Damn Good Advice from George Lois

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It’s Tuesday morning in rural Victoria, just about 9am. That makes it 7pm Monday in New York. On the other end of the line a phone is ringing in the Manhattan home of 80-year-old icon-making ad man, George Lois. Wall Street Journal has called him “a genuine advertising superhero,” and the New York Times has credited him with triggering advertising’s Creative Revolution in the 1960s.

His new book, Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent has just been released by Phaidon and I can’t wait to talk to the man behind legendary campaigns like this (and this, and this) about what it takes to not only survive, but thrive, as a creative groundbreaker.

George Lois: Hello?

Brett Hamm: Hey George it’s Brett Hamm here from Milk Bar.

GL: Hey, how ya doin’ there Brett?

BH: Yeah good.

GL: You don’t sound like an Aussie.

BH: No, I’m from Canada originally.

GL: Oh, you speak normally. [Laughs] Canadians and Americans are so similar you know.

BH: This is true.

GL: Graydon Carter you know, the editor of Vanity Fair, he’s Canadian! A lot o’ guys, a lot o’ terrific creatives were Canadian. And I say ‘were’ because a lot of the guys I know became American, you know?

BH: [Laughing] exactly. You know what, for me, we could have stopped at Leonard Cohen and I think we would have been okay.

GL: [Laughs] Right!

For the next five minutes I’m given a crash course in the ABCs of George Lois. The man is a creative pinwheel: flaring, sputtering, and ejecting torrents of words and ideas in every direction. Without stopping he manages to jump between: Graydon Carter; knowing Greg Norman; fighting next to an Australian outfit in Korea in ’52; why falling in love with a great woman is the most important thing in the world, and how he convinced a journalist to propose to his girlfriend.

It’s clear he’s in no rush—he asks me how I came to live in Australia before even brining up his new book. Eventually however, we do meander onto the subject of his work.

His passion is incredible, infectious. It’s easy to imagine him pitching ideas high over Madison Avenue in his heyday. It would have been something to see. He’s a rare breed indeed—the kind of guy that bowls your over with pure charisma and straight-up ballsiness.

BH: Okay. Well how much of your success then has come down to instinct? Because, as you said, you’re not easily talked out of an idea.

GL: Aw, I think a lot of it does. I talk about instinct. I also talk about talent. I think you have to have a certain amount of talent to be really great in any creative industry—to be a clothing designer, an interior designer, an architect, an advertising guy, whatever.

I had a long talk the other day with a terrific photographer, a young photographer in New York. And he’s great, he’s done terrific stuff for the New Yorker, I mean he’s really first rate. And we had this conversation where he talked about how difficult it is for him to do his best work and the way he gets beat up by clients, he gets beat up by art directors, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And I’m looking at him—the guy does great work!—and he says ‘you keep talking about courage,’ and I said you know, you can’t be great in any field unless you’re courageous enough to insist that your best work—your great, best work—does not get killed. That no one can force you to do something less than your best.

Fighting for your work is a pleasure. I don’t get upset. I mean, I get pissed maybe when I’m fighting for my work, but I don’t let it beat me up. If I can’t sell my best work, I wind up telling the guy to fuck off in a nice way. And I go on to something else. I’m only talking about if you want to be great—if you wanna make a living that’s a different ball game. If you wanna make a living, you can still get something out of Damn Good Advice and what I wrote, but you know what? You’ll never be great. Don’t look me in the eye and tell me you’re great if you give in to clients and to people, your boss at an ad agency or whatever the situation is.

BH: Do you think it’s gotten harder these days for people to get that level of creative control, especially with the modern prevalence of group-grope and creating by committee?

GL: Probably yes. I’ve been freelancing—in the year 2000 I sold my ad agency and I supposedly retired, but my wife says I’m not retired, I’m just tired. ‘Cause I just keep working, you know? I’m as busy now as I’ve ever been.

So I’m running into terrific clients but I think I’m getting the best—the cream of the crop—because I could turn down a ton of people I can feel my instincts say aren’t going to be fun to work for and not gonna let me do my best work.

But, in general life, the people you work for in the field will be much more difficult today.

And I think the main reason I is: all these CEO’s have gone to college and they’ve taken courses in advertising and marketing and what do they teach them? What could schools like that possibly teach you? They teach you that advertising is a science because they can’t teach advertising as an art. How the hell they gonna teach that? They wouldn’t know art if it was shoved up their ass ya know?

You know, anybody with half a brain who was really smart about his business should be looking for an innovative idea and that’s all I know how to do. If you give them something that’s too innovative these days they all say ‘Hold it! Woah! That all looks a little risky to me. We better test it.’ And you can’t test a great idea.

So I think it is a little harder today. Because marketing people know too much, or they think they know too much. Whereas I think when I was a young man, a younger man, I’d run into people who were just instinctively smart as hell, just sharp, sharp guys who ran the business and maybe when I give them the idea and I knock ‘em over, they’re scared shitless but I talk to them and I convince them one way or the other. And after a while I had such a track record that they’d say ‘Oh, he’s the guy who made Tommy Hilfiger a big hit with one ad. He’s the guy that got MTV—the I Want My MTV [campaign]—that saved MTV. Or he’s the guy who saved USA Today,’ ba ba. So I was able to get a good part of my work— innovative work—accepted because I had a track record.

You know I did Esquire for years in the 60s [Lois’ covers for Esquire are legendary—they were given an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008] and you know when I’m asked to give a lecture on’ em, people go crazy. I’d talk to five hundred editorial people in the room and I’d tell ‘em how the publishers are handcuffing them—the publishers in the room—and how editors are making them do just photographs of just famous people with all the stupid blurbs. I think they should be creating idea covers. And everybody gets excited, a standing ovation, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ and they all go back and do the same shit.

There’s all types of ways you can fight for your work. You can threaten to commit suicide, ya know! I threatened to jump out a window. It’s in my book, and I was kidding but I was serious, you know? The point is: I’ve done a lot of wild things to save my work. I’ve lied, I’ve cheated, I’ve stolen, I’ve done anything to convince people to run my work. The only important thing is that it gets run. And I think a lot of it is literally courage. It’s almost physical courage.

BH: Do you think advertising is a noble profession?

There’s a long pause after this question.

GL: I think…I think if you look at my work, my work is noble. I think it’s the way that you approach it. If you look at my work, my work is involved with understanding the culture, indeed being ahead of the culture, and indeed helping change the culture. If you look at my advertising work, forget about my art, my covers…but if you look at my advertising, I touch on the culture. I mean, I have all my life.

Like in 1960 when I first started my ad agency, and one of the ads that exploded on Madison Avenue was a black page—I have it in Damn Good Advice. It’s a black page. And it’s supposedly a picture of a couple asleep at night. On a completely black page, you see in very nice type ‘John, is that Billy coughing?’ and it’s obviously a woman’s voice, and right next to it, the husband is saying “Get up and give him some Coldene.”

I mean, it was a smash! I can’t tell you the reaction that happened in America. First of all in the advertising industry, they said ‘what kinda advertising is that? No photograph of the bottle, no logo, no body copy. That’s not advertising.’ And the advertising industry was stunned. Advertising Age—I call them Advertising Old Age—they wrote an editorial attacking me: ‘Who’s this young designer? This young George Lois? That’s not advertising.’ Meanwhile what happened, people were buying Coldene like there was no tomorrow. It was the cold season. But it was my take on the culture.

There’s a woman in the middle of the night saying ‘John, is that Billy coughing?’ and this man, this male chauvinist prick, saying ‘Get up, give him some Coldene.’ You know, ‘Hey sweetheart, that’s your job.’ I was commenting on the culture and it was picked up in lifestyle magazines and articles across America about the wit about what I was talking about. I was criticising in a funny way the male chauvinism in America. And in dozens and dozens of my ads I’m talking about what’s happening.

I mean, so I do…yeah. What I do is noble in the sense that it reflects the culture, it criticises the culture, and it helps change the culture. To the good!

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