An Ad Man Who Hates "Mad Men"

The '60s "was the most heroic age in media communications since the twelve apostles," but the AMC show doesn't really get it.
  • Transcript


Question: How did you get into advertising?

George Lois: Well, I started in advertising, after the High School of Music and Art, that was all, that was basically my graphic arts training, as far as I'm concerned, it was, you know, it was four incredible years.  I then went to Pratt Institute and I met my future wife that first day of school, and I was nuts about her. And I realized after one or two, after a week of Pratt that they weren't anywhere near as the High School of Music and Art, but I stuck it out, because I wasn't about to leave her.  And I went through the first year and then the second year, I didn't quite know what to do, and I knew the school was so awful.  But I went to my first classes at the second year, and again, I ran into another great mentor, a teacher by the name of Herschel Levit, and he looked at my, and he saw what I did for him and he said, "George, why are you, why are you in school?"  And I said, "I'm trying to make a living, you know?"  And he said, "No, no, get out of here, you're not going to learn any more here," and he gave me a piece of paper with a woman's name—a woman art director, which was very unique back then—who had an art studio, and she sent me to him the next, and I went there the next morning and I left school in the, in my second, before my, actually my second year started.  And she did promotion and advertising, et cetera, it was a great, great first job because she was a superb designer. What happened was I lost my exemption in the army, it was during the Korean War, and I got drafted and wound up going to Korea, came back alive... and she wanted me to be a partner with her, and I didn't want to.  And she said, "What do you want to do?"  "I really want to work at CBS Television," because it was a really dynamic time in corporate imagery and corporate design with the great Bill Golden at the head of it, they had just done the CBS eye, et cetera.  So I went in at CBS and it was incredible atelier of design and advertising.  But somehow, it wasn't the big, it wasn't the big time advertising, you know, worked on products, et cetera.

And from there, and so I left there, you know, and Bill Golden said to me in '53 or '54, whatever it was, '54, "George, you can't go out there, it's a world of, the ad world is terrible, they're all Philistines, they're all hacks."  And he was right, you know, he said, "You're not going to be happy there, they're not going to appreciate your talent."  And I said, "Well, I," well, somehow, something drove me to do it, and ... the job I went to was pretty awful, and a lot of stories... seemingly apocryphal but actually true... when I kind of acted up in my first agency and overturned a desk, etc., did some kind of crazy stuff.

After that I went, and I worked with some of the great, other great pioneers in advertising, and advertising designer, Herb Lubalin and I worked, then I went to Doyle Dane Bernbach and worked for Bill Bernbach and Bob Gage.  And again, I did something insane: I left Doyle Dane, I went to Bill Bernbach and I told him I was leaving to start the second creative agency in the world, because Bill Bernbach had started the only creative agency in the world.  And the reason he started it, it was based on the fact that he had worked with Paul Rand early in his career and somehow he understood that if you worked with good, terrific graphic designer, especially one who was prolific and could write like Paul Rand, that you could do better advertising if you worked, if the art director could work, could conceive advertising with the writer... up to that time, basically all advertising was, the art director sat in his room with his thumb up his ass and waited for the creative director, for the copywriter to come in and throw him a piece of paper and say, "Make a layout."  You know, "Lay this out," and the layouts were, you know, these typical, awful, you know, unambitious layouts.

So I left Doyle Dane Bernbach and when I left Doyle Dane Bernbach, Bill Bernbach said to me, "George, you don't know what's out there."  You know, the they could, and he literally said that Doyle Dane Bernbach was basically a creative freak, that somehow they were miraculous, a group of people that somehow together could forget a great advertising, and it couldn't happen again, not in this Philistine world.  But I started an agency called Papert, Koenig, Lois, with two writers actually, and we were successful almost immediately, almost immediately.  And then after a couple, one, two, or three years, coming out of my agency were two other agencies, you know, Carl Ally and a guy named [...] and then another guy left my agency and started, went into business with Mary Wells and started, Wells Rich Greene, and before you knew it, by the mid '60's, you know, I realized that I had triggered, with starting that second creative agency, I had triggered something called the creative revolution in advertising.  And it became the golden age of advertising, I mean, the '60's and '70's, basically was the golden age of advertising, in advertising.

Question:  How true is the show "Mad Men" to the atmosphere back then?

George Lois: The producers of "Mad Men," you know, think I hate their show, which is true.  You know, when they first started the show, before it premiered, I got a call from one of the producers and he said, "You know, we're looking at, we're shooting, we're doing little spots with the people who were the original 'mad men,'" he said, "Of the period.  And, you know, we're shooting it," and he named four, five, or six people. I had never heard of a couple of them.  "And whoever we talk to mentions your name."  I said, "Time out.  You're doing a show on the advertising of the '60's and you never heard my name?"  He said, "Oh, no, we've heard your name."  I said, "Bullshit, you never heard my name."  "Well, okay."  I said, "If you want to know what happened in the '60's, if you want a real understanding of what happened in the '60's, I did a book in 1972 called 'George Be Careful.'" Which is basically, you know, my story about growing up in New York and, you know, growing up in the New York School of Design, I became one of the wunderkinds of the New York School of Design, and how I started, you know, the second creative agency in the world and how that became the creative... it's all about the '60's, etc."  And I called it "George Be Careful" because when I was a kid, you know, I remember the hand of God coming into my bedroom, you know, it was Michelangelo’s hand, and it said, "George, be careful," and my mother, my mother told me, that George, all my life, my mother told me "Be careful." My father, my sisters, my coaches in sports, you know, my, when I went into the army they're telling me to be careful.  And then when you go into advertising, that's when everybody tells you to be careful, you know?  Anything, you know, anything unusual, anything over the top, anything edgy, you can't do that.  So "George, Be Careful" was my anti-slogan.  "And if you wanted to know anything about the advertising of the '60's and the advertising world of the '60's, read that book.  Goodbye."  You know, and was saying fuck you... and he called me back a couple days later, I had told him to go get the book at Amazon because it was out of print.  He called me up a couple days later and he says, "Oh, Jesus, wow, we could have done the show on that!"  I said, "No, shit," you know, because that was the '60's, anybody who knows anything about the media world, anything, you know, anything about it, when you mention the '60's and you mention advertising in the '60's, they don't think, now they think of "Mad Men," of that dumb show.  Before that they thought of it as a heroic age, of really, of the age that I was talking about, about... leaving Doyle Dane Bernbach was a giant part of it obviously, and then with another three or four agencies after that kind of came out of my agency, that was the most heroic age in media communications since the twelve apostles.

Recorded April 5, 2010.