10 Tips For Success From George Lois, The Original Mad Man

In Damn Good Advice, the legendary offers some blunt counsel on how to create big ideas.

Often billed as the original Mad Man, George Lois could also be called advertising’s original Bad Boy. Starting in the ’50s, he dished up in-your-face campaigns for the likes of VW, the Four Seasons restaurant, and MTV. Never one to pull a punch, the adman channeled his brash attitude into some of the most provocative images of the 1960s, including now-legendary Esquire covers that took on issues of race, the Vietnam War, religion, and feminism.


Lois takes the same no-holds-barred approach to sharing his own pearly wisdom. In Damn Good Advice (for People with Talent!), from Phaidon Press, the king of the one-liner offers some inspiring pointers on how to create–and sell–the big ideas while holding fast to some moral integrity. Here, we’ve collected 10 of his finest gems.

1. My first commandment: The word comes first, then the visual.

When young art directors ask me to reveal my “formula” for creating advertising, I answer … start with the word! This advice, with a biblical reference, is carved in stone–my first commandment. Art directors, presumed by many to be illiterate, are expected to think visually–and most do. They sift through magazines to find visuals, however disjointed and inappropriate, to help them “get started.” Most art directors, unfortunately, do not sit and try to write the idea: They usually wait with their thumbs up their ass for a writer to furnish the words, which usually are not visually pregnant. By contrast, a handful of great art directors are authors of some of the finest headlines in advertising–or they work intimately with gifted writers as they conjure concepts together. Conversely, even when a writer works on his own, his words must lend themselves to visual excitement–because a big campaign idea can only be expressed in words that absolutely bristle with visual possibilities, leading to words and visual imagery working in perfect synergy.

If you’re an art director, heed my words: Each ad, TV spot, and campaign is in your hands–it’s your baby. If you’re a copywriter, on the other hand, you must work with a talented visual communicator!


2. “I’m sorry I could not have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time” –Abraham Lincoln

Not too long after U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered the iconic wartime Gettysburg Address of 1863 in under three minutes and in just 10 sentences (272 words he had written and rewritten and agonized over), he wrote a long letter, in miniscule handwriting to a friend. The apology above, that he didn’t have the time to contemplate, correct, and edit his letter, is the most lucid lesson in good writing I’ve ever read. Keep it short, informative, concise, and literary, where every single word counts. But remember: It’s not how short you make it; it’s how you make it short.

Think long. Write short.

3. A trend is always a trap.

Because advertising and marketing is an art, the solution to each new problem or challenge should begin with a blank canvas and an open mind, not with the nervous borrowings of other people’s mediocrities. That’s precisely what “trends” are–a search for something “safe”–and why a reliance on them leads to oblivion. At the start of each new year, as the press scans the horizon for newsworthy departures from the past, I’m usually asked by reporters from America’s news weeklies: “What do you think the trends in advertising will be in the coming year?” My answer is always identical to what I said the previous year: “Beats the shit out of me. I’ll know it when I do it.” Trends can tyrannize; trends are traps. In any creative industry, the fact that others are moving in a certain direction is always proof positive, at least to me, that a new direction is the only direction.


4. A Big Idea can change world culture.

MTV, now regarded as a “sure thing from the start,” was an abject failure after its first full year of operation. But in 1982 I got rock fans to phone their local cable operators and yell, I want my MTV. Overwhelmed, the operators called the Warner Amex cable-TV network and begged them to stop running my commercials because they didn’t have an army of telephone operators to answer the calls, and Warner Amex immediately surrendered. MTV was alive and rockin’.

A few weeks before, when I had presented my campaign idea to their execs, they insisted that no rock star would assist MTV because music publishers feared the MTV concept would kill their business, record companies swore they would never produce music videos, advertisers considered it a joke, ad agency experts snickered, and cable operators scoffed. But with one pleading phone call to London, I convinced Mick Jagger to help (for no dough), and 20 years before the bad boy of rock became a knight of the realm, I anointed Sir Mick the patron saint of MTV. Within a few weeks of the premier of Jagger picking up the phone and saying I want my MTV, every rock star in America was calling me, begging to scream I want my MTV to the world.

The lesson (which most ad agencies have never understood) is that great advertising can perform a marketing miracle!


5. Teamwork might work in building an Amish barn, but it can’t create a Big Idea.

The accepted system for the creation of innovative thinking in a democratic environment is to work cooperatively in a team-like ambience. Don’t believe it. Whatever the creative industry, when you’re confronted with the challenge of coming up with a Big Idea, always work with the most talented, innovative mind available. Hopefully … that’s you. Avoid group grope and analysis paralysis. The greatest innovative thinker of our age remains Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, a modern-day Henry Ford. Jobs was not a consensus builder but a dictator who listened to his own intuitions, blessed with an astonishing aesthetic sense.

Everybody believes in co-creativity–not me. Be confident of your own, edgy, solo talent.

(Once you’ve got the Big Idea, that’s where teamwork comes in–selling the Big Idea, producing the Big Idea, and bringing the Big Idea into fruition.)


6. To create great work, here’s how you must spend your time: 1% inspiration, 9% perspiration, 90% justification.

I don’t care how talented you are. If you’re the kind of creative person who gets your best work produced–justifying and selling your work (to those around you, to your boss, to your client, to lawyers, to TV copy clearance, etc.) is what separates the sometimes good creative thinker from the consistently great one.

7. When you know a client is dead wrong about a marketing opportunity, create a brand name that blows his mind!

In the late 1970s, my agency acquired a new client, Stouffer’s frozen foods. At our “nuptial” dinner with Stouffer’s brass, I politely asked if they planned to go into diet gourmet frozen foods. They said diet foods were a back-burner item that required expensive ingredients, eeked out low profit margins, yada-yada. I pointed out that we were in the midst of an emerging health trend and more American women were working and it was incumbent on Stouffer’s to develop a quality product in response to the zeitgeist. They dismissed my appeal. I couldn’t sleep that night, chewed over their rejection of a diet/gourmet line of frozen foods, and eureka! … Lean Cuisine–a brand name that said everything that had to be said to describe the revolutionary product line. I sent the name pronto to the president of Stouffer’s. For once, the concept needed no “selling” on my part: “Lean” said thin, “Cuisine” said delicious. The CEO ate it up, and a new and dynamic marketing category was born.

Sometimes all the “marketing” insight in the world can’t move a client, but the creation of a truly great brand name can become a billion-dollar idea!

[George Lois’s office and desk at Lois Holland Callaway, 1969]

8. Make your surroundings a metaphor for who you are.

I once visited a great architect in his office and was shocked by the clutter and tastelessness of his surroundings. How unlike his office were the structures and environment he produced! He spent his lifetime striving to make the world outside him look harmonious, while he looked at a mess inside the very room where he did his work.

The only thing I ever permit on my desk is the job I’m working on. And, in my work place, there is nothing on the walls (except my nineteenth-century Seth Thomas clock) to distract me from what I’m supposed to be thinking about on my desk. I’ve always invested so much effort in my immediate surroundings because the objects and surfaces and forms that surround me must feel aesthetically right to me. Your working surroundings should not be a presentation to your clients. (Indeed, when my clients first see my office they invariably give me a strange look.)

Everything I believe in is reflected in this photograph of my work area: precision, simplicity, clarity.


And your home should not be a presentation to your friends. Surrounds should relate to who you are, what you love, and to what you deem important in life.

9. Research is the enemy of creativity–unless it’s your own “creative” research (heh-heh).

Advertising is an art, not a science. If you create advertising to pass a research test (as almost all establishment agencies do), the “science” of advertising runs the show. Most of my ad campaigns would have flunked commercial pre-testing because edgy, sometimes mind-blowing concepts get ripped apart in group-grope “focus groups.” I once used research (conceived and conducted by my agency) to create a gigantic marketing success for Quaker’s Aunt Jemima pancake brand.

Inexplicably, Quaker refused to market an Aunt Jemima syrup, a no-brainer if I ever poured one. Their management was adamant every time I brought it up. But I plunged ahead with a research questionnaire devised on Aunt Jemima pancake mix, including one question at the end of the survey asking consumers to name the syrup brand they used most recently–and I included the nonexistent Aunt Jemima syrup among a list of 10 brands. Eighty-nine out of 100 pancake eaters claimed they had purchased Aunt Jemima syrup that year! The honchos at Quaker were stunned and convinced by my results–and they finally plunged into the syrup business. Within a year, the new Aunt Jemima syrup became the best-selling syrup in America.


If you can’t convince a client to produce a no-brainer win, manipulate them any way you can to win them over.

10. Creating advertising that is icon rather than con depends on the deep belief that your message is more than the purchase of a product or service.

In 1961, Dr. Benjamin Spock asked me to do a New York subway poster. Nuclear testing in the atmosphere by the U.S. and the Soviet Union was threatening the continuation of life on our planet, without one bomb being dropped in the Cold War conflict. Dr. Spock, one of the bravest leaders of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), alerted the public with warnings by Nobel scientists that the fallout from radioactive materials would result in a growing number of birth defects and deaths. The poster combined the image of a pregnant woman with a hard-hitting, absolutely factual headline. The press called me a commie sympathizer. Today, nearly half a century after the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, it seems incomprehensible that a poster about the malignant peril of nuclear fallout could ever have sparked such outrage. But my poster made an iconic statement that opened the eyes of many in those scary days.

If you don’t believe that advertising can be icon rather than con, you’ll never understand the potential of great creativity.


Buy Damn Good Advice here for $9.95.

[Images courtesy of George Lois]


About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.