Start With The Words And Don’t Forget To Surprise: Ad Legend George Lois On The Art Of Advertising

The industry veteran will be honored for his creative accomplishments with a 2013 Clio Lifetime Achievement Award in May. Here, he talks with Co.Create about fighting for your ideas, how to handle clients who don’t appreciate good work, and putting creativity first.

Start With The Words And Don’t Forget To Surprise: Ad Legend George Lois On The Art Of Advertising

George Lois is honored to be receiving the 2013 Clio Lifetime Achievement Award in May, but he wants to make it clear that his career in the advertising industry is far from over.


“Don’t think I’m not working today. I work all the time,” says Lois, who at the age of 81 is still creating campaigns for clients including SuperFocus, Tavalo, and Cablevision’s OMGFAST! He also published his latest book, Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!), just last year.

A native of the Bronx who studied art at Pratt Institute, Lois has been in advertising since the 1950s, working at Doyle Dane Bernbach before departing the legendary agency to start Papert Koenig Lois. He made his mark over the years with campaigns for clients ranging from Xerox to Olivetti to Jiffy Lube and the Esquire covers he designed from 1962 to 1972.

And there was MTV. Lois lays claim to not only creating the iconic “I Want My MTV” slogan but convincing Mick Jagger to utter the phrase in the commercial that would transform the once-failing music video network into the ultimate cable destination for teenagers across America in the early 1980s.

While his career has extended over more than five decades, Lois most fondly remembers the 1960s, when he took part in the famous creative revolution of the time. “I talk to all the creative directors today, and they take me aside, and they say, ‘You know, it must have been great back in those days when you could do anything you wanted.’ I say, ‘Huh? Excuse me?’ I mean, we fought,” Lois says. “In the ’60s and ’70s you fought wars with clients, and you have to continue fighting wars to do great work.”

And what if a client just doesn’t get your vision? This might sound like heresy, but Lois says agencies can’t be afraid to drop clients that don’t appreciate great creative. “I say, ‘If you can’t sell great work to certain people, you’ve got to get rid of the account,’ and people look at me like I’m crazy. They say, ‘Well, wait a minute. You don’t understand. There are people working here. We’ve got to eat.’ And I say, ‘It wasn’t any different for me when I was a kid.’”

Lois came up in the advertising industry during a time when television commercials and print ads were the primary means of reaching consumers. What does he make of all the opportunities and challenges creatives face now in producing everything from viral videos to games for mobile devices to social media campaigns? “You know, everybody is so busy talking about ‘Twittering’ and talking about the new technologies and talking about this and that, but they don’t talk about creativity,” Lois laments.


No matter the medium, all successful advertising is based on a strong idea, Lois maintains, stressing, “When you create advertising, always start with the words.”

And instinct is a powerful tool, according to Lois, who is not a fan of testing. “All the people who run agencies, all the important people in agencies have taken communication courses, marketing courses, advertising courses, and courses basically teach advertising as a science, and advertising is so far from a science it isn’t even funny. Advertising is an art,” Lois says. “So what happens is a lot of the clients and the people in middle management in most agencies feel that it’s all testable and are kind of very leery of doing anything that’s really terribly innovative. But you can’t be careful. You can’t be cautious. To do innovative work you have to shock. You have to surprise.”

That said, you also have to sell your product. “The name of the game is selling the product and to do it in a way where the product and the name of the product becomes part of popular culture,” Lois says, noting this is something he constantly has to remind his audiences of when he lectures at colleges as well as agencies.

That’s actually his main complaint about television commercials today. The product isn’t always presented in a memorable way. “Nine out of ten times you don’t know what they’re talking about,” he insists.

Still, while he wouldn’t say we’re in the midst of another creative revolution, Lois does think there is some good advertising being put out these days. “There’s nothing more thrilling to me than seeing exciting work out there,” Lois says. “You look at the Clio shows, and you say, ‘Oh shit, I’m blown away. It doesn’t all suck. That ad, that’s pretty good.’ We just need to see more of that.”

About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety,, Redbook, Time Out New York and