ShortList’s Tom Ellen talks to the greatest ad man of all time, trying hard not to call him the ‘original Don Draper’. At least not to his face…
When George Lois was 17 years old, in 1948, he decided to play basketball in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. This may not sound like a particularly noteworthy incident, but New York in the Forties was a volatile, racially segregated city and Bed-Stuy was a predominantly black area.
“I walked into the gym and 50 guys turned to look at me, like, ‘Who’s this crazy white motherf*cker?’,”
Lois laughs as he recalls the episode. “Guys are bumping me, fouling me, talking stuff at me. I answer back a couple of times and boom — fist fight.”
He chuckles again and continues. “I kept going back to that gym, though. At first, they all laughed and said, ‘Wow, this guy really likes to take punishment,’ but within three weeks, everybody loved me. We were all pals. That was my attitude — I walked around New York like it was my town.”
It’s an attitude that has remained with Lois his whole life, from his formative years in the army (he was shipped to Korea in 1951 for telling a racist superior
to “Go f*ck yourself, sir”), to his Sixties heyday, when his unorthodox ideas yielded some of the most iconic magazine covers of all time, including a martyred Muhammad Ali (below), and helped spark advertising’s ‘creative revolution’ (laying the blueprint for Mad Men, more of which later). Even today, at 80, Lois exudes the same swaggering bravado as that 17-year-old kid who casually strolled into places others would pay to avoid.
“That’s the thing with me,” he laughs, when ShortList comments on his apparently inexhaustible energy levels. “I’m always looking for trouble.”
THE BIG IDEA
Talking to Lois is a bit like stepping into a deleted scene from GoodFellas. It’s not just his accent — a glorious, milkshake-thick, ‘Noo Yawk’ drawl — but also the things he says. Within the first 10 minutes of our conversation, Lois employs the phrases “busting my balls”, “yada, yada” and “bada bing, bada boom”. At times, we’re almost tempted to provoke a “wise guy, eh?” or even a “why I oughta…” Put simply: George Lois is what you might affectionately refer to as a ‘character’. Born in the Bronx in 1931 to Greek immigrant parents, he gained a taste for envelope-pushing aesthetics during a particularly staid high-school art class.
“Every day they asked us to make boring designs from rectangles,” he remembers, with a sneer. “On the last day of term, I sat back with the paper in front of me and didn’t move a muscle. Finally, my teacher came over, furious because I wasn’t doing anything. Before he could grab my empty page, I signed my name in the corner — ‘G.Lois’ [making his rectangle the rectangle of the blank page]. I understood then that you’ve always got to come up with something fresh, innovative and seemingly outrageous. You’ve got to shock people.”
Following a stint in the army where his disrespect for authority continued to blossom, Lois joined advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1959, before co-founding his own company — Papert Koenig Lois — a year later. It was at PKL that Lois came up with the concept of The Big Idea. In advertising terms, this represented the Holy Grail; a short, sharp, instantly striking line or visual that would, in Lois’s words, “sear the virtue of a product into a viewer’s brain and heart, resulting in a sales explosion”.
Notable Big Ideas on the Lois CV include his still-quoted 1982 campaign for MTV (“That channel was dead in the water until I persuaded Mick Jagger to say,
‘I want my MTV!’ in a commercial”) and a hugely successful 1967 advert for Braniff International Airways, starring Salvador Dali, that saw bookings soar.
“Dali was a strange guy,” says Lois. “We were discussing art history and he suddenly said, ‘You are a smart man — let me give you a kiss.’ He gave me one right on the lips!”
While Lois was fending off unexpected public displays of affection from surrealists, his Big Ideas were helping to catalyse the ‘creative revolution’ of the Sixties. Inspired by Lois and his colleagues’ novel method of combining copywriters and art directors in two-man teams, new, innovative agencies began sprouting across New York, all churning out visually arresting propaganda.
But Lois wasn’t content with reinventing just one industry. In 1962, having noticed the tsunami-scale waves he was already making in the advertising world, US Esquire editor Harold Hayes called on him to create eye-catching covers for his magazine. Lois didn’t disappoint; his stints at Esquire throughout the Sixties and Seventies resulted in some of the most provocative imagery in magazine history.
Perhaps the most iconic example came in April 1968, when Muhammad Ali’s refusal the previous year to fight in the Vietnam War inspired Lois to depict the boxer as the arrow-riddled Christian martyr Saint Sebastian.
“Muhammad was so sharp,” says Lois, describing how the former-world champion enthusiastically bought into Lois’s concept for the shoot. “At one point, he started naming the arrows after the people who were out to destroy him – ‘Hey, George, this one’s [US President] Lyndon Johnson. This one’s [US Army general] William Westmoreland’. It was so incredible, I almost fainted.”
Esquire’s sales promptly soared as everyone from Richard Nixon (having make-up applied) to Dustin Hoffman (towering over New York skyscrapers) received the Big Idea treatment on the magazine’s front cover. However, Lois’s uncompromising dedication to lowering jaws wasn’t always to everyone’s taste. In 1963, his decision to dress Sonny Liston as Father Christmas for the cover of the December issue resulted in senators attacking the magazine in Congress for exacerbating racial tensions. “The Sixties was a horribly racist time,” Lois explains. “So, with Christmas coming, I thought, ‘I’m going to rub it in white America’s face — I’m going to have a black guy as Santa.’ And not just any black guy — Sonny Liston. The meanest motherf*cker who ever lived.”
Given Liston’s reputation for brutality both inside and outside the ring, Lois was understandably apprehensive about asking him to pose as the jocular, rosy-cheeked figurehead for festive goodwill. “I don’t think Liston really understood what was going on,” he laughs. “I guess he got a kick out of it, though, because he brought his kids along. When I saw him arrive with his children, I figured everything was going to be OK.”
Less controversial, but equally striking, was Lois’s idea to illustrate a 1969 article about Andy Warhol by showing the pop art legend drowning inside the very object that had made him famous — a can of Campbell’s tomato soup (above). He recalls: “Andy told me [adopts high-pitched ‘Warhol’ voice], ‘I love the concept, George, but where will you get the giant can?’ I said, ‘Andy, asshole, I’ll just blow up a picture of a can and put a photo of you inside it.’ He said, ‘Ooh! How clever!’ He thought I was going to build a 10ft f*cking can!”
Iron-willed, sharp-witted and perhaps even capable of successfully selling ice in the arctic, it’s hardly surprising that Lois is regularly cited as the inspiration for Mad Men and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. But, as we discover, Lois sees nothing complimentary about being hailed as ‘the original Don Draper’.
“I take that as a personal insult,” he fumes. “Don Draper is a no-talent hack! Advertising in the Sixties was an incredible, heroic age but [Mad Men] shows these womanising scumbags who drink and smoke themselves to death. Honestly, it’s one of the dopiest shows I ever saw.”
So, he never knocked back an old fashioned or two between pitches?
“I’ve been drunk once in my life!” he yells. “But you know what happened the other day? I met Jon Hamm [who plays Draper] at a party. Nice guy, actually. He came running up, gave me a hug and said, ‘I’m your biggest fan!’ Unless he’s the greatest actor that ever lived, he really seemed to mean it.”
As we reach the end of the interview, Lois gears the conversation round to the reason we’re speaking in the first place; namely, his new book — Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!) — a highly entertaining, pocket-sized manual full of Big Ideas that Lois hopes will “inspire a brand new creative revolution”.
However, it soon transpires that his damn good advice extends far beyond the purely professional realm.
“I was being interviewed the other day and I asked the journalist if he had a girlfriend. He said, ‘Yeah, she’s terrific, we’ve been together three years.’ I said, ‘So, what the f*ck is wrong with you? Marry this girl!’ Three days later, he calls me back and puts his girlfriend on the phone. She says, ‘Thank you so much, Mr Lois — John just proposed!’ Isn’t that great? I’m a matchmaker!”
A man who doesn’t get drunk and who passionately extols the virtues of monogamy? Where did those Don Draper comparisons come from again?
Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!) by George Lois is out now, priced £5.99, published by Phaidon
Esquire image: Carl Fisher