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.

What has most impressed you in terms of all the talent you’ve mentored and guided through the industry over the years?
One of the joys of my career was when I was first in charge, having talented people working with me who would walk in one day and say, “I got an offer, and I have to take this job.” At first, I was kind of upset, because I was trying to mentor and nurture and help everybody do great work, but I quickly realized that this is the way of this business.

My feeling now is that I have a big, extended family of people for whom, in one way or another, I influenced their lives, careers and talent. Some formed agencies, some became directors, and I feel responsible and proud of all of them. This series of lunches was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in terms of reminiscing, remembering … I covered five decades over 19 lunches, and each one was so different in recalling the shoots, the clients, the arguments and the intensity of it all.

"Steve Jobs cared more about advertising than any other client I’ve ever dealt with, and people who tried to live up to his expectations surprised themselves with how good they could be."

Which project are you most proud of over all that time?
I always give the same answer, because I’ve had a few unique blessings in my career. One, I met Jay, who said “good enough is not enough” and demanded that you be better than you realize you’re capable of being.

Then I met a guy named Steve Jobs, who had the same kind of expectations of people.

The most relevant moment in my career was when Steve came back to Apple in 1997 and called me, wanting to work with me to put Apple back on track as it was going out of business. The “Think Different” work right at the beginning that created a platform for him to rebuild Apple? That moment in time was probably the most special. 

Was Steve Jobs as difficult a client as legend would have us believe?
It depends on how you look at it. In my opinion, Steve was the best client I ever worked for. Yes, he was difficult. Yes, he was as demanding of the people who developed his products as anyone who worked with him. Nowhere else in my career has the CEO wanted to meet, develop and talk about advertising every week. When he came back in 1997, he said, we have to meet every week to put out the message that Apple is not going away. And he lived up to that almost until the day he died.

He cared more about advertising than any other client I’ve ever dealt with, and people who tried to live up to his expectations surprised themselves with how good they could be, whether it was me or Jony Ive or John Lasseter. Do something great—not something safe, not something that would make the client happy—that was the mandate. Why would anyone complain about that opportunity?

What was the toughest time in your career?
It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but I just feel like I’ve had such a special, blessed career in terms of the people that influenced me, the people I worked with and the work I got to do. I’m pretty passionate, and there have been many times when something I loved didn’t survive (the client didn’t buy it, we got fired, etc.), but that’s just part of the business.

The rewarding part is being resilient, stepping back up and trying to do it again and again. Those little bumps in the road were short-lived. In the totality of what I got to do, I couldn’t ask for more than what I got.

How do you see the role of advertising today, and how has it changed?
I think it’s in a confused place. If you watch Mad Men, it was this suit-dominated business mentality that got turned upside down by Bill Bernbach, George Lois, Scali, McCabe, Sloves and the agencies of the ’60s and early ’70s.

The business has since gotten very complicated by all the technology and media platforms that have changed the way messages go out into the world and how brands try and communicate with their customers. We need another creative revolution when people with ideas finally get their heads around the complexity and can leap over the tech to get back to big, bold, brave ideas that can be shared on all these media platforms. But we’ve got to get past the technology driving our behavior to ideas being the sole purpose of what creative people do—and it hasn’t been solved yet.

Part of it is that clients are very unsure how they’re supposed to use all this new technology on behalf of their brands. They don’t know what to expect of an agency partner or whether they even need an agency partner. But some of the new, smart, interesting companies are going to show the way forward, and I would love to think the people at TBWA around the world will be part of finding the answer.

What makes a great creative now?
Of course, there’s a whole bunch of new skills that are different than when I came up. Now, everyone can make a film on their phone and take great photographs, so the knowledge and skill sets in terms of how you use tech and all these new tools are part of what the new breed of creative people have to harness.

But the reality is great creative people—particularly in advertising—have to be students of the culture or cultural anthropologists who understand who’s doing what, how people are living their lives and what messages, styles and foods are impacting them. The best are always the ones that understand human truth and the people they are trying to connect with before they sit down and create that film, ad, billboard, tweet, Instagram page or whatever. It’s still the same raw talent that was necessary when I started; we just have new tools and more tools, and theoretically, the next creative revolution should raise the bar dramatically with all these tools at our disposal.

"Most people who succeed had to work really hard. Luckily, I was doing something I loved, so it wasn't exactly work."

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