What’s the difference between advertising now and when you started to practice it?
Nowadays, the conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t look like you’re selling. Never let them hear you ask for the sale. Because, the theory goes, young people are so aware of what’s going on, so sharp, that when you are hustling them, they feel it. So everything’s oblique, nothing’s to the point, nothing knocks you out, nothing says “Buy me.” I always said “Buy me,” but I’d make a joke that made you remember.
Where’d you grow up?
In West Kingsbridge, in the Bronx. All Irish. Blacks weren’t allowed in my neighborhood. I basically wasn’t allowed. I’m Greek—my father was a florist. I was an outcast, the nigger of the neighborhood. I had a fistfight with every kid on my block. I got about fifteen broken noses to prove it. Part of it was also because I was always drawing, and I always had an artist portfolio with me. But I was a tough kid. I won their respect.
When you got to Madison Avenue, did you have a conscious idea you wanted to do things differently?
Oh, yeah. Besides wanting to do great work, I always wanted, you know, to do edgy stuff, to kick ass. Doyle Dane Bernbach was a great, great agency when I got there. There was an arrogance that everyone had, but it was a closed club. I was a guy who worked a little differently. Edgier. More punch-in-the-mouth.
That sounds like the old neighborhood.
Yeah. A guy gives you a hard time, you say, “I’m here. Let’s go.” I’ve never started a fight, but I’ve never backed down from one, either—you fuck with me, it’s fight time.
How long did it take you to make your mark at Doyle Dane Bernbach?
My first ad there—my very first day—was for a CBS show about how food gets delivered to New York. So I called a photographer and told him to get a fish—I wanted to have the fish saying, “How do I get to New York?” That first day, there was a memo from the business guy to all the art directors, saying, “You got to return props. I know you guys are keeping the props. I don’t care what the props are, I want them delivered to my office.” So after the shoot, I get the photographer to give me the fish. Then at ten o’clock at night, I leave the fish in the guy’s office with a note that says “As requested” and sign my name: George Lois.
Bill Bernbach was probably your most important mentor.
Bernbach comes in to welcome me and looks at the ads I was working on. They were for Kerid ear drops. One of them was a picture of an ear with paper clips and pencils, all the things that people stick into their ears to clean, sticking into it. It looked barbaric. Bernbach says, “Wow, these are incredible.” I had all the headlines written, and he asked me what copywriter I was working with. I said, “Well, I’ll work with anybody, but the most talented person I know? I look in the mirror.” Bernbach said, “Terrific. I’ll be your writer.” The ads get produced, the client loved them. The next day, a posse goes up from the agency, art directors and writers, to complain about the kid doing that barbaric work—it was literally like a lynch mob. Bernbach patted them on the back and told them, “It’s a great ad.” He liked me from the start—he saw talent and a gutsy kid.
You’ve written that you were the first art director to deal directly with the client. How did that come about?
For Goodman’s matzos, I did a poster of a giant matzo, which was terrific-looking then, and I did a beautiful piece of hand lettering—kosher for passover, but in Hebrew. You could see it was going to be a knockout. But the account guy takes it out to Goodman in Long Island City. He comes back, says, “They killed it.” The owner was about 92—all he knew how to do was say no. So I said, “Let me go out and sell it to them.” That never happened back then—they just didn’t think that way. Back then, they wouldn’t let the art director go sell the job. Sometimes copywriters were allowed to sell the job. I mean, Mary Wells, who was there as a copywriter, would sell jobs. She was bullshit. But good bullshit. I mean, she knows what she was talking about, but no great talent. I changed it by just doing it—“Fuck you, I’m doin’ it.” And then all the other art directors followed suit. So I go out to Long Island City and go up there and start explaining it, and he says, “I don’ like it. I don’ like it.” I’m getting nowhere. So finally, I had to do something, so there’s a casement window. I open the fuckin’ thing, and I get out on the ledge, and I say, “You make the matzos, I’ll make the ads.” He said, “Come back in. I’ll run it already.” So I come back in, and I thank him very much. He says, “Young man, if you ever quit advertising, I’ll give you a job as a matzo salesman.” That became a famous story on Madison Avenue.
What was the competition on Madison Avenue like at that time?
There were a lot of Ogilvy ads that had beautiful copy that you respect. First year at Doyle Dane Bernbach, I got repeated phone calls from Ogilvy’s copy chief, Cliff Fields, saying, “Mr. Ogilvy would like to talk to you.” I said, “You’ve got the wrong guy.” I mean, his book was 180 pages of garbage, with all due respect. He said, “Why can’t you come and just talk?” So I went over, though I felt kind of disloyal that I would even show up there. They spent three hours trying to convince me—every fifteen minutes, another $5,000. I said, “You guys got to be crazy. I couldn’t last here a week.” The only other person who was competition for Doyle Dane Bernbach in any way, shape, or form was Leo Burnett, who did powerful pieces of corny imagery, like the Green Giant. They did things like that, with a quality of kitschy humanity that you could respect. What did Bernbach say when you told him you were starting your own agency, Papert, Koenig, Lois? Bill literally said it—and meant it: “You guys, you’re making a big mistake. There can’t be more than one great creative agency in the world. There can’t be.” He was a pioneer, making everyone see a different kind of mentality and passion, a different kind of graphics. And he really believed what he’d done couldn’t be duplicated.
How did you get hooked up with Esquire editor Harold Hayes?
He’d been reading about our campaigns in the advertising column of the New York Times; Peter Bart, who now edits Variety, was writing it then. Hayes called up cold and said he’d like to have lunch. I was an avid reader of Esquire in those days. We had lunch at The Four Seasons. That was before the power lunch. I was trying to get Joe Baum of Restaurant Associates, who I was working with back then, to change the Grill Room, to do what I used to call a businessman’s lunch. I told him, “We can make that room a hot room.” Anyway, Hayes says, “Can I talk to you about covers? We’re trying to do better covers.” I asked, “Well, how do you do ’em now?” “The editors come in, art directors, we all talk together. A couple of days later, we all come in and talk about ideas.” I said, “Oh, my God, is that the way you do it with Norman Mailer? Give it to one guy who understands the culture, a graphic designer.” He says, “Who can do that?” I thought about it. “Well,” he says, “could you do me one?” That cover—it was of a Floyd Patterson look-alike on the canvas in an empty boxing stadium—essentially predicted the Sonny Liston–Floyd Patterson fight. It caused a sensation and sold like 120,000 more on the newsstand. So Hayes said, “George, can you keep doing them?” I said, “I will as long as I can just do ’em. When you turn down the first one, I’m gone.” There was constant complaint from the ad directors. Hayes kept me out of it. And the only reason he was allowed to keep me was circulation was going up. Most clients I treat like they don’t know shit. But I figured Hayes was smart enough to figure it out.
The book is about celebrities. You seemed to have a gift for getting along with them. What is the secret?
It’s I know what the fuck I know, and you know what the hell you know, and I’ll tell you what I think, and you tell me to fuck off. Not even “fuck off.” I’ll leave—I’m gone. I had a great relationship with Bobby Kennedy, with a lot of these guys. We did Kennedy’s Senate campaign in ’64. The only unlikable thing about him was his womanizing. I used to go up to his suite at the Carlyle every couple of days. A few times, in the middle of a meeting, a woman would come in, go into one of the bedrooms. Bobby would excuse himself for fifteen minutes. Finally, when he came back one day, I said, “Bobby, what the fuck you doin’?” He said [Lois whispers], “Blow job.” I mean, give me a break, in the middle of the day? At least do it on the q.t.
How did you get Lieutenant William Calley to pose with those Vietnamese kids?
We got him in the studio, and I told him, “Listen, I’m a Korean vet, I know exactly what you went through.” I really suckered the son of a bitch.
Nixon and his people didn’t like you much, either.
When I did Nixon being made up, they felt they’d been ambushed. Ron Ziegler, his press secretary, calls up yelling and screaming at Harold. Harold said, “What’s your problem?” Ziegler said, “We know you’re trying to say he’s gay, he’s homosexual.” And he added, “You know, if Nixon becomes president, Esquire better watch out.” Hayes and I laughed our asses off.
Ziegler just died, actually.
Yeah, I knew I’d get that cocksucker eventually.
Why isn’t anyone doing covers like the ones you did for Esquire?
It’s easy to do the covers. It’s hard to get someone to run them. Covers like that would really stand out today. And I don’t see anyone doing great advertising that nails something mnemonically with both images and words. There were still remnants of great advertising in the seventies and eighties. What Chiat/Day did with Jordan was great. I mean, Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan, but they used him the right way. And that great Apple commercial, which was horseshit, but it was Citizen Kane horseshit. It was the kind of thing that knocked you on your ass.
Do you have a diagnosis of what the problem is with advertising now?
As Yogi Berra said, you see a lot by looking. You can name hundreds of products that spend millions a year on advertising, but what’s the thought? You can’t look at the ads and say—it’s this. You gotta come up with an idea, one that won’t change the world necessarily but will certainly change that product. To me, great advertising can make food taste better, can make your car run smoother. It can change your perception of something. Is it wrong to change your perception about something? Of course not. I’m not lying; I’m just saying, “This one’s more fun, this one’s more exciting.”
If you were starting out now, would you still choose to go into advertising?
The way the advertising game is today, it’s so difficult. The clients take such terrible advantage of the agencies, beat them up and don’t pay them when they’re supposed to. In the old days, we didn’t have such problems. The entrepreneurs, at least the ones I was lucky enough to work for, they were there to help you, they were there to make sure you did well. At the same time, I am what I am. I like changing people’s minds about things, selling things. I don’t know how I could stay away.
And you’ve been married to your wife, Rosemary, since before you even got into the business.
We met on the first day of school (Pratt Institute) in September 1949. We were just incredibly lucky—we were perfect for each other. We had two sons. Luke, who’s a photographer, works with me now as a computer designer. The older boy, Harry, died two weeks after his 20th birthday, of a heart disorder. Nowadays, you can just take a pill to handle it. My kid was six three, 220, with a 33-inch waist. He was such a strong kid. He got offered scholarships, football and baseball scholarships, at every school in the country, but he didn’t want to; he wanted to be a producer with me. I mean, he was a born producer from the day he walked in. It’ll be 25 years that he’s gone in September. I still cry every day.
Buy George Lois’s $ellebrity on bn.com.