this way: There’s a 50-50 chance I’m right. If I’m right, you’re a genius. Everyone’s going to look at you and say, ‘Wow. What an editor.’” Years later I found out that everyone—including the publishers—told him he was nuts and that there was no way he could run it. But he told them he’d quit if they didn’t run it. Hayes didn’t let me know what was happening over there. He was fighting the world, especially the ad people. Sometimes I did a cover and they lost ten advertisers in two days, but the circulation was going up, up, up. Hayes would say, “Yeah, fuck it, don’t worry about it,” and next month they’d pick up 10 or 20 advertisers. He was incredible.
Did you have absolute free rein? There must have been some kind of process during which you discussed cover ideas.
In the beginning Hayes would describe what was going to be in the issue over lunch. Sometimes he wouldn’t have half the articles, but he knew enough. I didn’t even take notes. Usually he’d say something about a story and I’d say, “That’s the cover. That’s what I want to do.” Other times he’d say, “There’s a lot of stuff in there about movies. It’s the kids’ new religion. You’ve got to do a cover on that.” Sometimes I had to do this or that; it was obvious that I had to do something on a certain topic. But usually he didn’t know what I was going to pick.
What are the tenets of a good magazine cover?
Did you read that Annie Leibovitz book that came out a while back? Leibovitz at Work or something like that? It’s not a great book, but it’s interesting. There’s one very short chapter about “idea covers.” She said something like “George Lois is the master of idea covers. He did this and this and this. I did some too.” Then she said, “I really couldn’t keep doing them because Jann Wenner [cofounder and publisher of Rolling Stone] wanted covers that all looked alike and had a similar style.” It was this whole idea of You shouldn’t look at a cover and think too much. I don’t know what the fuck she’s talking about. Everybody’s crazy. What’s a magazine about? At some point in the 70s everybody decided that magazine covers had to feature the face of the month, some fucking would-be star. Put 20 blurbs on it and the logo on top. You go to the newsstand and there are 30 or 40 magazines that all look the same. And there are people who defend it. Tina Brown [former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker] once said to me, “You know, George, you can’t do those covers today. There are so many magazines out there.” And I replied, “What’s that mean? Tina, if you took any one of my covers today and went to the newsstand it would knock your eyeballs out! Everything looks the same!”
So 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.
The American Society of Magazine Editors has this yearly conference where they all get together and jerk off and talk about where they are and where the culture is. So they invited me down a few years ago and asked me to talk about the Esquire covers and tell everybody to stop doing terrible covers, or something like that. I was like, “So you want me to come down and bust balls? OK.” Just about every editor and publisher in America was there, and I just ripped their eyeballs out. Every magazine except maybe Vanity Fair and the New Yorker was complicit in the Iraq war. I gave them the whole thing about weapons of mass destruction and said, “Every one of you sons of bitches is complicit in what’s going on over there.” They were all, “Oooohhhh.” Ten minutes later I did a little bit more of it [mimes clapping his hands together to demonstrate their applause], and then half an hour later I really ripped into them about the war and I got a standing ovation. All the while I’m talking about why they can’t do good covers, and I’m showing mine at the same time.
And in the end?
Afterward there was a line—about 200 of them—waiting to talk to me. I’m signing stuff, and it’s all bullshit! They all keep doing the same crap. They’re not even trying. It’s so ignorant. Why would you want your magazine to look like the other guys’ magazines? It doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t you want to run a cover image that rips your lungs out?
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.
They’re very carefully researched. They test them: “Do you like this line better than this one?” If you have to depend on blurbs to have people buy your magazine then you’ve got a piece of shit! You don’t have a brand! You don’t design a magazine for your audience; you create a great magazine for yourself. I’ve had this discussion with editors like Graydon Carter. He could do great Vanity Fair covers. Graydon said, “We have very intelligent readers.” And I said, “Of course you have very intelligent readers, and you insult them with every cover!” This month it’s Lady Gaga on the cover! Everybody has a chance to use their covers to say, “Whoa, what a magazine!” and they don’t even try.
Do 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?
I don’t think they sit there and say, “Gee, if we did a great idea cover we’d lose advertisers.” I don’t think they even think that way. Why would they lose advertisers by doing a good cover?
Have you seen a single cover from the past few years that you liked?
Once in a while, and it really thrills me. The New Yorker did two or three terrific covers over the last couple of years that really nailed what was going on. That terrific drawing of Obama and Hilary Clinton in bed together, answering the phone, was fucking good. David Remnick is a fan of mine. We had lunch once and he said, “Do you think I should do some photographic covers?” I said, “What? Are you fucking nuts? You’re the only mag that stands out or has a chance of standing out! You don’t fill it with blurbs; you have drawings, which in many cases are whimsical and sweet. That’s terrific, but you should do a cover about something that happened last Thursday. Have somebody come up with a great idea on Friday, and then it comes out the next Monday. You’ll nail what happened!” Then he did three or four of them, and I said, “Jesus Christ, somebody’s listening to me!” But that’s about it.
In 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?
I started the second creative agency in America. The first was Doyle Dane Bernbach, and that’s where I came from. Bill Bernbach invented the idea of getting a terrific graphics guy to work with a writer and merging the energy between them to make great ads. That was his epiphany. Before DDB and my agency, art directors usually sat around in a room with their thumbs up their asses and waited for a copywriter to come around and give them some lines. So I went to DDB and kicked a lot of ass and did a lot of great stuff. When I left to start my own agency with a few other people—Papert, Koenig, Lois—everybody thought I was insane. And it was extremely insane because I left the best job in the world at the only agency anybody would want to work at to be a competitor. We started the new agency in January 1960, and we were successful every week. Every time we did a campaign there were big stories in the newspapers about it.
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?
The 60s were a heroic period. And I really mean that. They were courageous. When I started the second creative agency everybody said, “Holy shit! There can be more than one creative agency.” Out of my agency came three other agencies in the next three years, and then there were five agencies, and that was enough to spur a revolution. Creativity was flourishing, and then I don’t know what happened. We hit some wall of bureaucrats—of guys selling out their agencies. Now there are basically three giant agencies in the world, and everybody belongs to one of them. I remember reading an article about the ad industry in a magazine a couple months ago about some agency run by this French guy who owns half the world. I can’t even remember his name. It was 12 pages without one mention of the word creativity and never talked about the actual products they were creating campaigns for.
So no one’s doing it right today?
No. Now it’s all about eight people sitting in a room, picking things together. What the fuck? Are you crazy? People think the way to be a successful executive is to get the right people around them and listen to their thinking and pick the best of their thinking. I don’t get it. I know it goes against the grain, but that’s certainly not the kind of creativity I’m involved in. I know it sounds terrible, but everything that’s great in this world gets done by one or two people together. My advice is to avoid group-analysis paralysis. Reject con and create icon.
But some advertising relies on the collaborative process, doesn’t it? It takes more than one or two people to shoot a television commercial.
You need a team for production, but a team for creating ideas? Get the fuck outta here! That’s impossible. It really is. People say, “Well, if you get together, if there are 20 people…” I say the more talented the 20 people, the more trouble you’re in. If there’s one talent in the 20 and the guy has conviction, he can beat the shit out of the other guys. But if the entire group is talented then you’re in trouble. It’s impossible!
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.
Back in the 60s everybody looked toward the commercials DDB and I did. A campaign for the entire year was $200,000, and the entire country would be talking about it. There are 50 companies in America today that spend at least $150 million a year on advertising, and you could look at their commercials and have no idea what product they’re advertising. I’ll be watching one today and say, “What the fuck was that?” You don’t know what they’re talking about. For some reason young people—or maybe everyone in the business—is afraid of looking like they’re selling something. They try to make pieces of entertainment. They don’t get to the point.
Who’s to blame for this?
I was teaching a class at the School of Visual Arts and half of the students are Korean and Chinese—they don’t even understand the culture, and I want to say to them, “What the fuck are you doing here? It’ll take you 30 years to understand what the hell goes on here.” Just because you learn the language doesn’t mean you understand the culture. I couldn’t be an art director in England. This kid gets up and describes a commercial that came out four or five years ago. There’s a young man with a woman in a bar and they’re drinking beer. Another woman starts walking over to them. She looks mad, he sees her coming, and then he switches beers with the woman he’s sitting with. The woman who walked over grabs his beer, pours it over his head, and walks away. Everyone said, “Oh yeah, that’s a great one!” I said, “What beer were they advertising?” They had a five-minute argument over the brand name. They didn’t know which beer it was.
So what’s the secret to making a good ad?
Make it simple. A great ad campaign has two mnemonics: There should be a visual one—somebody doing something—and something verbal. The big idea has got to have this synergy of memorability.
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?
When I first started working with MTV everyone there was 25 or 26 years old. They were all young punks. I told them that I wanted to do a commercial with footage they had left over—they had a lot of things that never ran, that nobody ever saw—and then toward the end a slightly manic voice would come on and say something like “If you want to get MTV where you live, pick up the phone, call your cable operator, and say—and this is where we cut to someone like Mick Jagger saying, ‘I want my MTV.’” They said, “Yeah? And then what?” I told them millions of young fans would dial the number of their cable providers and keep calling until they could watch MTV. They told me that I could never, ever get a rock star because everyone hated them. I said, “No, I’ll get one.” I only had a week to do it.
How did you do it?
The next thing I did was call up Bill Graham, one of the most iconic concert promoters of all time. “I need a rock guy,” I told him. He said, “But George, MTV? You won’t be able to convince anybody to do MTV. They are going to destroy music.” I told him that was ridiculous and that I wanted Mick Jagger. He said, “Well, I have his home phone number in London. I’ll give it to you, but you can’t tell him I told you to call.” So I called Mick and told him the deal. He said, “Well, I’ll be in New York on Monday. I’m flying in on Sunday night. What time of the day do you want to shoot it?” I said, “How about nine o’clock in the morning? What hotel you staying at? I’ll make sure the car picks you up.” He said, “No, I’ll be there.”
You sold him!
Then I called Bob Pittman, who was the founder of MTV and the guy who hired me. I said, “I got Mick Jagger, I think!” He said, “What do you mean you think?” I said, “He told me he’d come to the studio Monday. I gave him the address and hopefully he’ll be there.” He said, “Hopefully? I’m not going to pay for hopefully.” I told him, “Then I’ll pay for it!” On Monday the crew showed up. Then nine o’clock hit, then 9:15, 9:30. At about five minutes to ten Jagger walked in and says, “Oh, listen George, I brought a couple of friends: Peter Townshend and Pat Benatar. Maybe you’d like to shoot them too?” I said, “Yeah, I think I can make room for them.”
Were you ever a regular MTV viewer?
I thought MTV was great. I wasn’t a rock fan, but I became a rock fan just by watching it. If you had blood in your veins, you had to check it out every day. There were a lot of really good music videos. It was a very exciting period of pop culture. Then they started all the reality shit, the scumbag stuff of the world. It really dumbed down America. I’ve learned to totally ignore the Gagas and the reality shows and Jersey Shore. People say, “Well, you’re missing out on what’s going on with popular culture.” But I’m not. Popular culture doesn’t have to be the kind of culture I find revolting. That stuff is invisible to me.
When 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?
Bill Graham called me up in ’82. I had just done “I Want My MTV,” and I had just saved USA Today’s ass and was about to make Tommy Hilfiger famous with one ad. Graham said, “I’m trying to get Bob Dylan to do a goddamn video, but you know Bob, he won’t do any videos. So I said to him, ‘If I get George Lois to do it will you do a video?’ He hesitated before saying, ‘Probably.’”
So you were in.
The reason Graham suggested that I direct the video is because in ’76 I went to one of Dylan’s concerts and kind of made a date to see him through a writer by the name of Larry Sloman. Larry said, “Look, if you come to the concert I can probably get you in to talk to him about Hurricane Carter,” which was a cause I was championing at the time. I told him I’d take a shot at it. I spoke with Dylan and tried to get him interested in Hurricane’s case. A week later I took him to the prison, he meets Carter, and I convince Dylan he’s innocent. I said, “Would you write a song?” Dylan said, “Sure!” and wrote “Hurricane.” After that I said, “How about a concert?” and he did a benefit at Madison Square Garden.
So I had that connection with him. When I first heard “Jokerman” I thought, “Jesus Christ, every line is biblical!” Every line made me think of a visual from the history of art. I put together a storyboard over the course of a couple days. I had the boards hanging up all around a darkroom and Bobby came in one day. I explained that the video would depict 5,000 years of art history. I read each line and explained each piece of art that would go with it. I went through about 20 of them when Bob said, “I had almost all of these things you have up there in mind when I wrote the lines.” Graham was in the back of the room. You could hardly see him, but all of a sudden he appeared out of the shadows like Orson Welles and was doing this [mimes masturbating with his hand]. Then he stepped back into the dark. What an image!
Speaking of stuff on TV, which shows do you like? I bet you’re a huge fan of Mad Men.
[gives an exasperated look] Did you read the thing I wrote for Playboy?
Yeah, you took a giant shit on the show. I’m just messing with you.
What’s funny is that the cover says something like “George Lois on Mad Men,” and underneath that is “An Eight-Page Homage to Naked Secretaries and Cold Martinis, blah blah blah.” There are a lot of people who know me from back then who, because of the way they laid out the cover, thought, “Oh my God. George Lois is giving an homage to Mad Men!” They all fucking hate Mad Men because they lived through what I did! It infuriates me. All that’s on the minds of the characters on the show is getting laid, screwing their secretaries, and drinking all day. They don’t talk about anyone having any type of talent. I told somebody that maybe I criticize it in a way that Mafia guys probably criticize The Sopranos. The mobsters probably sit there and laugh their asses off and say, “That’s not the way we did it.” I’m sitting here saying, “That’s bullshit,” but I know I’m right. [laughs]