‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth.‘ — attributed to V. I. Lenin
Phaidon have recently published the latest book by advertising legend, George Lois, entitled Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!). It is yet another inspirational book, very similar to those written by Paul Arden. The 120 pieces of advice are sustained by examples, usually from the author’s extensive career. Among juicy stories from the 1960s Mad Men era (so popular these days), he mentions his hero, Paul Rand, and his mentors, two teachers that recognised his talent and his first Creative Director, a lady, Reba Sochis. By the time you finish the book, you feel ready to take on the world, to go out and do your best work.
George Lois about Paul Rand (click for larger size)
There’s just one problem.
Many of George Lois’s stories are not true. If you try to find out more about his work, you’ll soon learn that he has been taking credit not only for projects in which the work has been done through team effort, but even for projects in which he hasn’t been involved at all. In his book, he never mentions Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) where he was employed, the Papert Koenig Lois agency where he was a partner, together with Fred Papert and Julian Koenig, nor Lois, Holland, Callaway.
The June 19, 2009 episode of This American Life, the radio show hosted by Ira Glass, features interviews with Julian Koenig, Fred Papert, George Lois’s ex-partners, and also with Carl Fischer (the photographer who shot most of the Esquire covers). They talk about projects they’ve done and to which extent George Lois was involved, if at all (links at the end of the post). After listening, it becomes very clear that George Lois is such a convincing story teller that he’s fallen victim to his own talent.
‘In my instance, the greatest predator of my work was my one-time partner George Lois, who is a most heralded and talented art director/designer, and his talent is only exceeded by his omnivorous ego. So where it once would’ve been accepted that the word would be “we” did it, regardless of who originated the work, the word “we” evaporated from George’s vocabulary and it became “my.”‘ — Julian Koenig
In 2005, George Lois published his book $elebrities, in which he basically replaces Julian Koenig in his own story about how he met Ernie Kovacs just hours before the latter’s death. Mr Koenig tried to fight back by running a witty ad in the New York Times. They never ran it, but AdWeek did, even if at the back of the magazine, to no response. Since I couldn’t find the original, I’ve taken the liberty to reimagine it, based on the ad for Coldene (coughing syrup), also Mr Koenig’s idea, but ‘stolen’ by George Lois. I’d be very happy if any of you would repost this.
George Lois is an advertising legend and he’s been writing books periodically, appeared in the Art & Copy film and other interviews, so he’s had a lot of exposure along the years. Still, due to the current craze around the Mad Men TV series, many publications and websites have recently run even more stories about him, naming him ‘the original Mad Man’ or ‘the original Don Draper’. Lois has often rejected this comparison, talking about the shallow depiction of the 1960s advertising world in the series, but it is ironic to find out how much he actually resembles Don Draper, whose whole adult life is based on a huge lie (I won’t spoil it for you, watch the show). It is such a shame that because of his exposure, George Lois gets to repeat his lies over and over again. Later corrections, if any, written in small print at the back of magazines or blog posts cannot repair the harm done.
I’m no idealist, but the end very rarely justifies the (appalling) means. Two of the best human traits are honesty and modesty. Unfortunately, many take the easier path to success, ignoring these two. But that won’t change the fact that they’re not worthy of being our models, our heroes.
‘Advertising is built on puffery, and, at heart, deception, and I don’t think anybody can go proudly into the next world with a career built on deception, even though no matter how well they do it.’ — Julian Koenig
FURTHER READING & LINKS
— listen to Ira Glass’s show with the above-mentioned interviews (or read the transcript);
— the Julian Koenig Wikipedia page — learn how he named Earth Day;
— the George Lois Wikipedia page, including the Controversy section;
— another blog post about the same subject, including some video interviews of both George Lois and Mr Koenig (direct YouTube link).