Lee Clow Announces Retirement and Looks Back on a Career That Helped Define Advertising

'I did everything, had a great ride and got to stay longer than most'

Lee Clow announces retirement via a love letter on Valentine's Day. TBWA
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

Today, one of advertising’s leading lights officially hung up his hat.

Lee Clow—the legendary creative behind such campaigns as “Think Different,” the Energizer bunny and the Taco Bell chihuahua—has retired after 50 years in the business, 30 of which he spent turning Apple into a case study on the effectiveness of creative marketing.

“During his long partnership with Steve [Jobs] and Apple, Lee told powerful visual stories that elevated new technologies with the passion, creativity and ingenuity that define our own humanity,” read a statement from Apple CEO Tim Cook. “He helped Apple carry itself through times of challenge, and his work inspired audiences to look beyond the horizon as an exciting future came into view. Lee’s body of work over five decades hums with cleverness, warmth and enthusiasm—and there is no doubt that it will inspire and motivate generations of ‘Crazy Ones’ still to come.”

That’s not to say that this famously curious man will, in his own words, just “sit at home and watch TV.” Instead, he will move into a chairman emeritus role at TBWA\Media Arts Lab (MAL), the dedicated Apple agency he founded in 2006. In addition to the emeritus position, Clow will continue working with TBWA’s social impact organization For Good while completing a memoir-style film about his own career.

"I'm most proud that I've been around for five decades, and I don’t have anyone saying, 'Lee Clow’s an asshole.'"
Lee Clow, chairman emeritus, TBWA\Media Arts Lab

Regarding his departure from the industry, which he announced to colleagues last October during the Chiat/Day organization’s 50th anniversary celebration, Clow wrote, “The years I spent doing this thing called ‘advertising’ have been fun, challenging, rewarding, maddening—sometimes painful—but mostly, joyful. And I wouldn’t trade a day of it for anything else.”

“Lee will always be our creative conscience,” said TBWA\Worldwide president and CEO Troy Ruhanen. “He has given so much to our company and to our industry. His challenge to us to do the brave thing, to disrupt, will continue to be our north star.”

Timeline: Lee Clow’s 50 Years in Advertising 

“In constantly pushing ourselves to reach the creative standard Lee set, we are better than we ever could imagine being,” said Brent Anderson, MAL’s chief creative officer. “So we’ll do just as he always asked us to do: ‘Make it smart. Make it beautiful. And have fun.’”

Below is Clow’s full love letter to the ad industry and the Chiat/Day organization.

Adweek spoke to the creative icon about his legacy, the state of the ad world today and Steve Jobs’ well-earned reputation as the world’s most demanding client.

Adweek: First, congratulations on such a long and distinguished career. The most obvious question: Why did you decide to resign now?
Lee Clow: Surviving this long in the ad business? I guess that deserves congratulations. I go all the way back to when your magazine was called MAC [Media Agencies Clients], and we ran ads on the third page as part of brand building for Chiat/Day. But at my age, it’s almost unheard of that a creative person is still relevant. I did everything, had a great ride and got to stay longer than most. We came upon Chiat/Day’s 50th anniversary, and the brand is still living in its TBWA form.

I started having these lunches with people, remembering the work that we’ve done, and it just seemed like an appropriate way to wrap up. Then they put me into this chairman emeritus role, which means I can come in and meddle, stick my nose in stuff, do things that look like fun and have absolutely no responsibility for any of it.

This is an odd question, but why was your name never part of the agency brand?
I joined Chiat/Day in the very early days when it was an agency trying to do the kind of work they were doing in New York in the creative revolution that Bill Bernbach started, but I didn’t want to move to New York. All I wanted was this job at Chiat/Day, and I got it.

It’s unusual for our industry, but I never wanted to open my own agency or move to another agency. The more I was there, the more Jay [Chiat] trusted me and the more influence I had. The idea of my name being on something was never one of my goals. Building Chiat/Day and keeping it going through all the mergers seemed like my life’s work, as opposed to having an agency with my name on it.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.