Don Draper, the main character on the hit TV show Mad Men, is said to have been inspired by a real Madison Avenue ad man: George Lois. Lois was a leader in the "Creative Revolution" in advertising during the 1950s, and became one of the most influential art directors in advertising history. His work helped make brands like Xerox, Lean Cuisine and Jiffy Lube famous. Lois is perhaps best known for creating iconic Esquire magazine covers, many of which now reside in the Museum of Modern Art.
Lois recently talked with NPR's Renee Montagne about his work and his new book, Damn Good Advice. In the late '50s, he worked at the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency, the first agency that matched great art direction with great writing, according to Lois. One ad that Lois is particularly fond of was one his colleagues created for the 1957 campaign for Levy's Jewish Rye.
"The campaign was, 'You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Jewish Rye,'" Lois remembers. "And the visual was a Native American Indian chomping into a sandwich made with Levy's; it was a Chinese waiter chomping into a sandwich; it was a New York Irish policeman chomping into it."
Lois considers this campaign great because it had a memorable tag line, and the visuals were compelling. "Those two things together create great advertising," he says. It's as simple as that.
Even though the synergy between words and images is crucial, Lois always tells people just starting out in advertising that when concocting a great ad, the words must come first. "They look at me stunned," he says. "They say, 'No, no, you create these powerful visual images. Why would you think of copy first?' I say, 'Because, a line, a slogan should be famous."
One campaign Lois worked on that has words that still echo today: I want my MTV. Lois says, "If somebody says to you, 'MTV,' you think of Mick Jagger on a phone, screaming into the phone, 'I want my MTV!' That, to me, was always the epitome of great advertising."
Lois says he's been thinking differently for as long as he can remember. Once, when he was enrolled in a design course as a teenager, his instructor told the class to do a study based on pure rectangles on an 18" by 24" sheet of paper. The assignment was worth half their grade for the season, but while Lois' classmates nervously cut shapes out of their papers, Lois sat idly, looking out the window, not touching his paper at all.
"Finally, after an hour and 20 minutes, he said, 'Time's up!'" Lois recalled. Just before the teacher looked at Lois' blank paper, Lois said, "'Excuse me, wait for a second.' And I wrote 'G. Lois' in the corner of this perfect, 18-by-24 rectangle. And he tore it out of my hands ... I came in the next morning and there were four or five teachers in the hallway... They said, 'George, my God, George, what you did in Mr. Patterson's class was brilliant!' What I taught myself was that in any problem you get, you've got to come up with an innovative, brilliant, kind of unusual, stunning solution."
One of Lois' clients was the pancake company Aunt Jemima. He began working on their advertising campaign before they made syrup, when they were only known for their pancake mix. Wondering why the company didn't have their own syrup, Lois devised a questionnaire about pancakes. It asked consumers which syrup they'd purchased recently, and he included an option to circle "Aunt Jemima Syrup," a then-nonexistent product.
"Something like 90 percent of the people or so circled that they had bought Aunt Jemima syrup," says Lois. "I took that research to the head guys, and I said, 'I want to talk to you about syrup.' ... Of course, they created the syrup, and they became the leading syrup brand in the world."
Lois' defining statement about creativity is that it can solve almost any problem. "The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything. And I really believe that. What I try to teach young people, or anybody in any creative field, is that every idea should seemingly be outrageous."
Excerpts From 'Damn Good Advice'
By George Lois
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The charming rogue and brilliant ad man Don Draper will be back in living rooms this Sunday. "Mad Men" returns to TV, showcasing the glamour and squalor in a fictional 1960s advertising firm.
Seemed like a good time for Renee Montagne to speak with a real ad man with long experience, who joined her from our New York bureau.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
That would be George Lois, credited with leading a creative revolution of the late 1950s and '60s. His aim: to create art out of ads. Along the way, he helped make Xerox famous, gave us the cry "I want my MTV," and had magazine covers collected by the Museum of Modern Art.
In his new book, "Damn Good Advice," George Lois offers tips from the best of the real Mad Men, some of whom worked in the very building in Manhattan that now houses NPR's bureau.
GEORGE LOIS: I walked into this building and I almost went into shock because I realized it was the lobby of the building that I worked at in the late '50s, the agency by the name of Doyle Dane Bernbach which is a renowned, legendary agency. It was the first creative agency that combined the talents of great art direction and the talents of a great writer, synergistically working together to create great ad campaigns.
MONTAGNE: Well, since you're sitting there in - I guess in a sense your original stomping grounds - give us an example of one of the ads that would've emerged from that ad agency in that building.
LOIS: Well, one that thrilled me was probably something like 1957, a great, great ad campaign for Levy's Jewish Rye. And the campaign was: You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Jewish Rye. And the visual was a Native American Indian chomping into a sandwich made with Levy's. It was a Chinese waiter chomping into a sandwich. It was a New York Irish policeman chomping into it.
What was great about it and was kind of a signal to me what real great advertising really should be about, it had a great line that you couldn't forget. And you had visual going with it in synergy with it. Those two things together create great advertising.
MONTAGNE: One of the things you write here is you offer up a formula for advertising: The word must come first. But you've described a perfect kind of ad which marries a word to an image...
LOIS: Yes, that's right...
MONTAGNE: But you still think the word comes first.
LOIS: Yeah. No, that's very sharp of you. When I talk, and especially when I talk to young people, and I say that when you want to create advertising you should think in words first. They look at me stunned. They say no, no, you create these powerful visual images. Why would you think of copy first? I said because a line, slogan should be famous like I did later with I want my MTV. It's one of the most famous slogans of all time.
If somebody says to you, MTV, you think of Mick Jagger on a phone screaming at that phone: I want my MTV. That to me was always the epitome of great advertising.
MONTAGNE: You tell a story from when you were a teenager in an art class. Tell us that story.
LOIS: Sure. One of the courses was a pure design course. You'd have an 18-by-24 sheet of paper and my instructor, Mr. Patterson said, OK, do a design of circles - no concept, just pure circles. The next day was triangles. Then the next day would be triangles and rectangles together. Then, on the last day of the year, he gave us another piece of 18-by-24 paper and he said, today, whatever we do is going to be half your mark for the season, for the term - kind of astounding.
And he said, today, a design of rectangles. And everybody started to work. And we have everybody is cutting; they were into cutting shapes and et cetera. They were all cutting all different rectangle shapes. I sat for an hour and 20 minutes, whatever it was, and I did not move. And I just sat back, kind of looked out the window listening for the birds or so.
Finally, after an hour and 20 minutes, he said time's up. And he started to pick up everything, the papers. And he finally came up to me and he's about to grab it and I stopped, I put my hand down. And I said excuse me, wait for a second. And I wrote G. Lois in the corner of this perfect 18-by-24 rectangle. And he tore it out of my hands. And I said, oh my, God. I went home and I said oh my, God. He didn't understand, he didn't get it.
I came in the next morning and there were four or five teachers in the hallway; saw my face, George, my God, George, what you did in Mr. Patterson's class was brilliant. What I taught myself was that in any problem you get, you've got to come up with an innovative, brilliant, kind of unusual, stunning solution.
MONTAGNE: Give us an example of how you take this level of creativity and apply it to something that's as simple as Aunt Jemima's - what was it? What was Aunt Jemima's...
LOIS: It's syrup.
MONTAGNE: Yes, syrup. But until you came along, Aunt Jemima wasn't known for syrup. That product is known for pancake mix.
LOIS: Yeah, I was working for the Aunt Jemima people. And I said to them how come you guys don't have a syrup? You own the pancake business. And they said, well, that's not our business. And they come up with 12 reasons why they don't have it. And I said to them two or three times over a couple of months, and they said, stop talking about Aunt Jemima syrup.
So finally, what I did is I came up with a piece of research with my account executive about Aunt Jemima Pancake. Aunt Jemima Pancake, do you do this, how do you do this with pancakes? And what do you, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah. The last question in this questionnaire about pancakes listed a bunch of syrups, and I included the words, Aunt Jemima Syrup. And I said, which of these syrups have you bought in the last year.
And something like 90 percent of the people, or so, circled that they had bought Aunt Jemima Syrup, which was nonexistent. And I took that research to the head guys. And I said, I want to talk to you about syrup. And they said, not again. And I showed him my - the research and I said that 90 percent of Americans believed they're already buying Aunt Jemima Syrup. Would you please make Aunt Jemima Syrup? And, of course, they created the syrup and they became the leading syrup brand in the world, you know, in two days, you know.
Creativity comes in - my defining statement about creativity, in fact it's in the opening pages of the book I have in very bold type: Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality overcomes everything. And I really believe that. And what I try to teach young people, or anybody in any creative field, is that every idea should seemingly be outrageous.
MONTAGNE: Thank you so much for joining us.
LOIS: Sure, Renee. Thanks very much.
MONTAGNE: Ad man George Lois. His new book is called "Damn Good Advice."
GREENE: And you can see some of George Lois's successful ad campaigns at NPR.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.