Mad Men, George Lois, and Advertising's Creative Revolution

In the wake of Mad Men's Season Two finale, legendary profanity-spewing ad man George Lois checks in with his own take on the golden age of Madison Avenue. (Hint: he thinks it ain't the same these days.)

Season Two of AMC's smoking-drinking-screwing advertising drama Mad Men ended last night with Sterling Cooper's creative head Don Draper steaming out of a meeting telling that suit Duck Phillips, "I sell products, not advertising." Ah, war between the creative and the account guy. It was a moment that surely had resonance for plenty of creative business people, whether they're familiar with the history of Madison Avenue or not.

But how real is Mad Men as a depiction of its time and place? And how has the culture changed (apart from jettisoning the bottomless expense accounts, three-martini lunches, and loose-legged secretaries)? Were guys like Don Draper really the kings?

We checked in recently with legendary ad man George Lois and asked him to spout off about it. Lois's agency Papert Koenig Lois turned out some of the nation's hippest campaigns between 1960 and 1967, for everything from the first Xerox machine to senatorial candidate Robert F. Kennedy. His ads featured the likes of Yogi Berra, Sandy Duncan, Andy Warhol, Mickey Mantle, Joe Louis and a very young Susan Sarandon.

Here he is, your real Mad Man -- foul-mouthed, cocky and completely uncensored… Don't tell Lois, but despite what he thinks about AMC's prize show, he sounds a bit like Draper.

In the fifties, I was working for Doyle Dane Bernbach, the only agency that took full advantage of great graphic design and thinking. When we left to start PKL in 1960, the whole world thought we were crazy. I wasn't even 30 yet. Our agency was the first salvo of the Creative Revolution in advertising. Three other agencies came out of ours. By 1970, there might've been ten ad agencies whose work I respected. There's nothing wrong with Mad Men if it's supposedly a series on a bunch of phonies screwing their secretaries and having three-martini lunches and not giving a shit, but it has nothing to do with the creative revolution.

Our process was based on the concept that you had a terrifically talented designer work with a terrifically talented writer. It was Bernbach who brought this epiphany that if a copywriter worked directly with an art director the work would be 10 times better. It's like, duh, no shit.

But until DDB, writers would come up with ideas and go up to the art director and say, "Here, lay it out." I never needed a writer, but I'm a little different.

So what happened to the great advertising of the sixties? It continued into the seventies but slowly got taken over by the Saatchis and guys who were buying up agencies. Before you knew it, all the creative agencies were bought. Most advertising today is group grope. The marketing people decide what a point of view should be, then they go out and test it and they come back with all kinds of opinions about strategy. That's fed down to the copywriter and art director who are stuck with that whole approach. It's an art but they've made it a science. Every businessperson today has gone to marketing school, business school or communication classes. How are you going to teach advertising? With the way I worked, a client can give me everything they know about something and then I go away and come back with advertising that knocks them out of their chair. They finally understand what kind of a company they are.

What's the big idea? It's a point of view. Mnemonic visuals and words. When you think of a brand, you should immediately understand it from the advertising attitude, from the words and visuals. In 1960, we forced Xerox to change their name from Haloid Xerox to just Xerox. Haloid Xerox is a drag-ass brand name and Xerox is a great brand name and I knew I could get everybody to copy stuff with the word Xerox [as a verb]. I told them I wanted to create a TV commercial. They said, "There's only 5,000 people in America we want to talk to--the purchasing agents of big companies." But I saw copies being made on a Xerox 914 and thought it was miraculous. If you saw that first copy come off, you got a hard-on.

I said, "No, no, no, I can make you famous in two days." They almost fired me, but the next day the head of Xerox said, "Okay, Lois, do the goddamned commercial." So I do a commercial with a little girl visiting her father in the office. He says, "Make a copy for me, please." She lifts the flap, puts it under, makes a copy of a dollar, hands it to him, and he look at it and says, "Which one's the original?" Then the FCC called me and said no child could possibly make a copy that easily. So I reshot the commercial with a chimpanzee. That hit America like a bombshell. That's Idea Advertising. It ran on a Thursday and by Monday Xerox had gone from a $250,000 account to a $9 million account. They accomplished their ten-year business plan in six months.

I'm talking about big ideas that knock you on your ass. The closest to anything I've seen like that currently was the Geico stuff with the cavemen because it's memorable and fun to watch. But mostly today, I could name you brands that spent a half a billion or a billion a year on advertising and I could say to you, "Okay, give me what they say in their advertising--give me the words or the visual of what their message is, and you couldn't tell me what the fuck they do. I could name every car in America and I couldn't tell you what the fuck their advertising is. Every beer brand, you would confuse every commercial for every other.

Back then, our clients adored us and thought we were Joe Geniuses, and maybe we were. We'd attract the kind of guys who were edgy, exciting entrepreneurial kind of guys. That doesn't really happen today. These were guys who weren't trained in marketing and didn't learn that advertising is a science. You can't test great advertising. You can only test the mediocre. Not that I don't care about demographics. You have to understand who you're going after.

But basically I don't let marketing guys tell me what to do. I had an account for a product called Maypo, basically a baby cereal. I said, "Why the hell are you concentrating on [very young] kids? Why can't you sell it like Quaker Oats to older kids?" "Well, I don't know, blah blah blah." "Well, I'm going to do that for you." [He created this classic ad that had Mickey Mantle, Wilt Chamberlain and other sports stars bawling like babies for their Maypo.] How many times does it say, "I want my Maypo!" Seven or eight times? It's redundant but wonderful.

The computer has played a role in destroying creativity with the Photoshop. Everybody thinks they're a designer. I go in and talk at SVA [School of Visual Arts in New York City]. I sit down with a kid: "What are you working on?" "I'm trying to do...blah blah blah, some account." "What are you designing?" "I don't know, I'm just playing around." "What's the idea?" "I'm not sure." Then what the fuck are you looking at? Look at the mirror and talk to yourself and come up with an idea. In the last 20 or 30 years, they don't understand that the essence of advertising is an idea that knocks you on your fucking ass.

The only way we can turn the clock back is by example. But if I walked into one of those giant agencies today, either I - or they - would be dead in a week. I meet so many people in advertising today, and they say to me, "In the old days, you guys were kings."

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