How the Lee Clow Talent Tree Spreads Far and Wide in Advertising and Creativity

An outsized impact on careers and lives

Lee Clow (left) and Jay Chiat in 1984.
Norman Seeff Studio

The “coaching tree” is a familiar phenomenon in football. Much like a family tree, some of the most successful coaches in the sport can trace their lineage back to a legend who gave them the chance to earn their keep. In advertising, the theory of the coaching tree is pertinent as some of advertising’s earlier leaders counted Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy as not only legends but as key mentors.

Many of today’s top leaders can also recall the moments that gave them confidence—and can point to prominent people who propelled them to successful, productive and rewarding careers. Lee Clow, who yesterday officially announced his retirement, is one of a handful of creative leaders who planted the seeds that helped grow some of the biggest names in the business.

Yet, and let’s be honest, he really isn’t going anywhere. There is a convenience in the word “retirement,” but thankfully, in his new capacity, Clow will continue to inspire the industry’s people and work.

Jeff Goodby, no creative slouch himself, put it most succinctly and may speak for many when he said: “As a reasonable spokesperson for the industry, your request for retirement has been denied.”

In looking back, we asked how Clow impacted advertising and creativity.

Colleen DeCourcy, co-president and chief creative officer, Wieden + Kennedy

DeCourcy was the chief digital officer at TBWA and worked with Clow on Pepsi and Gatorade

Lee is the only legendary creative I ever worked with who truly didn’t give a fuck about “the ad” in isolation. He wanted to own the air the brand moved through, the sky and the ground around it. Lee forced you to dream beyond the script.

Lee loved the art of the big orchestrated brand act.

As a young creative, I would draw huge paper maps of the way a brand could impact the world and then have and place ideas across it for each of those moments. Lee didn’t look down on that—he called it Media Arts. Brand Belief + Brand Behavior. He still informs my creativity, every day.

Gerry Graf, CCO, Barton F. Graf

Graf was executive creative director at Chiat/Day N.Y. from 2004 to 2008

There has never been a better visual artist than Lee Clow. The woman throwing the hammer in 1984, the Nike Olympics takeover of L.A., Barbie driving away from Ken in the red toy Nissan, the yellow and black of the ABC TV stuff, he even made the white tangly cord of the iPod earbuds famous. We have all these amazing, disruptive images burned into our brains because of Lee.

Lee hired me to run the creative department of Chiat N.Y. He believed in what I wanted to do, and I had his full support. I never felt the hand of Chiat L.A. forcing me to do things. He was always there when I needed help, but he left me alone in N.Y. to die or succeed. (We succeeded.)

Margaret Keene, executive creative director, MullenLowe L.A.

Keene was at Chiat/Day from 1992 to 2011 and became group creative director

Lee is the greatest advertising artist of all time. Imagine Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley and Vincent van Gogh rolled into one guy. That’s him. He has a brilliant twinkle that I imagine most creative geniuses possess and he should have definitely been added to (Apple’s) The Crazy Ones. He has influenced you whether you know it or not and everything you’ve done that is beautiful and funny and unique in this industry has probably been done better before, by him. But he’d never tell you that.

With Lee, you knew immediately if you had a good idea. He could see in an instant, even if it was just a kernel, something truly great. His steel blue eyes would light up, his laser focus would kick in (even if he had ten, mind-numbing client meetings that day) and he would in an instant, say something to make it thousand times better than you ever imagined. If he said, “Just don’t fuck it up,” you knew you had something really special.

I can’t begin to thank him for the profound impact he has had on my life. He showed me that advertising can be art and taught me that a great idea can come from anywhere and anyone. He believed in me, and many other women, way before it was cool and gave us every opportunity to be successful. And most of all, he has been the best example of pure respect, love and devotion for his partner that I have ever seen.

Rob Schwartz, CEO, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York

Schwartz was CCO at TBWA\Chiat\Day in L.A.

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