“What the fuck are you doing in Chicago?”
That was my introduction to George Lois, the very first time I met him as I walked into his New York City apartment sometime back in 2007 or 2008. I was living in Chicago at the time and I had always known of the mythical giant that was George Lois. I remember using the “Greek card” when I first emailed him, asking to meet him the next time I was in New York.
He responded and invited me to visit.
When we eventually met in his Greenwich Village apartment, he told me flat out— “I agreed to meet you because you’re Greek. We are mother-fuckers, he brazenly said. We hate each other and want to bring each other down. Not me. I want to crush that stereotype and want to help any Greek I can.”
He then proceeded to tell me to “get the fuck out of that small town and come to New York City. People like you need New York City and New York City needs people like you.” I never forgot his words.
It took me a while but I eventually moved to New York City. Along the way, Lois was always a phone call away.
George Lois passed away in New York City on Friday, November 18, 2022. He was 91.
I, like many, saw the news on my Facebook newsfeed and it crushed me. Crushed not only because the world had lost one of its giants— but crushed because I had lost a man I considered an early mentor in my own career. This gracious, arrogant force of nature had offered me two of his most valuable commodities— his time and his advice.
Many people won’t know him. But anyone in marketing, advertising or the creative industries worship the mere mention of his name. And although many of you reading this won’t recognize the name, not a single American living today hasn’t been touched by how he changed the way brands communicate with consumers.
He was Madison Avenue’s best-known 20th-century art director who shattered the Norman Rockwell image of America in advertising by forcing counterculture of the 1960s and 70s into the American mainstream. America had no choice but to see head on its own racism, to see its own blood-thirsty war-mongering leaders that were spearheading massacres of innocent Vietnamese civilians.
He created stunning covers for Esquire Magazine— now part pf the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection— that rebuked and exposed American racism and called out U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
In one of his campaigns, he used a chimpanzee to demonstrate the ease of a Xerox copy machine.
In another, the former heavyweight boxing champion and American icon Joe Louis appeared in a brokerage ad asking, “Where were you when I needed you?” At the time of the release of this campaign, Louis was in the news regularly because he was knee deep in debt to the IRS.
But it was his Esquire magazine covers that Lois was probably best known for. From 1962 to 1972, he attacked American attitudes on society, race, politics and war. He did so masterfully, often using only images. Considered iconic pieces of American art, the Museum of Modern Art added several of Lois’ covers to their permanent collection.
One showed the boxer Sonny Liston in a Santa Claus hat, suggesting that he was the last person white America wanted to see coming down the chimney on Christmas. Another placed four Vietnamese children with a gargoyle-grinning William L. Calley Jr., the Army lieutenant who ordered the 1968 My Lai massacre. Andy Warhol was depicted drowning in a giant can of Campbell’s tomato soup.
In his six-decade career, Lois founded and led many advertising agencies, wrote books on advertising and art direction, devised award-winning campaigns that sold everything from soap to airlines, and was hailed by colleagues and peers as one of the most influential and creative admen of his era.
One of the books he wrote would become by own Bible and go-to book whenever I needed inspiration. “Damn Good Advice (for people with talent)” has traveled the world with me and even though I’ve read it dozens of times, I always find something new in it every time I am in need of a creative boost.
In this video, Lois himself talks about the book.
He was born George Harry Lois in Manhattan on June 26, 1931, one of three children of Harry and Vasilike (Thanasoulis) Lois, Greek immigrants. His father was a florist. George and his sisters, Paraskeve and Hariclea, were raised in the Bronx.
When we met, he explained to me that his Greek heritage was a vital part of his upbringing and success. He told me that his immigrant father always told him to be the very best at whatever he did. This resonated with me as I had a similar experience with my own father, who once told me— “I don’t care if you decide to flip hamburgers for a living (my dad owned a diner, thus the reference to hamburgers)… be the best hamburger flipper in town.”
I owe a lot of my own success to Lois, who continued to be a phone call away for many years after we first met. I also owe my eventual move to New York City to him, who kept asking me time and time again, “What the fuck are you doing in Chicago?”
Robert D. McFadden, senior writer at The New York Times captured Lois’ life and career beautifully in the obituary he wrote, which I have published below in its entirety.
George Lois, 91, Who Brought the Counterculture to Advertising, Dies
He became well known for the covers he designed for Esquire magazine, many of them wordless critiques of American society.
George Lois, Madison Avenue’s best-known 20th-century art director, who put the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s into postwar advertising and created stunning covers for Esquire magazine that rebuked American racism and involvement in the Vietnam War, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.
His son Luke confirmed the death, which he noted followed the death of Mr. Lois’s wife, Rosemary, by two months. He did not specify a cause.
Irascible and uncompromising, Mr. Lois creating witty, irreverent campaigns that shattered the ham-handed advertising conventions that had relied on testimonials and romanticized images. In one campaign, a chimpanzee demonstrated the simplicity of a Xerox machine; in another, the former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who was deep in debt to the I.R.S., appeared in a brokerage ad asking, “Where were you when I needed you?”
Mr. Lois was also known for the Esquire covers he designed from 1962 to 1972, acid-rain critiques on society, race, politics and war, many of them wordless. One showed the boxer Sonny Liston in a Santa Claus hat, suggesting that he was the last person white America wanted to see coming down the chimney on Christmas. Another placed four Vietnamese children with a gargoyle-grinning William L. Calley Jr., the Army lieutenant who ordered the 1968 My Lai massacre. Andy Warhol was depicted drowning in a giant can of Campbell’s tomato soup.
In his six-decade career, Mr. Lois founded and led many advertising agencies, wrote books on advertising and art direction, devised award-winning campaigns that sold everything from soap to airlines, and was hailed by colleagues and peers as one of the most influential and creative admen of his era.
Some said he was the model for Don Draper, the suave, elegant central character of the long-running AMC series “Mad Men.” It was not likely.
Mr. Lois, a bald, bulky, arm-waving tsunami who talked a blue streak with a Bronx accent, scoffed at the idea, and in a CNN report in 2012 he insisted that “Mad Men,” with its depiction of compulsive smoking, boozing and womanizing, grossly misrepresented the advertising milieu he knew.
“That dynamic period of counterculture in the 1960s,” he said, “found expression on Madison Avenue through a new creative generation — a rebellious coterie of art directors and copywriters who understood that visual and verbal expression were indivisible, who bridled under the old rules that consigned them to secondary roles in the ad-making process dominated by noncreative hacks and technocrats.”
While conceding Mr. Lois’s pivotal role in Madison Avenue’s modernization, some critics called him a brash loudmouth and a shameless self-promoter who was sometimes given credit for the ingenious work of others, or who exaggerated his participation in creative processes that involved many people.
Mr. Lois began his advertising career in 1956 as an art director with Sudler & Hennessey in New York. Two years later he landed a similar position at Doyle Dane Bernbach, which, under William Bernbach, who liberated art directors and copywriters to brainstorm freely together, was arguably the most creative shop in town in the 1950s.
After a year at Doyle Dane Bernbach, Mr. Lois joined two colleagues, Fred Papert and Julian Koenig, to form Papert Koenig Lois in 1960. With Mr. Lois as creative director, it became the first ad agency with an art director as a principal. It went public in 1962, raising its fortunes and starting a trend. By 1967 it was a major agency, with $40 million in billings and clients like Xerox, National Airlines and some Procter & Gamble products.
In 1962, Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire, asked Mr. 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?” Mr. Lois recalled saying. “You need to get one guy who understands the culture, who likes comic strips, goes to the ballet, visits the Metropolitan Museum.”
Mr. Lois was hired for the job as a freelancer. His covers — photos or montages, sometimes with hand-drawn elements — were often textless, making their point strikingly with a single image. He was credited with 92 in all, though the origins of some were later disputed. Many were controversial — Sonny Liston’s Santa cost Esquire $750,000 in dropped advertising. But 32 of his covers were installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008.
Mr. Lois pictured Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his boxing title and jailed for refusing to submit to the draft and fight in Vietnam, as an arrow-riddled St. Sebastian. Mr. Lois spoofed “the whole idea of a glamorous Hollywood,” as he put it in 2008, by applying smears of shaving cream to the face of the actress Virna Lisi to portray “a woman being manly and still beautiful.”
He portrayed President Richard M. Nixon having rouge and lipstick applied for a TV appearance during the 1968 presidential campaign, and, on another cover, Nixon’s rival that fall, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, as a dummy on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s lap. For a 1964 cover article by Tom Wicker, “Kennedy Without Tears,” he had a man’s hand extending a forefinger to wipe away a tear with a cloth from under the left eye of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy in a sepia-tinted official portrait of him.
As for the enigmatic Warhol cover that showed the artist falling into his signature Campbell’s soup can, Mr. Lois told Fast Company magazine in 2012: “A lot of people looked at it and said I had him drowning in his own fame. Some people said it was the end of Pop Art. Other people say it’s an iconic celebration of Pop Art. Well, OK!”
George Harry Lois was born in Manhattan on June 26, 1931, one of three children of Harry and Vasilike (Thanasoulis) Lois, Greek immigrants. His father was a florist. George and his sisters, Paraskeve and Hariclea, were raised in the Bronx.
He graduated from the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) in 1949. After a year and a half at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he dropped out to work for the designer Reba Sochis.
He married Rosemary Lewandowski, an artist, in 1951. They had two sons, Harry, who died in 1978, and Luke. In addition to his son Luke, Mr. Lois, who lived in Greenwich Village, is survived by two grandchildren.
After being drafted in 1952, Mr. Lois served two years with the Army during the Korean War. He joined CBS-TV in 1954 as a designer of promotional projects and began his advertising career two years later.
He was a partner with Papert Koenig Lois from 1960 to 1967. He then founded Lois Holland Callaway and was its 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 in the 1980s and ’90s. He was chairman and creative director when the firm went bankrupt and closed in 1999.
Mr. Lois and his son Luke then founded Good Karma Creative, an advertising and marketing venture. He was inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame, the One Club Creative Hall of Fame and the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame, and he won lifetime achievement awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Society of Publication Designers.
In 2016, Mr. Lois gave the City College of New York a trove of career materials, including recordings of radio and television commercials; copies of print ads, scripts, sketches, correspondence and photographs from his campaigns; and perhaps the last Tommy Hilfiger poster from the pre-cellphone 1980s, when they appeared in Manhattan phone booths and jump-started that designer’s career.
“George Lois is extremely important to us because we have a new program, a master’s program in advertising, branding and integrated communications,” Jeffrey F. Machi, City College’s vice president for development and institutional advancement, told The New York Times.
Mr. Lois was the author of several books, including “Damn Good Advice (for People with Talent!)” (2012), “George Lois on His Creation of the Big Idea” (2008), “$ellebrity: My Angling and Tangling With Famous People” (2003) and “The Art of Advertising: George Lois on Mass Communication” (1977, with Bill Pitts).
Since his heyday, the advertising world that once nurtured individual creativity has vanished, Mr. Lois told the magazine Creative Review in 2012. “What happened finally,” he said, “is these terrible conglomerate, no-talent, so-called marketing monoliths started to buy up agencies, and you have five or six or seven agencies running the world, and if you’re part of them you’ll never be a creative agency. It just doesn’t work.”
Obituary in The New York Times here.
Is The Pappas Post worth $5 a month for all of the content you read? On any given month, we publish dozens of articles that educate, inform, entertain, inspire and enrich thousands who read The Pappas Post. I’m asking those who frequent the site to chip in and help keep the quality of our content high — and free. Click here and start your monthly or annual support today. If you choose to pay (a) $5/month or more or (b) $50/year or more then you will be able to browse our site completely ad-free!