I’m on the early leg of my holiday, although have already completed the first of my books: the quick-read autobiography of George Lois, the legendary New York advertising creative. Called Damn Good Advice (for people with talent), the book consists of 120 insights – offering guru-words and images from the man that had us eating Lean Cuisine while demanding “I want my MTV” and saying “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” (for an advert for Braniff airlines).
In 1960 Lois started the world’s second creative advertising agency, pioneering the creative revolution that was as bold and innovative then as Silicon Valley is today. That said, he resents being referred to as the “original Mad Man”.
“This maddening show is nothing more than a soap opera,” he opines, “set in a glamorous office where stylish fools hump their appreciative, coiffured secretaries, suck up martinis, and smoke themselves to death as they produce dumb, lifeless advertising.”
Mad Men destroys the revolutionary atmosphere in which the early advertising industry operated, says Lois. Creatives then were maverick outsiders, he claims, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, women’s Lib and the protests against the Vietnam War. These were seismic, turbulent, days that changed America forever: so to reinvent the history of creative advertising to one portraying corrupt corporate insiders is – for Lois – an insult to an industry that reset rather than followed the zeitgeist.
Lois was certainly an outsider. Raised as a Greek New Yorker (the son of a florist) in a “racist Irish neighbourhood” his experiences as a conscripted GI helping to “commit genocide on an Asian culture” led him to a life as a radical graphic communicator “determined to awaken, to disturb, to protest, to instigate, to provoke”. Indeed, he provoked reactions wherever he went – even on his first day as an army conscript when, at a 6am rollcall at a camp in the pre-Civil Rights Deep South, he irritated the major for offering the wrong response to his hollered name.
“Oh, another Noo Yawk, Jew Fag, Niggah lover!” spat the major, to which Lois replied:
“Go fuck yourself, sir!”
What I love about Lois’s take on his own creativity, however, is not his in-your-face liberalism: confronting a McCathyite Cold War USA with a creative imagination and passion that the crusty conservative establishment failed to understand let alone match. He’s hardly the leading advocate here – more like one of many baby-boomers catching the wave. Although his contribution is, indeed, significant it’s not game-changing – and pales compared to John Lennon or Andy Warhol or Bob Dylan. Ultimately, George Lois depended on his corporate clients so the odd pro bono campaign for a just cause was never going to turn him into a revolutionary hero of the first order.
No, what I love is – perhaps oddly – the discipline of creativity he extols. The book reeks, not of the hedonistic mayhem of the age, but of the hard work required, and of the unstated rules of creative success. The early insights such as “follow your bliss” and “always go for the big idea” are fine, if highly predicable, but they give way to the undeniable notion that good creativity requires dedication, and that those that make a difference don’t do so by partying harder than their rivals but by getting into the office earlier and staying later.
“If you don’t burn out at the end of each day, you’re a bum!” he states….”I’m totally burnt out at the end of each day because I’ve given myself totally to my work – mentally, psychologically, physically. When I head home at night I can’t see straight. But I love that feeling of utter depletion.”
Other insights I like include:
- Lois’s extolling of Abraham Lincoln’s famous apology to a friend “I’m sorry I could not have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time”: certainly something I’d love Moorgate’s PR clients to understand when they’re convinced it takes us less time to write an 800 word OpEd than a 1500 word feature,
- His conviction that you cannot sit at your computer waiting for the big idea to pop out. It won’t – you need to get out and about (Lois recommends art galleries and museums, even if visited a 1000 times before),
- That there is a big idea or creative solution waiting within even the dullest assignment. His view is that we have to want to find it, rather than simply want to complete the task,
- That we shouldn’t over learn the lessons of failure as they may make us too cautious. Instead, Lois – if convinced it was a good idea – contends that they were all “magnificent conceptions” that he’d failed to sell. Being humble when being creative, he opines, will blunt your fearless creativity. That said, he insists that it’s “onwards and upwards, and never give your failures a second thought”,
- He also thought that you should never listen to music when trying to come up with your big idea. This is a difficult notion to accept in our office because we often wear headphones to block out noise while writing. But I agree music can interrupt the thought-waves and, instead, listen to bland, soothing, lobby music with no lyrics. People think I’m mad but I’ve written four books this way – something that would have been impossible with The Eagles or Oasis in my ear,
- Creativity is rarely a group activity, says Lois. Rather it’s the insight of individuals. “Breakthrough creative decision making is almost always made by one, two or possibly three minds….Collective thinking usually leads to stalemate or worse.” By worse Lois refers to “group grope”, which is the opposite to the “eureka” nailing of good ideas. “Teamwork might work in building an Amish barn, but it can’t create a Big Idea.” Of course, as outsiders, we knew this, though latter-day managerialism makes us the maverick that must be exorcised from the creative process – so it’s great to hear that we weren’t wrong: individuals produce the best ideas. Thanks George,
- Work is worship. “Working hard and doing great work is as imperative as breathing,” says Lois. “Creating great work warms the heart and enriches the soul. Those of us lucky enough to spend our days doing something we love, something we’re good at, are rich.” So says Lois, adding that unless you are the best in the world at what you do, you’re failing your talent. At least at first, payment, influence, fun: all are distractions to the real goal of excellence,
- Work comfortably in a formal setting. I love this insight as it reinforces my own prejudices about all those new work-play offices with ping-pong tables and roof-top bars. Work is work, so generate a formal working environment and save play for the evenings. That said, he didn’t want a pristine setting that makes workers feel uncomfortable. “I love people informality in a structured, precise surrounding,” says Lois – which made my heart leap with the joy of affirmation,
- “It’ll do” is NEVER good enough. In another passage Lois tells the story of legendary restaurateur Joe Baum. With Lois in a bar, Baum admires a Bloody Mary he’s served, before challenging the barman to make an even better one. He duly obliges, to which Baum shouts “then why the fuck didn’t you make it that way in the first place!?”.
- Behave like a professional. He expects dignity and self-discipline from his staff, no matter how senior. “If you act like one of those lecherous TV Mad Men in your office, you’ll wind up getting screwed,” he states. “Save your passion and drive for your creative career, and keep your mind on your work,” he adds. Again, this is something I agree with and have written about – not least due to the career destruction caused by men using their power to procure sex and women offering sex to procure power: “Nobody loves a womanizer, and nobody wants to work with an associate who’s got one eye on his work and the other on a coworker’s curves. It’s the fastest, and ultimately the nastiest way to destroy a budding career”.
Wise words from an ambitious man that made a huge difference to his industry.