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.

I grew up in New York City. I fell in love with advertising when I saw a billboard for the NYNEX yellow pages featuring a sleeping bull. I wanted to find out who created that. It turned out it was Chiat/Day. From that day forward I read everything about the agency and this creative force at the helm of the agency, Lee Clow. I realized that all of these ads I loved were done by him: Apple, Nissan, Energizer. Chiat was the only agency I wanted to work at. And he was the guy I wanted to learn from.

His impact is enormous. He helped show the world that advertising could be likable and cool. He invented the Super Bowl commercial with “1984.” He taught five generations of creative people how to be leaders. And not for nothing, he continually reminds the world that dogs are the noblest creatures on the planet.

Margaret Johnson, CCO, partner, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

The first thing I think of when I think of Lee Clow is a sledgehammer smashing through a screen. He never stopped breaking heroic new ground.

Rich Silverstein, co-chairman and partner, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners

A true Mad Man from the Pacific coast. A surfer dude of extraordinary talent. He’s truly made from the “real stuff.”

David Angelo, founder and chairman, David&Goliath

Angelo was associate creative director and art director on the Reebok account for Chiat/Day New York

I remember working with Lee late one night in the New York office. We were gearing up to present work to our Reebok client the next day, and Lee flew out to New York specifically for our presentation. He had given me some direction for the campaign we were presenting, and, if you’ve ever worked with Lee, you know that his guidance is golden.

At around 2 a.m. we finished, but couldn’t find Lee. We looked everywhere. A few hours later, he appeared, somewhat winded. I asked him where he was, and he told me that he was running up and down what seemed to be an endless flight of stairs because my dog was stuck in the stairwell, and he was trying to rescue him. It was at that point that I realized this man was not only a creative genius but also had a huge heart.

Craig Allen, CCO, Callen

Allen worked with Clow at Chiat/Day

Chiat/Day was my first job in advertising, and it had an incredible bearing on who I am today. I attribute this largely to Lee Clow and the culture he helped create. I was fortunate enough to work with him on several occasions and although those moments were brief, I still very much hear his advice echo in my head to this day. The work he and Chiat/Day did is a big reason why I ended up in advertising in the first place.

Chuck McBride, founder and CCO, Cutwater

McBride worked with Clow at Chiat/Day as executive creative director from 2000 to 2007

Lee’s no different from Bill Bernbach or George Lois. He’s a legend in his own lifetime. A master. A genius. And for a guy that never had his name on the door, there’s no doubt TBWA\Chiat\Day was Lee’s place.

But what makes him so special is his humility. He told me, “I don’t think I’m a genius, but I am resilient.”

He almost singlehandedly ushered in an area of West Coast thinking that changed the way the world looked at advertising. It was brave, iconic and reckless, clearly marking the time when New York City lost its hold as the center of the advertising industry.

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