The Tao of Clow

How a surfer from West Los Angeles became the art director of his generation and the soul of Chiat/Day

As a hazy sun inches its way down the October sky, Lee Clow gazes out into the vast Pacific Ocean view offered by the deck of his Rancho Palos Verdes home and considers the cult of celebrity. His two dogs, 5-month-old German shepherd Katie—named after Katharine Hepburn—and 6-year-old Australian shepherd Mr. Quigley, sit at his side. Eileen, his wife of 35 years, exercises nearby with a trainer who has her walking the grounds of their Spanish-style home.

Of all the creative geniuses, the "crazy ones" saluted in TBWA\Chiat\ Day's Emmy-winning "Think different" Apple spot, whom would Clow most like to have a conversation with? His eyes, the deeper blue of the less- faded areas of his worn Levi's shirt, blink a few times, and he says, "Picasso did a lot of great stuff. I loved his prolific-ness," followed by a contemplative silence. "I like them in the context of their iconic-ness. I would love to sit and chat with Pablo Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright." Then he adds, "I don't know if I would. I kind of like it when they are larger than life."

A reluctant acquaintance of industry celebrity, Clow is a quiet man whose 6-foot-2 frame, beard and usually sandaled or flip-flopped feet carry his physical presence. Although he goes to Cannes every year for TBWA Worldwide's global creative summit meetings and Disruption Awards, the California native doesn't like to travel much and prefers spending time in the terra cotta home he designed more than a decade ago. "I wasn't trying to build an architectural triumph but something that felt good and comfortable," says Clow, giving a tour in shorts and bare feet. Across the water is Catalina Island, where Clow has another home.

Three months ago he celebrated his 60th birthday on Catalina. For the first time in his life, Clow admits, he felt the weight of his birthday candles. In response, he bought himself a 1935 Woody with a hot-rod engine, along with a 10-foot surfboard made by legendary surfer Hap Jacobs. "I set in motion what I thought was going to the be perfect summer, then my shoulder went south and my dog died," says Clow, who had shoulder surgery in September to repair ligaments abused by years of playing tennis and surfing. "It spoiled my whole summer of turning 60, which I was going to make a total rebuttal of being old."

It is in his work—and the work he inspires —that the chairman and chief creative officer worldwide of Omnicom Group's TBWA Worldwide, one of the most respected and celebrated art directors of his generation, most defies his age. "How many people do you know at 60 years old who have the same kind of passion as kids right out of school?" says TBWA\C\D creative director Duncan Milner.

With a body of advertising that has created pop icons and challenged convention, Clow has amassed countless awards, immeasurable respect from colleagues and peers, and two Hall of Fame inductions—from The One Club in 1997 and the Art Directors Club in 1999. A drawing by freelance illustrator Hank Hinton showing Clow, a surfer since age 11, commanding a wave with a One Club pencil decorates his game room, along with career memorabilia and his toys—a pool table, a badminton board where two stuffed-animal Foster Farms chickens are seated as if in midgame, a model of his boat, Barefoot II, and his untouched new surfboard.

The room is wallpapered with photographs: Clow on his first trip to Cannes, when the agency won the Grand Prix for Apple's "1984"; Clow with the Apple team; Clow with Jay Chiat; Dick Sittig on an American Express shoot; Chiat/Day's first offices on Olympic Boulevard; Clow shaking hands with Ronald Reagan; Clow shaking hands with a fake pope who used to roam around L.A.; a clean-shaven Clow in fatigues. "A lot of it comes out of my business life, because it's been so much a part of my life," he says. In a nearby crafts room, where his wife makes ceramics and he keeps a desk, is the original Chiat/Day office sign.

Although his name has never graced the door, the agency's past and present are defined by Clow and the legacy he built with late co-founder Jay Chiat. "You work really hard because you found something that you love to do, and you do it as well as you can," he says. "If you are lucky enough to find something that you also end up making a living at it, as I've been … you realize at the end of that road, freedom is the top of the pyramid—the freedom to do whatever you want or not want."

It has taken Clow more than three decades at Chiat/Day to attain that freedom, a determined path driven by what colleagues say is an unshakable dedication to nurturing and protecting the integrity of the creative product. Clow says his resilience, one of the most underestimated qualities of a successful creative executive, comes from his passion for the work. "As long as my responsibility of championing, standing for, smacking down obstacles for people wanting to do great work and finding good people that want to do that, then I'm still valuable," he says.

Championing the spirit of the brand remains Clow's primary motivation. "The more [Chiat/Day] grew, the more I felt personally responsible for the protection of the brand and its values," he says, reflecting on his most trying time at the agency, the early '90s, when expansion—including the acquisition of Australia's largest ad agency, Mojo MDA—brought mounting debt and friction among top managers over Chiat/Day's future. By 1995, several key executives, including Clow and then-president Bob Kuperman, urged Chiat to sell to Omnicom and put the agency on solid financial ground. Chiat was reluctant, worried that it would compromise the agency's creative vision. But he relented, and the shop was merged with the holding company's youngest network, TBWA. "That was the most unpleasant time, because the focus had nothing to do with coming in and doing great stuff," Clow recalls. The TBWA network now comprises 221 offices in 72 countries.

Nursed on a West Coast cocktail of the principles of Doyle Dane Bernbach, the surfer style that put the California cool in California Coolers and the rebellious spirit that keeps Chiat/Day's skull-and-crossbones pirate flag flying, Clow started working at the shop in 1972. Unfulfilled at N.W. Ayer, he was advised to move to New York if he was serious about the business. Instead, he set his sights on Chiat/Day. Formed in 1968 by the merger of Jay Chiat and Guy Day's shops, the Los Angeles agency was cultivating a reputation for irreverent work for clients such as Ontario Motor Speedway and Western Harness and was promoting it in the local press with editorial-style ads. "You knew they had attitude," Clow says.

After getting an interview with then-creative director Hy Yablonka, Clow bombarded the man with a yearlong "Hire the Hairy" campaign, sending him ads, T-shirts and bumper stickers, even a hand-crafted jack-in-the-box containing a Clow lookalike made by Eileen. "I don't know if I could have done what I have done, as obsessed as I am when I get into projects, if [Eileen] hadn't understood me and my nature," says Clow, who met his wife, 15 years his senior, when he was 19 and working at a bowling alley at night and surfing in the day. "It's been quite a trip," says Eileen, whose twin daughters Clow helped raise. "We started out with nothing at all."

Clow grew up in West Los Angeles as one of two adopted sons, and credits his parents for his strong work ethic. (His brother, however, three years younger, became a heroin addict and died of an overdose four years ago.) Clow's father was a line tool and dye maker for Douglas Aircraft for 35 years. His mother, a bookkeeper, encouraged his artistic bent ever since Clow's first-grade teacher told her he had some talent. More interested in surfing than studying, he spent a leisurely three years at Santa Monica College—a two-year community college—and later studied advertising and graphic design at California State University at Long Beach. Clow considered a career in graphic design but decided he'd rather generate the big ideas than dress them up.

He would go on to help create some of advertising's most memorable icons, from the Energizer Bunny and Taco Bell's smooth-talking Chihuahua to the poster mascot for the dot-com era, the Pets.com sock puppet. It has been nearly 20 years since Clow, copywriter Steve Hayden and art director Brent Bouchez created "1984." The Ridley Scott-directed, Orwellian introduction for Apple's Macintosh computer is perhaps the most famous commercial in history. The irony isn't lost on Clow that the Mac replaced many of the tools used to make the ad that introduced it. "We were involved in something that's very rare," he says. "We got to introduce the world to something that never was before and was going to change everyone's life, and it has."

The Super Bowl spot kicked off a breakthrough year that saw account wins from Porsche and Pizza Hut. That summer, the agency orchestrated another creative coup, this time for Nike, covering Los Angeles with jaw-dropping outdoor that made Carl Lewis appear to fly and creating infectious TV with the Randy Newman song "I Love L.A." The campaign left the impression that the young sneaker company was an official sponsor of the Summer Olympics.

These days, much of Clow's energy is still dedicated to Apple, which is staking its claim in the online music world with iPod print and TV. He's also focused on Adidas, which is in a critical marketing stage of its own. A typical work day for Clow begins at his home computer by 6 a.m., talking to agency staffers and clients overseas. He touches base with New York as he drives his canary-yellow Nissan Xterra, stocked with a matching Nextel phone, to the Playa del Rey office. "I still go to work because I can't think of anything I'd rather do every day, all day—but I have a choice," he says. "That's the hugest luxury there is."

He has a corner office in the agency's warehouse, a colorful, open space built in 1998 that encourages people "bumping into each other" in the kitchen and visits from family pets. A hula girl statuette labeled "The Big Kahuna," commemorating Clow's 1999 appointment as chairman of TBWA Worldwide, decorates his office shelf, not far from the Emmy he won in 1998 for the first "Think different" commercial, which featured culture changers from Picasso to Martin Luther King Jr. to Jim Henson.

Just outside his doorless office, sunshine filters into an outdoor-style park decorated with ficus trees and garden-style tables and chairs. "If you are going to spend a lot of your life and devote your energy the way we'd like you to, you should be able to bring your dog to work, hang out on the weekend and feel like you like being here," explains Clow.

Of his role now, he says, "I don't like to be management. I like to be leadership." His goal is "to lead by example with the things that I can have a hands-on ability to contribute to."

"As gentle and quiet as Lee is, he's such a great leader," says Milner, the creative director on Apple who has worked for the agency in San Francisco, Toronto and Los Angeles for 15 years. "Lee is the guy you believe in, the guy you want to follow into battle."

The big-picture approach that TBWA\C\D brings to Apple—consulting on everything from product names to store designs—is the future, says Clow. "Everyone is very confused about brand building, about how to aggressively try to create a smart, cool, reputation," he says. "They're not sure they know about television. They don't know how to use the Internet. They don't understand that, in fact, brands have more ability now to connect with the consumer than they've ever had. The brands that are smart and brave enough to stand up and stand for something have so many ways of articulating who they are."

Previously a niche brand with 5 percent market share, Clow says Apple, through its Windows-compatible music initiatives and retail stores, has the ability to touch the mainstream like never before. "It would be wonderful if iPod turned them into a mass consumer brand by virtue of music," says Clow, who travels to the client in Cupertino, Calif., once a week with the core Apple team.

Clow doesn't use an iPod himself and forgets the name of the music-video director who filmed the spots (Dave Meyers), but he says he trusts the day-to-day creative directors on the business, Milner and Eric Grunbaum, and worldwide account director James Vincent to stay plugged into musical trends. "I'll have a stack of CDs that will be there when I die," says Clow, whose tastes gravitate more to the Gypsy Kings and Buena Vista Social Club than the Black Eyed Peas song featured in the first iPod commercial. "iPod allows us to change their personality a little bit," says Clow of the bold graphics and color in the campaign, a contrast to the trademark white backgrounds of the last several years. "It lets us go younger."

Apple started advertising its computers with Chiat/Day in 1980, and Clow says he's as proud of the "Think different" work as he is of "1984." The "Crazy Ones" spot heralded Apple's comeback after Steve Jobs returned to the helm of the flailing company in 1997 and again turned to Chiat/Day for help. "It was desperately needed when we did it—it worked, and it was elegant and smart," Clow says.

Competitors and colleagues are as envious of Clow's collaboration with Jobs as they are of Dan Wieden's relationship with Nike's Phil Knight. "Lee's relationship with Steve Jobs is worth its weight in gold," says Rich Silverstein, co-founder of sister Omnicom shop Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. "That's what you want to be able do—you want to have a relationship with a CEO of a company. That's the magic of the whole business."

Jobs says he and Clow spar at their weekly meetings. "We always have the same destination in mind, so it's fun to wrestle and shout about how best to get there," he says. Clow's fundamental contribution is that he "looks at Apple from his heart," Jobs says, "and this gives him the ability to see us as we should be, to see us as we have trouble seeing ourselves sometimes. And to remind us who we are when we are tempted by compromise or shortcuts. Working with Lee has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life."

Clow is so dedicated, staffers used to call him "the monk of advertising," says Ogilvy & Mather chairman Steve Hayden. Patrick O'Neill, creative group head at TBWA\C\D New York, calls him a "rock star"—because of "his love of big ideas," O'Neill explains. "He stays true to that always, always, always."

Comparisons to Bill Bernbach are inevitable, but with his shaggy beard and shoulder-length hair, Clow has always epitomized the new West Coast creative guru. While he "had an encyclopedic memory of ads and a great love of Doyle Dane, Chiat/Day was taking a slight left turn," says Dave Butler, who joined 25 years ago as Clow's partner on Yamaha. Butler, now creative director at the agency's Tequila division, recalls the headline on a 1976 Suntory whiskey ad: "From the bonnie bonnie banks of Yamazaki." "I remember seeing that ad, and to tell you the truth, I was a little nervous about working there at first," he says. "Everything they did was so terrific."

"The whole nature of advertising and how it went to a visually driven medium has a lot to do with Lee Clow and Chiat/Day," says Bob Kuperman, chairman and CEO of DDB New York, who spent more than 15 years at the agency. "It was the power of the execution, as Bernbach says, of how you say something, and the power of the eye."

Clow credits Jay Chiat's "Californicated approach to creativity" for fostering an environment and business that were "much more free-form and out of the box than Bernbach." The mantra set down by Chiat and lived by Clow—"Good enough is never enough"—has inspired a generation of creatives, whether or not they ever worked at the agency. "[Lee taught me] to never accept mediocrity, never accept the status quo," says one-time Chiat/Day staffer Rick Boyko, now managing director of the VCU AdCenter in Richmond, Va.

"He never spits the bit," says Tom Carroll, president of the Americas for TBWA Worldwide. "It's the last 10 yards that makes it really, really great. That's when he is relentless—when it starts to get picked apart, he is just relentless in making the work great."

Clow's perspective, as much as his career, has been shaped by the often tempestuous father-son relationship he had with Jay Chiat, a cantankerous leader who fostered a shouting-style, dysfunctional-family environment that usually worked. "Jay taught me everything I know, and I probably wouldn't be in the position I'm in without Jay," says Clow, whose push for the sale to Omnicom would cause a rift in the relationship. "He created a pressure to do better than you think you can do. I responded to that, almost petulantly: 'I'm going to do it better than he can do it, so he can't tell me how to do it.' " (Clow, too, challenged Chiat. "Lee was the only person who could stop Jay Chiat on a tear," says Hayden. "I think he was the only creative person Jay trusted absolutely.")

The culture the agency strives for, explains Jean-Marie Dru, president and CEO of TBWA Worldwide, is "a good balance between being very demanding with ourselves without being arrogant." Dru says Clow brings an Californian optimism that perfectly counterbalances his French pessimism.

Dru's "Disruption" theory, a strategy for doing work that challenges category convention, gives the network a unifying blueprint for honoring the Chiat/Day legacy. "It's no fun to move the ball an inch," explains Clow, who cites George Lois and Carl Ally as his ad heroes. "The fun is when you get the opportunity to shake everything up and flip it on its head, and do something that's never been done before and redefine the category for all the competitors." His philosophy on life and the work is evident in many of the agency's creative choices, including Apple's "Think different" and Nissan's 1997 "Enjoy the ride" taglines.

"Disruption" helped move longtime client Nissan into its current "Shift" global positioning, says Rob Schwartz, a copywriter who joined in 1998 and is now global creative director on the account. It also led to category-defying creative in the agency's first work for Mars' Whiskas and Shell Lubricant's Pennzoil, adds Clow. "As long as we're hired to do something brave, we'll have more chances than most," says Clow, who draws comparisons between Chiat/Day's innovative use of media in its Nike and early Apple work and the work of Miami's Crispin Porter + Bogusky today.

While he commends CP+B for "not falling into the trap of the conventional" with its Mini Cooper work, Clow also notes how much more challenging that task can be when an agency grows. "If you can do something great for a giant, diverse car brand like Nissan, it's like doing a great dive off the 20-meter platform versus doing a nice jackknife off the springboard when you are working on some small, focused car brand," he says. "It may not win as many awards, but I think it's accomplishing something that's more difficult."

(For his part, CP+B ecd Alex Bogusky says he wouldn't be in advertising if it weren't for Clow. Early in his career, Bogusky found himself getting increasingly discouraged at an ad seminar as creative directors talked about how difficult it was to get great work produced. Then Clow came on. "This hippie dude rolls up there and goes on to say they probably have as much good work killed as any of the agencies that had gone before them," Bogusky recalls, remembering Clow's words: " 'We just do more. If they don't like it, we do more, until they buy something or get sick of us.' I thought, 'That I can do.' It actually kept me in the business.")

One way to threaten Clow's calm demeanor is to question the integrity of the agency's creative product. Taco Bell, which was ordered by a court to pay $42 million to two Michigan men who say they invented the talking Chihuahua, is now suing the agency. Clow says Taco Bell's promotions department, not the agency, entertained the Michigan men's proposal. "I'm just infuriated that they drag our name into it like we had something to do with it," says Clow. "That's our reputation. What we do for a living is have original ideas."

The equity of those ideas, he says, is growing. "The agencies that have tried to do smart, inventive messages are going to be more valuable than we've ever been," he says. "People are going to be more selective about brands and messages they want to spend time with. The companies that can create the more interesting, likable, emotional, touchable brands are going to be the most valuable."

To achieve that, he says, a lot of clients "think there are new experts they should consult or find. I don't think they are out there. There's always somebody painting a picture of advertising being eclipsed by something else, but nobody knows what that something else is." His greatest frustration is that agencies are still viewed primarily as vendors. "Our work and what we deliver isn't considered," he says, adding that he hopes agencies will take greater ownership over their intellectual property.

As he approaches retirement age, Clow says he will stay at TBWA as long as he has something to contribute. As for a successor, he notes that the network is stocked with creative talent, both in the U.S. and overseas. "Jay had me, and finding the next person who can replace me isn't that easy," he admits. "But I can find lots of people who believe what I believe." John Hunt, lured by Clow to New York from South African agency TBWA\Hunt Lascaris, calls Clow "the spiritual dad." Last spring Hunt took on the role of worldwide creative director and the creative helm of the New York office, which has historically struggled to match the creative reputation of the L.A. office.

Chuck McBride, hired to work on Levi's in San Francisco in 1999, was promoted to North America creative director in 2000. "I don't think it can be a one-man thing," McBride says. "You hope the bench can outperform the starters." Another talent on the bench is Schwartz, who took over the creative department in L.A. as ecd in 2001.

While creative for many of the largest worldwide accounts—Apple, Nissan, Sony PlayStation, Adidas and Mars' Whiskas and Uncle Ben's—is produced in L.A. and San Francisco, Clow says there are bright spots throughout the network. "I would love to eclipse this notion that only in California do you get the real Chiat/Day," he says.

Clow says it was Chiat who pushed him and the agency into new territory as the agency expanded to other U.S. cities and abroad. "It wasn't my desire," he says, "but it drew me out and made me more knowledgeable, worldly, and challenged me to be good on a bigger stage." Yet TBWA\Chiat\Day's L.A. roots contributed to one of the biggest changes that Clow has seen in the industry: the decentralization of the agency business from New York.

The rise of the agency holding company, which Clow says "had its good side and its negative side," is the other biggest change he sees. The positive impact: "The way Omnicom ultimately built its network, with its respect for the talent of the people and the difference in companies, so it can have a Goodby, Silverstein who can grow into one of the most creative shops. And it can help Chiat/Day connect with TBWA and build one of the more interesting worldwide networks." He notes, too, that he's made more money in the last five years working for Omnicom than he did in the previous 25.

Clow says he's also seen holding companies "chasing the acquisition rainbow" and paying too much for companies that don't make sense, ratcheting up the pressures to deliver the financial objectives. "They all a sudden have this incredible burden to deliver numbers, and that becomes the priority," he says. And as venerable agency names disappear in an era of consolidation, Clow is determined the name Chiat/Day will remain in the U.S. "Maybe someday the reputation with TBWA will be as strong as that of Chiat\Day, but that's going to take a number of years of proving how good we are everywhere in the world," he says. "Until that day—and it'll probably be after I'm not here anymore—it'll be a part of us. It adds texture and substance."

Clow says he likes that the TBWA network is nimble, and points to its teaming of TBWA\C\D with 180 to land the global Adidas business in late 2001. That win helped to soothe the loss of Levi's, which Clow emphasizes was a mutual parting of the ways. "It was breaking my heart," he says, that the agency failed to make a solid connection with the client in the four years it worked on the brand, producing work he admits was "inconsistent." (Clow says he likes a current Levi's spot out of Bartle Bogle Hegarty in which a cowboy rides a bucking car, because it gives the brand a hip edge while tapping into its heritage.) "Every time we lose one, I take it personally and feel it's something I've done wrong," says Clow.

Clow still gets involved in new business, most recently on Nextel, but says he is careful not to spread himself too thin. "When I make a personal commitment, I don't do it lightly," he says.

That sense of responsibility extends to all areas of Clow's life. He has such a strong bond with his German shepherds—he's had many over the years—that he installed an elevator in his two-story home so he wouldn't have to carry the dogs upstairs in their old age. When his 7-year-old shepherd Sara suddenly became ill this summer, Clow researched all he could about the dog's condition, to no avail.

Clow is trying to focus on his health, too—he's quit smoking one more time—so he can take the surfboard out next season. Surfing is an essential part of his upbringing that, he says, influenced his approach to advertising. "That's a little bit my model in my mind's eye for advertising: It should be a lot less predictable and structured, and a lot more freestyle," he says. "I think growing up with that freestyle-sport mentality has had some kind of impact on thinking about advertising. What's the next kind of amazing trick we can do? Can we jump over that railing? Or slide down that banister without killing ourselves?"

As Clow readies the agency's next big creative feat, he knows his reputation precedes him. In Tahiti, celebrating his anniversary with his wife, he was spotted by a couple from New York. The attention always catches him off-guard. "It's flattering, but it's in this tiny world of advertising," he says. "Actors and athletes do things that seems more significant than advertising to me. You know what's funny? Actor celebrities would give anything to be athlete celebrities, and athlete celebrities would give anything to be actor celebrities. Advertising celebrities—they don't aspire to be anything. They can barely tolerate being advertising celebrities."