Big Ideas with George Lois and Tracy Ma

25 January, 2018

Every industry has its stars, and in advertising, George Lois is a supernova: a bonafide iconoclast and a pioneering mover of culture. He’s designed over 92 covers for Esquire and has created some of the most influential imagery and campaigns of the century that launched the brands we know today, including MTV, Tommy Hilfiger, and Braniff International Airways. So we were thrilled and honored to have him at the Penthouse to reflect on his past and forecast the industry's landscape, in conversation with Tracy Ma, The New York Times Style's visual editor and former creative director at Bloomberg Businessweek.

Your concept of “The Big Idea” - how does that creative process start for you?

In advertising, you start with the word. I always start with a slogan. I said that to Bill Bernbach once and he said, "A slogan? George, you're so new, you're so modern. And that's such an old-fashioned idea." And I said, "Bill, fucking is an old-fashioned idea. But it works." You know? So, to me, I always start with the words. You have to create a great slogan. And you have to create a visual that works in synergy with it. It really is very simple.

How did you come up with this?

I went for the big ideas when I was 18. I just knew that there's a problem, and you use your instincts, knowledge, and understanding of what goes on in the culture to come up with an idea that is so far from what anybody could come up with in a strategy. It's interesting. I don't listen to or hardly read any research on any of the accounts I get. I go straight for the big idea, and then I write a paper explaining my strategy. I do it backwards. I tell people, "Do a slogan that's got the name in it. And then do something with it that knocks you on your ass."

How did you get your start in advertising?

After high school, I went to Pratt. Into the second year, I'm saying, "What am I doing?" There was a teacher there who was wonderful, understood my work, et cetera and came to me and said, "Why are you in school?" And I said, "Well, you know, I want to get a job because my father is a florist, and he expects me to be a florist. ‘Cause I'm a Greek son. And I don't know how to tell him, I want to be a designer." And he said, "Oh." Wrote out a phone number. A terrific woman by the name of Reba Sochis. He said, "Call her up. Go see her. She will give you a job." The next day I was working for her.

Who were you inspired by when you were first starting out?

The first art director who I really respected is a man by the name of Paul Rand. He was his own man. He didn't take any shit from anybody. I really respected it, because I was 14 years old at the High School of Music and Art. I was in this great school, and there's a guy, probably 70 years old, who was kicking ass. They said he was a contentious son of a bitch. I said, "That's what I want to be." He got away with doing great work, you know?

And Bill Bernbach was this young copywriter who got a job at the same agency. They said, "Listen, leave Paul Rand alone because he'll break your nuts. He'll kill you. He's tough." And Bernbach was very smart, and walked in and said, "Gee, that's very good." It may be that he gave him little suggestions. Paul Rand kind of respected him. When they worked together, Bill Bernbach had an epiphany. As a writer, if you work with an art director who understands imagery, you could do better advertising. Duh. No shit! I knew that when I was 12, you know? But with that epiphany, he started an ad agency called Doyle Dane Bernbach in the early '50s.

“Use your talent as a weapon to defend democracy.” – George Lois

What’s different about advertising today?

A lot of kids have said to me, "You know, the important thing today when you do advertising is it's not like the old days. You can't change people's minds. You shouldn't make it sound like a commercial." Huh? And I say, "You're not asking for the sale?" "No, no, when you ask for the sale... You just can't do that." Well in the ‘I Want My Maypo’ commercial, I asked for the fucking sale there 12 times.

What makes great advertising?

Great advertising, in and of itself, becomes a benefit of the product. People fall in love with great advertising. And you can make food taste better, and you can make cars run better, and you can make perfume smell better just with your advertising.

Can you tell us the story of how you put Tommy Hilfiger in the limelight in just a couple of days?

It was this painted board across the street from Calvin Klein. When I first showed Tommy the ad, he was scared to death of it. He said, "I can't do that." "Why not?" He said, "Everybody is going to make fun of me." I said, "Tommy, it's your last chance." The day the poster went up, I knew it was going up right outside the front door of The New York Post. And the poster was up all over Manhattan. No one knew who T.H. was. I called up the guy who runs Page Six and I explained to him who T.H. is. Next day, they ran like half a page, saying, Who the hell is T.H., blah, blah, blah." And the next day, the head of the marketing column at The New York Times wrote, "Is Tommy Hilfiger successful because of his advertising, or because of his product?" His store was open two days!

Two months later, or so, I was having dinner with my wife and another couple. Calvin Klein was talking to Mr. Chow at the front of the restaurant. Mr. Chow was saying, "That's the guy that did it.” So he starts staggering over to me, you know? There's four of us eating, and he sticks his finger in my face, and he said, "Do you know it took me 20 years to get to where Tommy Hilfiger is today?" And I said, "Schmuck." I grabbed his finger and bent it, and said, "Schmuck, why do it in 20 years when you can do it 20 days?"

You're such a troll. Were you always this confident?

Well, no. I mean, it's the only way to think. I say to young people, believe in yourself. You’ve got to believe in your own talent.

“Why do it in 20 years when you can do it 20 days?” – George Lois

You’ve made some great characters in your ads. Tell us about the Nauga.

Naugahyde was 90% of the fake leather market. And they had gone to like, 10%, and they came to me. So what I did is I created the Nauga. "The Nauga is ugly but his vinyl hide is beautiful." And they seemed to love it. They call me up, and they say, "Our lawyer turned it down." I said, "Why did the lawyer turn it down?" "The lawyer is afraid that people will think that the Nauga was a real fucking animal." So I had seven or eight of my account guys take the ad separately, and they went to people in the street. They said, "Do you think this is a real animal?" They said, "What, are you fucking nuts?"

On the Esquire covers, a lot of your political inclinations come out best as work adjacent to, or for, the media.

I got a kick out of it because I could get my anti-war covers. At the time, nobody was doing them. When I said to Harold, "It's a shit war, right?" He said, "If you say so." You know? I mean, I was in the Korean War, and this is the Vietnam War. Same shit, same bullshit. Same war of genocide.

Did you find that your work gave you a platform for your political views? Was it more conducive for that kind of meaning? A the time, I imagine it would’ve been very difficult to convince a brand to put a black Santa on their product because they would lose a bunch of money.

You gotta understand that the salespeople who went to agencies and got advertising in their magazines hated my covers. Everybody said, "Gee, it's getting a little edgy." Meanwhile, the sales were going up, up, up.

Do you think images have a harder time reaching that iconic level these days with such a saturated environment?

These days? Sure. You should see the anti-Trump t-shirts we just did. They'll scare the shit out of you. It's truth of power. I've done it all my life.

What sort of work did you derive more joy from? Your politically-charged work, or the fun, exuberant pieces of TV advertising with characters?

I just get political stuff into my advertising. A lot.

So you see no distinction between the two?

Yeah. And it's like getting away with it, you know?

Do you get a kick out of getting away with it?

I mean, you do it ‘cause you care about our democracy, and you care about the future. And we ain't got much the way we're going. You gotta warn everybody about it. We gotta resist. Use your talent as a weapon to defend democracy. I say that to everybody who's talented. When I started to do the Esquire covers, I realized they were a canvas. To help America understand that the war is shit, and racism, and all the terrible things that I'm afraid that we have always had in America. This ain't new. I guess that Trump stuff is new. Frightening.

What advice would you give people who are trying to emerge in today’s oversaturated, competitive market?

The thing that destroys creativity is group grope. What that leads to is analysis paralysis. You watch my commercials, you don't sit there saying, "Now what the fuck was that all about?" You get it in a nanosecond. You have to understand the graphics immediately. I mean, an Esquire cover, you only got a split second to get it. Literally. Andy Warhol drowning… now, you could make all kinds of angles for that commercial and what you think about it. This destruction of pop art, or whatever it is. But boy, you gotta look at it and get it.

Tracy Ma and George Lois before their conversation

Words by The Editors, Tracy Ma and George Lois. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

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