The Surfer’s Journey, Vol. 6

Today’s message is pried from the mind of an advertising demigod. Young people in particular, perk up those furless ears. Background: I was in California for the last three weeks on magazine business, for this magazine, which I help edit.

Apparently we can put anything we want on our T-shirts. In truth, though, Vice is a better magazine (and The Economist may have our number as well). Last week I found their January 2011 issue at a friend’s house and therein read this interview with George Lois, 1960s creative revolutionary and general malcontent. In the interview Lois drops bitterly thought-provoking opinions like cigarette butts — as is his wont — and I want to pick up on the one I found most relevant:

George Lois: “I’ll be watching [a commercial] today and say, ‘What the fuck was that?’ You don’t know what they’re talking about. For some reason young people—or maybe everyone in the business—is afraid of looking like they’re selling something. They try to make pieces of entertainment.”

Note derision where the unbridled enthusiasm should go. Lois is actually upset by the trend toward “entertainment,” which today is a lot like being upset with the free market in McCarthy’s bedroom. If Lois weren’t George Lois, he’d be dismissed as some crank who doesn’t get the new brand-consumer contract. His attitude flies in the face of a noisy, insistent consensus regarding the fall of advertising and the rise of content in its place. (Advertising, you’ll recall, interrupts, annoys, condescends and insults; content entertains, educates and engages. The former will fall to the latter, and on the seventh day, rest.)

The point isn’t that Lois is right or wrong or abrasive (I’m certain he’s at least two of these things). It’s that he has the snarling moxie to question conventional wisdom — which I imagine is why, 50 years on, there’s a George Lois worth talking about. Crucially, it isn’t just posturing; Lois’s money has been exactly where his mouth is at every step, from his ads to his Esquire covers to his general comportment. (He once threatened he’d jump from a client’s office window if his ad for matzo was rejected.) He left last century’s most celebrated agency to start his own while still in his twenties. He’d had but one year of art school.

If nothing more, Lois is good fun, but what I took from his interview and example is a reminder not to get comfortable with (or scared by) popular opinion. It’s easy to feel unassailable when you’ve read the same theory confirmed by a thousand experts; it’s easy to be cowed by the high risk of original thinking. But Lois’s iconic work would never have made it out of committee — nor even onto paper in the first place, were he stayed by bovine adherence to the rules of the day.

NEXT TIME: How to deal with sudden termination/unemployment caused by behaving like George Lois.

Previously on AdPulp: The Surfer’s Journey, Vol. 5



About Stuart Cornuelle