Remembering Lee King

Lee King died last week in Evanston, Ill., at age 94. Some called him the Bill Bernbach of Chicago.

In the 50’s and 60’s, he was creative director at Edward Weiss & Co., and brought the creative revolution to town through the doors of that agency. In 1974, he bought the place, changed the name to Lee King & Partners and made it the best agency in Chicago for 15 years.

The first day I walked into LK&P as a junior copywriter, I had nervous stomach cramps. I didn’t know what grownups did their first day on the job, so I bought a coffee mug and two packs of cigarettes.

I got off the elevator and a towering woman with Robert Plant hair, black leather pants and spike heels — she was the office manager — escorted me and my mug to my new office overlooking Michigan and Wacker.

Honestly, I thought there must have been a mistake. I didn’t know what else to do, so I threw open the window and sat out on the ledge high above Chicago. I was starting to realize how cool my life had just become when the door blew open. Standing there in a full-length fur coat, with long gray hair and cigar blazing, was Lee King.

He smiled. I think he liked the windowsill thing. “No matter what happens kid,” he said, “have a good time.” Then he walked out.

Over the next two years, I took his advice. It was easy to do. The man created an environment that made it impossible not to have a good time.

He filled the place with creative freaks and the only rule he ever gave them was to kick ass. Chicago’s ad illuminati lit up the place — people like David Kennedy, John Scott, Bob Qually, Linda Yellin Cadwell, Ethan Revsin, Marcus Kemp, Chris Haxager, Eric Loeb, Arthur Vibert and Stephanie Ross.

In 1982, King sold the agency to Bozell + Jacobs, but he stayed active until age 85. In a business that chucks people into the dumpster when they’re 40, Lee was still making an impact as an octogenarian!

Even after he retired, he never stopped painting, reading the classics or having a good time.

“No matter what happens kid, have a good time.”

I doubt Bernbach ever gave anyone better advice.

(Harry Woods is a partner and cd at Woods Witt Dealy & Sons.)