“Most advetising is shit. Always has been,” Lee Clow said calmly, to resounding laughter, at The New Yorker Festival last week.
TBWA\Worldwide’s creative chief was taking part in a packed, sold-out event called “Mad Men: Truth in Advertising” at a wine bar in downtown New York.
Joining him were Matthew Weiner, creator of the AMC series that has people obsessed with advertising again, and Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of Translation LLC, the brand imaging company. Afterward, the audience lined up to, among other things, show Weiner pictures of their parents and grandparents, who looked just like Don and Betty Draper in the early 1960s, and to get Clow’s autograph.
Clow agreed with the basic premise of Mad Men, that the creative revolution of the ’60s (and the work of Doyle Dane Bernbach, in particular) drove “intelligence, humor and honesty” into the mix and “invited future generations into the business.” That’s when Clow himself entered the business on the West Coast during the post-Bewitched years.
Clow also showed a few of his favorite ads, including the 1997 Emmy Award winner, TBWA\Chiat\Day’s “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” spot for Apple. And that’s when I had an epiphany. This time, from the moment I heard Richard Dreyfuss’s voice and saw the images, I actually had chills because I liked it so much.
That’s in distinct contrast to when I reviewed it snarkily 12 years ago.
I’ve had this experience with books-you pick up something you read as a kid or in college, and feel totally differently about it — but never with a commercial. When the ad came out, I could see it was graphically smart, but aligning the company with people like Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi struck me as pretentious and a bit of a stretch.
Let me quote myself (what could be more pretentious?): “Even if Apple claims these are not endorsements, it’s easy to take issue with the fact that … in the Apple universe, Martin Luther King Jr. equals Ted Turner equals Lucy and Desi. In the end, they’re all equal genius units, having lived to shill Apple. … Surely people who make TV shows — or make anything — want to see themselves as ‘people who push the human race forward,’ and not your average flunkies producing a committee-driven product that sometimes stinks.”
But back to the wine bar.
The truth is, the ad guys and Weiner made for an uneasy trio. When moderator and New Yorker contributor Ken Auletta asked Weiner if he thought advertising was indeed shit, he said, “I do TV. I don’t point fingers.”
But he also admitted the ad biz “doesn’t have a great deal of allure for me.” He said he was mostly a “history guy” and saw the early ’60s as a time of great aspiration. “I wanted to make a show that showed the split between home and business,” he said. “That’s the great American question-how do you deal with the compromises you have to make in the business world?”
Clow spoke to that, saying, “I grew up an artist and a designer. I wanted to be able to use my artistic ability in a way to make a living. I consider myself a storyteller.” He called having Apple as a client “my special, lucky circumstance. … We are immersed in everything that brand does. The Apple Store is probably the best ad we ever did for Apple.”
“Apple is one thing,” Weiner shot back. “But with Gold Bond Medicated Powder, you’re right back where you started. Apple is the mountaintop of brands.”
But Clow explained that actually, when “Crazy Ones” was made, introducing the “Think different” campaign, they were far from the top.
“It was a desperate moment in time,” he said. “Steve [Jobs] had gotten thrown out, and we had gotten thrown out and then invited back.” With no new product to promote, the company was on the verge of sinking. Clow spent months trying to get the spot on the air. “I tried to convince Steve Jobs to be the voice,” he said. “He believed every word of the script and his read was great. And I thought it would give the commercial a certain amount of buzz.” Eventually, Jobs said no, worried that people would think he was on an ego trip, Clow explained.
At the time I actually thought it was about Jobs and his ego. But in the next 10 years, with the iPod and the iPhone, he and Apple really would push the human race forward, making people more creative and productive through technology. As the voiceover told us in that fantastic cadence, “Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.”
Truth in advertising. Who knew?
But lest we get carried away, here’s another thing Weiner said: “William Goldman put it perfectly in The Princess Bride: ‘Life is pain. And anyone who says anything differently is selling something.'”