Lee Clow Doubles Down on Advertising That Makes the World a Better Place

The TBWA adman talks MAL\For Good and the value of having values

Lee Clow, Julia Porter Plowman and Duncan Milner form MFG's new leadership team.
Headshot of Tim Nudd

Lee Clow was drawn to purpose-based advertising long before it was trendy.

The hippie surfer from West Los Angeles, who rose to become the art director of his generation and the creative visionary and mastermind of Apple advertising at Chiat/Day, has long been an advocate for dogs and a key supporter of the Best Friends Animal Society.

Now in his mid-70s and in the twilight of his storied career, Clow has doubled down on advertising that does good in the world. He helped to start the TBWA unit MAL\For Good (MFG) in 2014, an agency dedicated to purpose-based work—and is now helping to expand the unit with new hires. (The MAL part of the MFG name refers to Media Arts Lab, the Apple-focused TBWA unit in which Clow has also been central, and from which MFG sprang.)

MFG, based in Los Angeles, describes itself as “a social impact agency committed to the planet, the people who inhabit it and brands that want to make a difference.” Its clients have included XQ Institute, Emerson Collective, Conservation International, Starbucks, One Love, Tom’s, Earth Justice and Best Friends Animal Society. (The “Nature Is Speaking” spot for Conservation International, created by MAL just before the founding of MFG, won gold in Cannes and is one of TBWA’s great environmental pieces.)

Duncan Milner, the longtime chief creative officer of MAL, came over to MFG as CCO last fall. Last week, MFG ramped up its leadership team by hiring Julia Porter Plowman as managing director. Plowman was a global group account director at Wieden + Kennedy and has experience in purpose-based advertising through her work with the Nike Foundation, where she helped launch “The Girl Effect,” a multiplatform campaign promoting investment in adolescent girls in the developing world to break the cycle of global poverty.

MFG also released a manifesto last week outlining its “Be good. Do good” philosophy and launched its first website, malforgood.com. The moves are intended to raise MFG’s profile and “accelerate its mission to solve big, bold social issues,” according to the agency.

Adweek spoke with Clow about the changes at MFG, and his thoughts about how advertising can do good in the world—without alienating consumers or wading too deeply into politics.

Adweek: So many brands are doing purpose-based advertising now. But this has been an important thing for you going back decades.
Yeah. First, it was just about caring about stuff. Public service, or pro bono, has been part of the ad biz for a long time. Historically, pro bono was a place where creative people could have a little more freedom, and do some things that surprised people by having a purpose and a point of view. You found something you cared about—I’ve been working with Best Friends, the animal society, for years. We’ve done things over the years. But it’s evolved into something that I think it needed to be.

My focus for many years was primarily on Apple. And Apple, as it evolves with Tim Cook’s leadership, a lot of things that brand cares about are becoming part of the totality of the brand. That’s an evolution from the Steve Jobs era, where Steve was this master marketer and inventor of great products. Apple continues to focus on great products, but Tim, as the leader, has a personal point of view about the responsibility of a giant brand, a global brand like Apple. It became something we began discussing. What is its role? Where does it fit?

Particularly with the environment, right?
The environment, for sure. Diversity. The treatment of customers. The treatment of employees—say, in Asia. You recall the whole Nike thing. They started accusing Nike of not behaving well in its offshore production in Asia. It’s just become apparent in this new transparent world we live in that the totality of how a brand behaves is marketing communications, is marketing messages. Understanding the world and the way, in particular, people under 30 think about the world, versus the older demographic, understanding where a brand’s responsibility fits into their view of a brand became something we started exploring through a group called the Audience Behavior Lab, which was part of the Media Arts Lab. It evolved into this place where, as we’re interrogating and trying to understand audience, this thing about purpose, about going beyond selling stuff, it became apparent that the real dimension of any brand—whether it’s a purpose-based brand unto itself, or whether it sells other things—its purpose and its way of behaving on the planet ultimately have something to do with its reputation.

Steve’s widow, Laurene, was involved in a lot of this, right?
Laurene asked us to help on some things she cares about—Conservation International, where she was on the board with Harrison Ford, was one. And education—and she continues to have, at the Emerson Collective, things that she’s passionate about. The Audience Behavior Lab evolved into MAL\For Good. That’s what Laurene started calling it. She actually coined the phrase. And it evolved into something that I became more and more passionate about. In thinking about this stuff, I realized that something in an independent space could be very valuable to Apple, and to TBWA\Worldwide, in terms of the responsibility of ad agencies to understand and be able to incorporate the behavior of our brands into the marketing communications message.

Social responsibility at brands used to be very peripheral.
For a lot of companies there’s been this social-responsibility column, and it was a separate part of the company that was over in the corner, and it decided what to grant in terms of scholarships and supporting schools and things like that. But it was a tangent. It wasn’t really part of marketing communications or a brand’s point of view. But now, I think it can’t be left over in this column called social responsibility. It needs to be fully integrated into a brand’s behavior. And it needs to have some kind of honest synergy with the brand—with how the brand behaves, and what it believes, and what it cares about. Now, a lot of political points of view, and social points of view, are coming out of a lot of brands, some of them without any real right to have a point of view about that particular human condition. They’re jumping on this bandwagon of thinking they have to have a purpose-based message.

Like Pepsi.
The biggest evidence is the Pepsi commercial, which was so wrong and bad and obviously had absolutely nothing to do with soda pop. That’s the misguided part of this whole area. It seems like a lot of people are doing cause stuff just on the basis of sheer attention value, shock value, but not necessarily true to, or in sync with, the brand that’s sending the message out.

This raises the question of whether all brands should be doing good, or whether it doesn’t make sense for some brands to have a larger purpose.
I think all brands—just as we’re trying to get the human race to fess up to—we all have a responsibility to more than ourselves, and more than the narrow marketplace that we operate in. We have some responsibility to the place we live and the people we share the planet with. So, I think every brand—whether they want to make it conspicuous, or whether they just want to do it because consumers will interrogate a brand with the internet about their behavior—I think saying one thing and doing another is not going to fly anymore. You can’t do marketing and then behave in a whole different way. For global companies, there’s just going to be a requirement that how they behave be part of who they are.

Take a Patagonia or a Tom’s. Their whole thing is built around how much they care about the world we live in. Other companies have to make stuff, and have to try to be as responsible as they can in making and selling and how they treat their customers and their employees. Part of what is hopefully positive about this is that it puts all companies’ feet to the fire on this. Any artificial point of view that isn’t supported by your behavior or your actions is going to be found out and ultimately be to your detriment. So you’d better walk the walk and behave in a way that it’s as ethical and likable as any other brand message that you put out there.

Take a hard look at your behavior before advertising around a cause.
It needs to be very true to their behavior. And maybe it will make some companies think about sustainability and environmental responsibility, or human rights in terms of their employees around the world. It might make some companies wonder about what they’re doing, and are they doing enough? And some companies might evaluate what they care about and what they believe. Because it had better be honest and in sync.

Do you think the political environment today, where you have a U.S. administration that doesn’t seem very invested in helping the planet, or helping people help each other, makes it a moral imperative for brands to pick up the slack?
I would hope, even with the causes I work with, with Laurene and Conservation International, that the messages try as hard as they can to stay out of the partisan politics that our world has devolved into. The extreme positions, and polarized positions, that come out of politics are not an effective way to get to the solutions that the world needs. For example, with Conservation International, you can start a fight at a party by talking about climate change and whether it exists, whether it doesn’t exist. But the reality, and the epicenter of what we try to do with Conservation International, is that it’s not so much how politics and governments behave. It’s how people behave.

Nature doesn’t really need people. It’s going to keep on going and doing what it does and evolve. Someday, whether we like it or not, we’re maybe going to be another era of the planet’s history. But we have to behave in the best way we possibly can to respect this planet and Mother Nature. Nature doesn’t need people, but people desperately need nature. In fact, they need nature being taken care of. That’s a simpler spot than, “Well, you either believe in climate change, or you don’t.” “You either believe the government can fix the planet, or you don’t.” Put it right in the center.

I think how you view the politics of the world may give you an inclination, as a company, or a person, of what you care about. I only argue that when you make it into some kind of public message, you’d better find a way to speak to what you care about without it being extreme left or extreme right. For one thing, just with the capitalism of the thing, you’re going to eliminate half of your market if you take one side or the other. But more importantly, I don’t think it’s the path to the world ultimately becoming a better place, to continue to stay in this antagonistic, “I’m against you, you’re against me” place.

Have any purpose campaigns caught your eye lately?
I remember Droga’s water thing that he did a number of years ago was really smart. When he reached out and asked agencies in other cities to articulate the water issue—that was an interesting tactic. We ended up doing it here in L.A. Like I said, the ones that get too close to politics are the ones I like the least. The most powerful are the actual brands that are built out of this sense of purpose. Patagonia has been doing it for many, many years. Yvon Chouinard, who started that company, built it out of a sense of respect for nature, as an outdoorsman. Tom’s is a role model for how maybe everything should give back in some way, like they do when they sell a pair of shoes and give a pair of shoes. Those examples are the role models for some of this.

How will the changes at MAL\For Good help the agency do even more good work in this space?
It’s becoming more formalized. For a while we were doing it by the seat of our pants a little bit. Duncan moving into the space formalizes the creative leadership. Julia coming in formalizes the leadership dimension, with her background from Wieden and the Nike Foundation. We went and looked specifically for someone who came out of that world of doing the right thing. Now, it has the most formal leadership it’s had. We’re all in on this idea of doing good works and understanding purpose and helping, in our little way, make the world a better place.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.