George Lois and Lee Clow on the Simple, Complicated Future of Advertising

Chasing the idea in a new world

Headshot of Tim Nudd

CANNES, France—Through talent or brute force, the artist will win.

That was the message from George Lois and Lee Clow here Friday morning, as the advertising legends told war stories from their past and peered into advertising's uncertain future before a full house at the Cannes Lions festival.

The art directors and old friends—brash New Yorker and laid-back Californian—helped make advertising what it is today through their vision and craft. In a discussion with USA Today columnist (and former Adweek editor) Michael Wolff, both men said that whatever the business looks like tomorrow, the magic of the creative mind—not the bells and whistles of technology—will remain the driving force in great advertising.

"The artists of new media will materialize," said Clow. "Right now it's a little bit blurry, a little bit vague. You've got some interesting companies out there. You've got David Droga and some others poking around, trying to figure out what it's going to be. But it's still in its infancy. When the artists truly take over the new media as well as the old, then those names will materialize."

Lois was typically blunt, imploring creatives not to give in to fear and weakness, or become slaves to technology.

"The name of the game isn't technology. The name of the game is creativity," he said. "Guys come to me and say, 'It must have been great back then, when clients would accept good work.' And I say, 'What the fuck are you talking about?' Do great work, and have the courage to sell it. Force it to be sold."

Both men were asked to name the high points of their careers. Lois said it was his "I want my MTV" campaign, and told the story of getting Mick Jagger to come to America and film the TV spots—helping to turn the music network into an overnight success.

"Great advertising can create marketing miracles like that," he said.

Clow, of course, pointed to Apple. "Steve Jobs believed and knew and understood that someday technology was going to be in all of our pockets," he said. "He knew that when he was 25 years old. And somehow, we got to ride that bus. But the moment in time that I'll never forget is when we produced the 'Think Different' commercial and campaign [in the late 1990s] and gave a new voice and a new energy back to the Apple company, and gave permission for all their designers to go do the amazing stuff that they ended up doing."

Clow and Lois also spoke about their heroes—Bill Bernbach, who led the creative revolution in the 1960s, and Jay Chiat, the founder of Chiat/Day.

Bernbach "liberated advertising to be smart and engaging and funny and respectable," Clow said. "The ideas were now the center of what we did, rather than just selling cars and selling soda pop."

But Chiat, who died in 2002, was Clow's main inspiration. "Jay was this guy for whom it was never good enough," Clow said. "This passion for making great work was what drove him. His drive and intensity fueled my energy. I wanted to live up to his standards."

Asked about the role of the art director today, versus the role of the technologist, Clow said the latter might be in the driver's seat—but not for long.

"When the camera was invented, artists didn't just throw away their brushes and start taking pictures," Clow said. "It was technology for many years before artists discovered what they could do with it. I think the artist still hasn't discovered the possibilities in new media and the Internet and how you use this technology to beautifully and intelligently express brands. Technologists have had the lead for a while, but the artist will take over."

It's complicated, but it's also simple, added Lois.

"You just have to do great work no matter what the technology," he said. "At the end of the day, it's about finding clients who let you do great work. And if they don't let you do great work, fuck 'em."

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