Everything about George Lois is big. His ideas. His basketball player-sized frame. His mouth. The bio on his website states that the “legendary George Lois is the most creative, prolific advertising communicator of our time.” Did we mention his big ego?
So I had sense of trepidation upon entering his apartment set back from a leafy Greenwich Village street in downtown New York City. But when the elevator spit me out on his floor, the first thing I noticed was the row of shoes lined up outside his front door.
When Lois opened the door, he stood in black Nike warm up pants, a black long sleeve shirt, and dark socks. I offered to take off my shoes, and the two of us ambled across his hardwood floor to the circular, shiny dining room table where Lois had neatly arranged two glasses of ice water set atop folded paper napkins. Doing an interview in socks, I quickly realized, made the whole experience a lot less intimidating. And with Lois, it wasn’t merely a back and forth verbal volley. It was a one-man performance. He doesn’t just talk — he mimics voices. Over the course of the next hour, he spoke in the smoky tone of Muhammad Ali, the British lilt of Mick Jagger, the southern twang of the late Esquire editor Harold Hayes, (and the sharp accent of an Austrian woman but that’s for another story). His hands also talk. He uses arm motions and shadow boxing to punctuate anecdotes about his Mad Men advertising days. (By the way, he hated the TV show — thought the whole series was sensationalized beyond belief. Coming from Lois, who adds a bit of shine to his whopper tales, that says a lot.)
Over the the last 60 years, Lois has designed across magazines, TV campaigns, print ads, and packaging. The author of 11 books, including the new Lois Logos, he notably created the Nickelodeon logo and the “I want my MTV” campaign that launched the music network. He is also responsible for 92 Esquire covers that spiked the status quo with a healthy jolt of creative hot sauce. There was Andy Warhol famously drowning in a Campbell’s tomato soup can, boxer and convicted felon Sonny Liston dressed as Santa Claus, and Richard Nixon getting done up with pink lipstick.
Now 84, Lois is still swinging, currently working on an ad campaign for the mobile messaging app SOMA. A few years ago Lois tried to call it quits. That lasted for all of one hour on a Monday morning. “I am not retired,” he explains. “I just got tired.” Today, Lois collaborates with his son, Luke, who lives in the same apartment building. (The pair’s Good Karma Creative studio space is located inside Luke’s apartment.)
Sitting in his socks and speaking in a salty manner littered with the “F” word, Lois reflected on his storied career. He has opinions on everything, from why groupthink is pointless to why you should bring a sleeping bag with you on your first day of work to what ails the magazine covers and ad campaigns of today. Freely, he shared them.
You grew up in the Bronx in New York City. Tell us about your upbringing and how you gravitated to art and design.
I was a Greek immigrant kid whose father was a florist, and I grew up in an Irish neighborhood in the West Bronx. I grew up delivering flowers from the time I was six years old. And I learned how to take care of myself and punch out every Irish kid who called me a “greaseball.”
When I graduated middle school I was going to go to my neighborhood public high school — a tough school. But a teacher told me to go and apply to the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. I had never heard of the school, but I took a test for it, and I got in. It was the greatest school of learning since Alexander sat at the foot of Aristotle. You take a full academic course load, along with three art courses a day, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
How did that experience shape your young artistic perspective?
The first abstract design course I had, they handed you a big sheet of paper and you had to design different shapes. People ripped off Kazimir Malevich, Paul Klee, or Herbert Bayer. At the end of the first term, our teacher Mr. Patterson handed us an 18 x 24-inch piece of Strathmore paper that had to cost a dime per piece — a dime was a lot back then. Mr. Patterson told us that the topic was rectangles. We had an hour and a half and everyone started working feverishly. Everyone was cutting out shapes, painting them. But I started looking out the window at a whistling bird — it was springtime. Mr. Patterson knew I was a terrific student, and he was starting to get furious that I wasn’t doing anything. After an hour and 20 minutes, he said time was up. Before he grabbed my paper, I wrote “G. Lois” in the corner and gave him my untouched rectangle.
The next morning I went into school and four or five teachers stopped me in the hallway and said what I did for Mr. Patterson was incredible. I had handed him a…rectangle! That was a self-taught epiphany: Any problem that you get as a designer, a communicator, the answer has to be surprising, shocking, maybe outrageous. You want to show your creation to anybody and have them go, “You can’t do that.” That is the story of my life.
How do you feel about what is being created across the current advertising landscape?
This is the worst period of advertising in history. The reason is because companies don’t know how to brand. You can prove it to yourself. Watch television tonight, maybe 30 commercials go by and 20 of those you don’t know what the brands said — even if you are concentrating. And you can’t remember all but one or two. Young creatives are also taught to never ask for a sale, to not do a commercial that says, “Buy me.”
I think the issue is that brands are afraid of turning off consumers by blatantly saying “Buy me!” How do you ask for the sale in an artistic way?
I once did a commercial for Maypo Oatmeal in the 1960’s. Before I got the account they had a young child obnoxiously saying, “I want my Maypo.” After I got the account, I asked the company who they wanted to sell oatmeal to and they said older kids. I got the six greatest athletes that existed then, including Mickey Mantle, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, etc. The commercial starts with Mickey Mantle, looking at the viewer. With a tear rolling down his face, he says in a sad voice, “I want my Maypo.” Then it cuts to Oscar Robertson doing the same thing. Each guy does this shtick. Then it eventually cuts to a product shot and the voiceover says “Maypo, the only cereal that heroes cry for.” I asked for the sale nine times in the commercial — “I want my Maypo.” If you want to succeed in advertising, you have to have the heart of an artist and the soul of a salesman.
You feel that coming up with ideas in a group is a terrible approach, that the more you have to compromise with people on ideas, the more you compromise on the art. This runs counter to the age-old belief that teamwork is best. Why do you detest “group grope” as you call it?
When you work with other people, in order to get out of the room with some kind of decision, everybody is compromising. If you have a great idea, you’re not going to walk out of that room winning the argument. You have to get one person who knows what they want and can confidently make the decision. When former Esquire editor Harold Hayes asked if I could help him do better covers, I asked him how he did them now. He said that at the end of each month, the editorial staff had a meeting with himself, four editors, and three people from the art department and they would try to decide which story should be the cover story. Then a couple of days later, five or six of them came back in and they comped up the best ideas. And I’m thinking, “Oh my God.” Talk about group grope. I asked Harold if that was the way he worked with [legendary journalist] Norman Mailer? Sit down and have a committee decide how to edit his stories? No.
Where does teamwork come in?
In the execution phase. If I create a storyboard, I don’t want anyone to touch it. Teamwork is needed in production. But there is not one frame of a project that an art director should allow to be compromised.
The magazine covers you did revolved around ideas, whereas pretty much every magazine cover these days focuses on a rotating roster of celebrity faces and bodies, or a beautiful scenescape or product image. What’s your reaction to that?
Annie Leibovitz says covers with big ideas can’t sell. Huh? Esquire went from a circulation of 400,000 to 2 million when I was doing covers. Magazines should be branding their magazines with a cover that makes people say “whoa.” The reason that editors don’t is because there are no Harold Hayes left. For Harold I once did a cover showing Sonny Liston — a convicted killer — as a black Santa, which caused Esquire to lose 12 advertising clients. I told Harold I was sorry, and he said the cover was great. Harold was having wars with management all the time over covers, and he never once said, “That’s the end of that.” There is no better editor these days than Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, but he’ll go “George, I can’t. I can’t take the chance.” There is the fear of the big idea.
What role does ego play in an artist’s career?
Big time. For sure. When you go work someplace, the work has to be great, but that is not good enough. You have to make your presence felt. When I started my first job at the design firm Beacon Studio working for Reba Sochis, I walked in in the morning carrying a sleeping bag under my arm. Reba asked what it was for. I said I might have a job where I have to work all night and maybe I’ll lay down for an hour. You know she went, What do I have here? You have to make your presence felt, but you can’t do it by being a big mouth — you have to have something to show for it.
What would you do differently with today’s magazine covers?
I would do things that knock you on your ass. You want a cover on sex in advertising? I’ll do a cover that shows my ad agency team sitting naked around a conference room table.
You worked in and on magazines, print ads, package design, TV commercials, branding, and more. How were you able to work across such diverse mediums?
I understood the power of graphic punches. I say that you can be creative and you can be cautious, but you can’t be a cautious creator. If I ever showed a client an ad campaign and the client said it was just what they expected, I know I had done a terrible job. I had to be edgy, so that when a client looks at it their head goes back a foot. Then I had to sell the hell out of it.
Speaking of the sale, you once said that a great idea is 1 percent inspiration, 9 percent perspiration, and 90 percent justification. So the art of the sell is the most vital part of making ideas happen?
Getting an idea has never been a problem for me. Perspiration, you have to do a little bit of work to put it together — that is the joy of the job. The justification is World War III. You have to come up with ideas that seem controversial at first, that thrill. I have had business people fight me all the way on my ideas for campaigns that made them multi-millionaires.
If you were starting your career over right now, what would you do?
As an art director, I would find someone who can write copy, and then I’d find a business person and start an ad agency. And I’d blow everyone away.
What’s the greatest length you ever went to champion one of your designs?
When I was at the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, I did a subway poster for Goodman’s matzos with big hand-lettering that said, “Kosher for Passover.” Our account guy took it to Goodman’s, but they didn’t like it. I was an art director, and I asked my boss Bill Bernbach to call the client and set up a meeting so I could go back and talk to him alone — at that time, art directors didn’t really talk to clients. But Bill got me a meeting for one hour later.
Goodman’s office was located in Long Island City. I got there and there was a large glass room, with a long table where the owner, who was in his 90’s, told me he didn’t want the ad. What was I going to do? I couldn’t go back to the agency, otherwise my coworkers would think I was a young punk. Goodman’s office was on the third floor, so I went over to the window, grabbed ahold of the sidebar, and leaned out over the sidewalk. I yelled back inside to the owner, “You make the matzos and I’ll make the ads!” He nearly passed out and told me to come back in the window. Then he said he’d take the ad. As I walked out, he yelled at me, “Young man, if you ever quit advertising, I will give you a job as a matzo salesman!” If all else fails, threaten to commit suicide. If you’re milquetoast, you’re dead.