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Storytime with George Lois, Part 1

Juxtapoz // Wednesday, 24 Nov 2010

A few months back, I (first person for this post, I, the web editor) sat down with George Lois at his Manhattan apartment for a conversation about his career and magazines. Most of that conversation was published in our new December 2010 Juxtapoz, but for the next few weeks, we are posting bonus coverage on the website. We think its important.

The great part about Mr Lois is that he is still a tough ass; not in a difficult to interview, egomaniacal way like a lot of legendary subjects can be, but in a get the job done in his vision sort of way. He is thoughtful and full of stories. He doesn't mince words, speaks his mind, and took the conversation around to areas I had not previously conceived.

This part of our discussion regards Mr. Lois' first years in advertising in NYC, and the development of the Golden Era of American advertising.

Juxtapoz: What was the catalyst for your career after your studies?

I get drafted and go into the army during the Korean War in 1949. My first week in basic training in Augusta, Georgia, I’m sitting there thinking, “What the fuck is this?” A couple of guys said “grease ball" to me and got punched out. I was a tough kid. I grew up in an Irish, racist neighborhood, and I was the only ethic there, and if somebody said boo to me… I mean I had like 40 fistfights and I won them all.

So my second day, they are doing roll call, and I said “yo.” So the Major comes to me and he says, “Hey soldier, what’s with the yo?” I say well the other boys say “here,” and I say “yo.” So he says to me, “Another New York #$%& @#&*@ lover.” And I said back, “Go fuck yourself.” So I do 14 weeks of company punishment for that. Every day of training, when all the other guys go to sleep and write a letter, I had to work all night. They gave you 2 hours sleep, and that’s  their way of breaking you. Then they wake you up at 6:00 am.

What they didn’t know was that I only slept 2—3 hours a night in my life anyways, and I love to clean. So they couldn’t figure me out. I go to basic training, and I’m a great solider, and what I mean by that is, if you are going on a forced march with 75lbs on your back, I will beat the whole company by an hour and half because I jogged with those 75lbs on my back.

Juxtapoz: What happens when you get out of the War?

I get out of the Korean War, get home, and this woman, a wonderful designer, wants me to be a partner in her design firm. Back then a woman art director was very unusual. What I really wanted to do was go to CBS because they just had done this “CBS eye” and had this whole corporate image thing going on. William Golden was the art director. The woman said she could get me an appointment to see someone at CBS.

This is 1952-53 now. I go over there and I get the job. Boom. And I loved it there. It was a great couple of years. Somehow I get a phone call from somebody who saw my work and wanted to give me a job doing the advertisements for American Airlines. So I get the offer, twice the money, but it wasn’t about the money. I go to Bill Golden and tell him I’m leaving and he says, “George don’t do it.” He had me 4 hours locked in the room. “You don’t know what it is out there. It’s terrible and they will eat you up alive. George, stay here with me.” And I said, “I got to take a shot at it.”

I did some great ads that everybody noticed. One of them was a full page ad in the Times, at a time when the Dodgers were talking about leaving Brooklyn, and everyone in America, especially NYC, was shook up. I did an American Airlines logo and behind it was a Dodger with his Brooklyn hat on, and the headline said, “Thinking of Going to Los Angeles.” And there was a schedule of airline flights going to LA on it. I swear everybody in town went “oooooh.” You didn’t see advertising like that back then.

I remember at one point doing 5 or 6 ads a day, and some guy came down to talk to me because they didn’t like my American Airlines ad, and say no to it. I was like, “What do you mean no? Fuck you, let me go see the head guy.” This was Bill Smith, the brother of the owner of American Airlines. He heard my complaining and wanted to see me. So I walk up there to see him, and 100 of my ads are lying on the ground of this gigantic office, and he’s sitting back there with the head Art Director and Head Writer. I’m 25 feet away, and he says “Lois, I understand your complaining,” and he starts walking towards me stepping on my ads. I almost couldn’t believe it. I looked at him, walked around the room, around the ads, went to his gigantic desk, lifted it, and turned it over. I turned around and I walked out of the place. So there were stories like that.

Juxtapoz: See, if “Mad Men” only had stories like that. So was that you quitting?

I quit, and this guy chased me down the hall, and was like “George I can’t save your job, they are going to fire you!” And I’m like, “What do you mean they are going to fire me? I’m gone! What are you, fucking nuts?”

Juxtapoz: Who is starting up at this point that you can work for? You mention this was a Golden Age.

An ad agency starts near this time, Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach. Doyle is an account guy, Dane is the money guy, and Bernbach. And with Bob Gage as the art director and a couple of very good writers, they start doing very good work. The first modern advertising. I get called almost immediately and they wanted me to be the head of the promotional art department. I said I’ll do all the promotions for everybody, but I also want to do some ad accounts of my own, and they said no just promotions. I said no let me do some ad accounts, and I so I walked out, and they said you cant walk out, you’re 24-years old and you’re walking out of Doyle, Dane and Bernbach? So I got a reputation like that. I said well I’ll come back when I can do some advertising.

I was there a year and I turned the place upside down. Bernbach thinks I’m Joe Genius. He loves me and I pissed off a lot of people because my stuff was much edgier than what they had done.

One of the things I did was a poster for Goodman’s Matzo, a poster for Passover. I did the lettering in this beautiful Jewish lettering that I took off of a butcher shop and I re-drew it. Then, art directors weren’t allowed to talk to clients, which is crazy to me, and the account guy comes back and says “They didn’t like it.” I say “Well, fuck you. What do you mean they didn’t like it?” Bernbach sees it and said, “Wow that’s terrific.” I said the client didn’t like it, and he said, “Oh shit, that’s too bad.”

I said “Bill can you do me a favor, I know Goodman’s is in Long Island City, could you make me an appointment so hopefully I can go see him and try and go sell it to him.” Nobody did that stuff. I am going to go see this 90-year old Jewish man and everybody says Lois is going to get his ass kicked because this is the toughest client they got. And I start to hear about it, so I said, “Holy shit, I am in a hole! If I don’t sell this I am going to get a job in Tibet as an art director and I can’t come back here.” I had been making a lot of enemies from the older people because I’m doing edgy stuff and its not their kind of work.

Juxtapoz: At this point you can't come back without the ad because you are being too confident. . .

I got to tell you, I remember getting on a subway, three stops before I got there, and thinking, “Holy shit, I got to sell this motherfucker.”  I get there and I go up to him, and it’s a very busy room, there are a lot of people working and he’s in a glass encased room. And the reason why its glass is so that he can keep an eye on people, and in his office there are like 12 or 14 people. They are his sons, daughters, and grandchildren, all in the business, all in the room, sitting  there, in a big square, and I’m in the middle and Goodman is at this big desk. It was like a lion’s den.

I go in and I start talking about the poster, and Goodman has already seen it and doesn’t like it. I start selling it, and I talk about seeing it on the subway, coming across this gigantic Hebrew lettering in a poster and its so powerful. And he says, “Yeah, I don’t like it.”

So I say, excuse me, grandfather, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, I find it very exciting, and I think it would be very dynamic in the subway… and he says “I don’t like it,” again. I keep talking, and then one son says “I like it,” and then I have 4 or 5 of them saying “I like it.” But Goodman is still saying, “I don’t like it.” I’m thinking this guy is fucking impossible.

I turn and I see there is this encasement door in the window on the 3rd floor. So I start walking towards it, and he says, “Are you going some place?” I get to the thing and roll the poster and holding on to the case, the metal part and I unroll it, and I say, “You make the Matzos, I’ll make the ads!”

He went yelling, got out of his chair, and they ran and got him pills. I mean talk about a scene. That’s one of the scenes the guy read from “Mad Men.” And so they are standing there, and I thanked them, and I started walking out with my poster, and he starts talking. And I’m walking towards the glass door, and he says “Young man, one thing, if you ever quit advertising, I’ll give you a job as a matzo salesman.”

That’s a great story, eh? Its one of the best advertising stories ever!

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