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Alfredo Marcantonio pays tribute to George Lois

The creative consultant and writer remembers the advertising great

George Lois attends the "George Lois: The ESQUIRE Covers @ MoMA" book launch celebration at Assouline at The Plaza Hotel on March 11, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

When the creative revolution raged along New York’s Madison Avenue in the late 1950s, a Greek florist’s son was in the advance guard. His name was George Lois and he went on to make an indelible mark, not only in the world of advertising but also in the history of magazine design. At news of his passing at the age of 91, a flurry of tributes appeared across the US media.

Born in Manhattan on June 26, 1931, George Harry Lois was the son of Harry and Vasilike Thanasoulis. He was a restless talent from an early age, once confessing that his parents had to force him to go to bed at 10pm where he would “sleep for maybe two hours, and then get up at 12am or 12.30am and spend two hours drawing in secret.”

All that drawing won him a place at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, and after graduating, he spent a year and a half at the Pratt Institute before dropping out to work for the influential designer Reba Sochis.

"Rather than call a spade a spade, he’d be more likely to call it a goddam shovel"

He was conscripted in 1952 and served two years with the Army during the Korean War, on his release he joined CBS-TV as a designer. He began his advertising career as an art director with pharmaceutical agency Sudler & Hennessey in New York before moving to Doyle Dane Bernbach.

Lois was a rough, tough character. Rather than call a spade a spade, he’d be more likely to call it a goddam shovel. When DDB won the VW account he famously summed up the marketing problem with typical bluntness “We have to sell a Nazi car in a Jewish town”.

It would be a Jewish account that saw him reveal the drive that would propel him through his long and enormously successful career. He created a poster for Goodman’s Matsoes that had a single word headline; the word Kosher written in Hebrew. When the account man told him the client didn’t like it, Lois went to the client to sell it himself. When the matsoe-maker still wouldn’t approve the concept , Lois climbed onto the window ledge, three floors above the pavement and threatened to jump. The client backed down and bought the ad.

"When the account man told him the client didn’t like it, Lois went to the client to sell it himself"

He left DDB in 1960 and founded what became known as PKL with two colleagues, Fred Papert and the highly awarded Volkswagen copywriter Julian Koenig. Two years later it became the first US agency to go public and by 1967 it boasted $40 million in billings with clients like Xerox, National Airlines and Procter & Gamble.

The Lois restlessness wasn’t confined to his childhood. He left PKL and founded Lois, Holland Callaway in 1968, serving as chairman and chief executive until 1976, when he joined Creamer/FSR. In 1978, he founded Lois/EJL, which went through several name and leadership permutations before its closure in 1999. 

The commercials he created for MTV are probably his most celebrated and are credited with  saving the cable station from an early death. Launched in 1981 with a 24-hour rock ‘n’ roll format the New York-based station it was scorned by advertisers, recording companies and most importantly, the cable operators who were needed to deliver it to US homes.

"Despite all the memorable advertising Lois created, it was his Esquire magazine covers that dominate the many obituaries that have appeared in the US media"

Lois produced a campaign of commercials that parodied “I want my Maypo,” an age-old cereal campaign that he had revived at PKL. The films featured edgy graphics and a voice-over ending … If you don’t get MTV where you live, call your cable operator and say “I want my MTV,” the last line being delivered with gusto by a rock star. First up was Mick Jagger who did it for fun, rather than a fee. Next up were Pete Townsend and Pat Benatar. Within six months, almost every rock star in the nation was keen to follow suit and MTV became a must-have for the once doubting cable operators.

Despite all the memorable advertising Lois created, it was his Esquire magazine covers that dominate the many obituaries that have appeared in the US media. In 1962 Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire, asked Lois how to improve the magazine’s covers, which were then conceived and assigned by an editorial committee. “Is that what you do when you assign a story to Talese or to Mailer — you have a group grope?”

"I force them to do great work, literally”

Hayes was impressed enough to sign Lois up as a freelance designer. Between 1962 and 1972 he created getting on for 100 Esquire covers, 38 of which formed an exhibition in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008. Associated Press hailed his April 1968 design that shows Muhammad Ali posing as the martyr St. Sebastian as “one of the most iconic images of the decade.” Other covers include a depiction of Andy Warhol disappearing into a can of Campbell’s soup and boxer Sonny Liston as Santa Claus.

Those obituaries are also united in describing the designer’s cussedness "I don’t collaborate with clients," he told one interviewer. "I force them to do great work, literally”. His habit of exaggerating his contribution is another much mentioned trait. Julian Koenig, his long-time creative partner pointed out that “the word 'we' evaporated from George's vocabulary and it became 'my.'” His opinion of the TV series Mad Men clearly shows that approaching eighty, he had lost none of his sharpness. "The more I think about Mad Men, the more I take the show as a personal insult. So, fuck you, Mad Men — you phoney, ‘Grey Flannel Suit’, male-chauvinist, no-talent, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-semitic, Republican SOBs! Besides, when I was in my 30s, I was better-looking than Don Draper." 

On one of the last pages of the last of his several books, Damn Good Advice, Lois wrote: "The courage to create only superb work, through thick and thin, and fight to protect it at all costs is not generated in the head… it comes from your very heart and soul."

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