7 Pieces of “Damn Good” Creative Advice From ’60s Ad Man George Lois

One of best-known (and least shy) creatives from the golden age of advertising, George Lois, offers some tips from his latest book, Damn Good Advice.

Handsome creative director Don Draper will try to power through sex, alcohol, and a dark past to craft a new set of 1960s-era ad campaigns when Mad Men returns for its fifth season Sunday on AMC.
George Lois won’t be watching.
He’s the real-life ad man who emerged in the ’60s to create a storied body of branding and magazine work. Lois conjured the “I want my MTV” slogan, invented the Lean Cuisine concept and, as the well-worn story goes, believed in his concepts so fervently that he once threatened to jump off a third-floor window ledge when executives rejected his matzo cracker campaign.
Dismissing Mad Men as “soap opera,” the 81-year-old graphic designer/art director/copywriter spoke to Co.Create about his new book Damn Good Advice, which compiles 120 creativity tips geared towards the production of “big ideas.”


Brevity rocks

“If a client takes ten minutes to tells me about his business, then it’s not a big idea,” Lois says. “Advice” cites Abraham Lincoln’s apology for writing a long letter because ‘I didn’t have time to write a short one.’ Condense the concept, because, Lois writes “After three sentences of explanation, people’s eyes glaze over.”
Case Study: Lois yoked celebrity and a call to action with four words that transformed a upstart cable network into a national powerhouse. “I want my MTV” became a generational battle cry after Lois, a pioneer in exploiting celebrity cachet, persuaded Mick Jagger to appear in a TV commercial delivering the line.


Lois says, “When people talk to you about their business and you listen hard, there’s a good chance they’ll say something and you go ‘Son of a bitch, that’s it!’ Then when you show your idea to the guy, he doesn’t even know he gave it to you.”
Case study: Then-unknown Tommy Hilfiger became famous in two days when Lois included his initials on a billboard in Manhattan’s fashion district trumpeting four great American designers: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Perry Ellis. “Talking to Tommy, I asked about the clothes, which he wanted them to be very American, so I said, ‘You want to be another Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein?’ He said, ‘Sure I want to be another one of those guys.’ Bingo! That’s my campaign.”

Go to the Museum

“When I teach classes at the School of Visual Arts I’ll ask the students ‘How many of you have been to a museum this year?’ Nobody raises their hand and I go into a tirade,” Lois says. “If you want to do something sharp and innovative, you have to know what went on before.” He states in the book, “Museums are custodians of epiphanies, and these epiphanies enter the central nervous system and deep recesses of the mind.”
Case Study: Lois used Piero del Pollaiuolo’s painting “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” as the model for his iconic Esquire Magazine cover depicting pacifist boxer Muhammad Ali as the target of government persecution.


Fight Adversity With Creativity

After convincing a now-famous copier company to shorten its name from Haloid-Xerox (see lesson No. 1) Lois shot a TV commercial showing a toddler making photocopies. When the FCC objected that the ad misrepresented the machine’s ease of use, Lois shot a new commercial showing a chimpanzee making photocopies. He invited FCC staffers to attend the shoot. The spots became a sensation.

Pay Attention to the Zeitgeist

When it comes to pulling concepts out of thin air, “It’s about understanding what the hell’s going on around you,” says Lois, who spends an hour each morning poring through the New York Times.
Case study: Stouffers seemed oblivious to a huge trend. “This was the beginning of people exercising, and more women were working, so I told them, ‘Duh, you should come up with a diet gourmet thing.’ But they give me some mumbo jumbo. I realized the only way to convince these guys to come up with a brand name that knocks them on their ass.” Hence, the birth of Lean Cuisine.

Trust Your Gut

“Ad agencies do all kinds of market research that ask people what they think they want, and instead you should be creating things that you want. If you do something and you get it, the rest of the world will get it. too. Trust your own instincts, your own intellect, and your own sense of humor.”
Case Study: After restaurant critic Gale Green slammed one of Lois’ clients, he took out a subtly snarky full-page ad that never would have gotten approved by focus groups. Centered on a one-sentence note that read: “Dear Ms. Greene. After all the lovely meals we’ve had together–Restaurant Associates.” Readers picked up on the subtext and began flocking to the Four Seasons.


Word First, Visual Later

Lois believes in “writing the idea” rather than trawling randomly for visual inspiration. “Start with the word,” he states in Advice. “A big campaign can only be expressed in words that lend themselves to visual excitement.”
Case study: For Braniff Airlines, Lois’s jaunty “When you got it, flaunt it” line came first. Only then did he illustrate the concept by photographing Andy Warhol alongside boxer Sonny Liston.

See some of Lois’ work in the slide show above.


About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.


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