Michael Lee On The Spot

Michael Lee landed on these shores in 1990 to work at then Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer after a series of stints at agencies that no longer exist in his native England. An avid cricket fan, his reserved demeanor belies what he describes as a “calm, but not” interior. Now creative director of integration at what became Euro RSCG in 2002, Lee, 53, has helped create major campaigns for Volvo and Evian. He recently added to his portfolio advertising for Howard Stern’s move in early January to Sirius Satellite Radio. More of that work broke in late February.

Q: What was your most recent creative coup?

A: Getting 80 percent of the work we produced on Howard Stern banned—demanded off of billboards and out of cinemas. There was a spot called “Constellations” that ran in theaters and was pulled by theater groups. It showed a starry night and the stars twinkling. Then all of a sudden they started to move, and they formed an object. Then you realize it was a penis. And then the line, “Howard Stern is coming,” followed by a little star ejaculating out of the tip. It was only placed in R-rated movies, but people still got a bit wobbly about it.

Were you a Howard Stern fan before you worked on the campaign?

No. My wife is. She’s a good Connecticut girl.

Do you think Howard is funny?

I think Howard is funny over a period of time. He’s not a sound-bite guy. There’s a rhythm you get into where you understand the characters, and it’s something you just build up an affinity towards. If you just said, “Hey, let’s switch on to this,” most people would say, “That’s not funny at all.”

Was he at all like his radio persona?

Well, he was in control. He understands his brand and is very protective of it. He said, “I need a logo,” so we designed the fist.

Many saw the fist as a black power salute.

He’s very into the idea of freedom. And the fist symbolizes that as well as the fight. He’s always had to fight the FCC. So it’s as much a symbol of fight and revolution. There’s a bit of Che Guevara in it as much as black power.

Did he pick the fist straight away?

Yes. He selected real, simple things. It was used heavily on the day he moved [from K-Rock to Sirius], and he did the march with about 500 people. There was a girl who had taken off her T-shirt and put the two little fist logos over her boobs. [Euro art director] Dave Arnold said, “Now that’s branding.”

What is the biggest misconception about your agency?

That it’s arrogant, which is the word I will hear every time—from peers and clients. I think we know we’re good. I think other people look at this place as a sweatshop, but I don’t know any really good agency that isn’t.

If you could change one thing about the ad industry, what would it be?

I don’t think we know enough about business. I think we’ve been put in such a corner to be the experts on the consumer. Years ago, when something went wrong with a company, the first person that CEO called was the head of his ad agency. Now they go to their business management consultants, their PR consultants, their brand consultants. I think we’ve lost a real good understanding of client business. It happened maybe when we became besotted with planning … it has made us experts on how the consumer thinks. But planning, if done correctly, incorporates the mindset of the consumer and the business aspect of the client.

What’s your personal motto?

“It’s in the room.” I’m constantly amazed that when we’re working and need inspiration, I look around, and that inspiration is “in the room.” Whether the TV’s on or you’re listening to some music or there’s a book somewhere. Or you go to a gallery, a movie or a play. Keep your eyes and ears open, because it’s there.

What is your biggest fear?

I think I’m becoming unhappy about heights.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

My mother was getting very nervous because I was 17 and had failed all of my exams. So she sent me to a vocational clinic in London. They send you the result after asking you all these questions. Basically, it said I wasn’t going to be a nuclear physicist or a priest or a social worker. Instead, it listed three careers: advertising, selling or some form of window display. So I then wrote to all the ad agencies and was hired at Austin Knight in the traffic and production department. … My first agency job was at a place called Allardyce in London.

Who’s had the greatest influence on your career?

I’ve always been interested in photography. The Cartier-Bressons and Brassais captured an essence of life which I love. Very intimate moments. I was very interested in emotion-driven ads. In the U.K., it’s about the idea and how to articulate that in the most innovative way. I found the U.S. was more receptive to work that had an emotional charge.

Name one person you’re dying to work with.

Steve Jobs. I’m very interested in design. And they’re very interested in technology. He combines those two thoughts more brilliantly than anyone does. What I like about Steve is that he doesn’t underestimate the public.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

Coming to the States [to join Euro] in 1990 and deciding to stay.