• August 23 2015

The Master George Lois

A bold Greek-American was destined to become the greatest name in 20th century advertising.

For those who love magazines and look back to emblematic publications and front cover pages such as those of “Esquire” that made history and are now housed in the New York Museum of Modern Art, George Lois is a “guru”. For people who are in the service of advertising, he is a genius. For those who love art in general and innovation in particular, he is the authentic representative of the creative explosion that highlighted the post-war decades. He described himself as “bold”:”if you are prudent, you will remain forever mediocre. Better to be reckless than prudent. Better to be bold than safe. There is no middle way”, the now 83-year-old super-star of advertising has said, completing his identity description with the elucidation that “Never did I consider myself an American. I am Greek-American and it is in that way I insist on being described by all the media here in America”. George Lois was born in 1931 of Greek immigrants Haralambo and Vasiliki Loi, who always had their native land in their hearts, and this was infused into their son who grew up in the 30s and 40s in the streets of the Bronx. “My parents came from a mountain village of the Nafpaktos region”, he explains. “In 1965, I went with my father to his village. I slept in the same bed where he had slept as a child. It was a weird experience”. He remembers that when he was young he had deemed it a matter of course that once he had graduated from High School, he would take over his father`s flower shop. “Finally, I became an artist”, he says. The foundations for his career were laid during the golden decades of the 50s and 60s in Madison Avenue, a period when it was very difficult if not impossible for a foreigner to find work, let alone be head of firms that moulded the world of communication and advertising into what we know it to be today. Thanks to his outstanding talent he became art director at Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) (1959), was third in command in Paper Koenig Lois (1964), head of Lois Holland Callaway (1970), founder in 1985 of his own Lois/ USA, while in 2002 his huge experience took him to Good Carma Creative. Wherever he went, he left his indelible mark, resulting in his work not only having pride of place in advertising history but also in the New York Museum of Modern Art, which procured and exhibits some of his most representative cover pages. At the same time, Lois is a successful author of books including “George Be Careful”, “Sellebrity”,”The Art of Advertising”, and ”George Lois on his creation of the Big Idea”. A few months ago, the publication in Greek of “Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!)”, published by Key Books, brought him to Athens, where he spoke about his career, ideas, Greekness…


You had previously stated you decided to engage in the visual arts because you were sure you could always create something unique, overcoming all constraints. Was there an instance in your career when you felt yourself at a creative impasse?

In all honesty, up until now, I haven`t even been near to experiencing what is called a “creative impasse”. I haven`t ever failed, in the sense that even my commercially “unsuccessful” works were avant-garde ideas. A failure means that it must give you a jolt, make you more humble, “slow up” a little. For me, however, this has nothing to do with being a fearless, creative thinker. I insist that you cannot learn anything significant from a mistake. If I were to give some advice to young, creative individuals, it would be not to ponder over their failures, surpass them quickly and continue to think up the most seemingly crazy ideas.

After having decided you wanted to become a visual artist, what led you to the advertising field?

It isn`t easy to explain the involved train of thought that inspired me to devote my life to the creation of ideas whose aim is to “sell” something. From the time I was a kid in elementary school, I loved to paint, design, present. I knew I would become an artist. For sure, I didn`t know which type of artist. When I went to a special school (High School of Music & Art), I learnt to paint better and became the top student. The works of art that persuaded the public about something quickly began to enthral me; chiefly because they demand a direct and very tangible interaction between artist and audience.

They say that every outstanding artist has an outstanding mentor. Who was yours!

Growing up in a poor Greek family in the Bronx, everybody expected that Haralambos and Vasiliki Lois` son would graduate from High School and take over the flower shop. However, my paintings, when I was seven years old, attracted the attention of my art teacher, my beloved Ida Engle, who, at the end of the school year, gave me a leather folder with whatever I had designed the previous months inside and persuaded my parents to allow me to sit the High School of Music & Art entrance exams, in which I distinguished myself. If it hadn`t been for her, who knows? I might have become a florist.

You are considered the person who began the revolution in advertising back the 60s. At that time, did you realize that what you were doing would leave its mark on history?

When in 1960, I resigned from the Doyle Dane Bernbach company – which, until that time, was considered the only serious advertising firm – to become co-founder of Papert Koenig Lois, I knew that a new epoch was about to start. My company was the first to include an art director on the billboard, and that alone says a lot. Our success was so rapid and great that within five to six years half a dozen such new companies came into being in the USA. The Advertising Creative Revolution was in full flow.

The title of your first book was “George, be Careful”. Yet, you, from the outset, went against the rules.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is my mother incessantly telling me, “George, be careful” like a fortune-teller. In the creative process, however, by being careful, you will forever remain a mediocrity. Better reckless than careful. Better bold than safe. There is no middle way.

You are the inspiration behind the Big Idea. How would you explain it to something who has nothing to do with visual communication?

The Big Idea in advertising is connected with grafting in a special way the merits of a product in the hearts and minds of the public. To achieve great things in communication, the words and images you create must draw people’s attention, must permeate into their minds, warm their hearts and induce them to get up from their couch. Hundreds of examples from various advertising campaigns that analytically explain how all this is achieved are included in my books. It isn`t that simple…

Do you follow a specific creative procedure from the moment you take on a new task to the time it is accomplished?

You may find this strange, but no, I don`t keep to a recipe for success. Creativity for me is a perpetual search through everything around me, until the moment comes when I discover what I`ve been looking for. Michelangelo said that every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I totally agree.

It is half a century since McLuhan declared: “The medium is the message”. Do you believe this still holds?

Following the Second World War, there was a tendency towards experimentation in all facets of design and, indeed, all the creators worth their salt decided to disregard the existing restrictions of whichever medium they used, to, thereby, be free to send whichever innovative message they wished. What McLuhan said is a very apt slogan.

One of your best known works is your “I want my MTV” campaign… 

I`m proud of it. However, I hate the way MTV has sunk so low. Back then in the 80s, it was the springboard for the development of a new art form – the music video. For very many years now, unfortunately, it has evolved almost exclusively into reality television, which is also the cheapest and nastiest manifestation of pop culture.

The front pages you designed for Esquire are considered the most significant in magazine press history. And, to this day, they remain your most representative works.

The great Harold Hayes (editor of Esquire from 1963 to 1973), on viewing my advertising works, asked me to do something to improve the image of Esquire. Never before had I designed the front cover of a magazine. I produced one because I liked him; and it was such a great success that he asked me to continue for almost a decade. Sales rocketed from 400,000 copies to two million and many of those covers shook the foundations of American socio-political reality.

Can you single out one in particular?

I could say that the most significant and influential was the cover with Mohammed Ali. I remember a review written in Associated Press concerning the big exhibit of front cover pages at the New York Museum of Modern Art, which marked their inclusion in the museum`s permanent collection: “The most distinctive image of the 60s was that of Ali as Saint Sebastian since it touched upon the burning issues of the day: the Vietnam War, racial prejudice and religion. The image is so powerful that some remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they saw it for the first time”.

Someone else, in your shoes might even take pleasure in the suspicion that he may have been the inspiration behind the “making” of the central character of such a hit series as “Mad Men”. You, however, don`t miss a chance to express your distaste – to put it mildly – for Don Draper.

The 60s was a heroic period in the history of visual communication and its bold protagonists bear absolutely no resemblance to the ‘Mad Men” characters. This infuriating show is nothing more than a soap opera, filmed in glamorous offices in which various trendy, inane individuals “screw” their wellcoiffured secretaries, drink martinis, smoke themselves to death, while producing stupid,