Lee Clow, Ad Legend

by | Aug 17, 2020

Lee Clow is a living legend, a creative hero, and a guide for many of today’s working professionals. His work will continue to inspire me and many others, including future generations of advertising makers.

Lee Clow retired from TBWA\Chiat\Day in 2018. Ten years before that auspicious moment, I wrote this in these pages: The man surfs and wears flip flops and a long beard to meetings with the world’s most loaded marketers. And he wins them over, time and again.

Lee won the Nissans and Pepsis and Apples of the world over time and again, not because of his unique personal style, rather because of the contents of his mind and quality of his heart.

Lee Clow also used to stand at a large workbench all day. Hemingway did that.

Plus, he trusts in Ideationology. Hem did not do that.

“1984” for Apple

Let’s look at one of Lee Clow’s most famous ads, and one of the most well-respected ads of all time.

The Apple “1984” ad ran during the Super Bowl. At the time, no one had not seen anything like it. The spot was based on George Orwell’s novel and directed by Ridley Scott of Alien and Blade Runner fame.

Apple’s “Think Different” campaign grew from here and became the call to action for all creative people. Think different doesn’t say don’t be boxed in by a PC. Not is so many words, but that’s the result. The thought here is if you want to be free, free to create big bold things, you must have a Mac.

One thing I’ve always admired about Lee and his team at Chiat\Day is their west coast hippie dream idealism. The agency embraced this ethos under Lee’s leadership.

His decision to place the agency a block from a surf break is another great indication that there’s more to life than making ads. The best people in all professions know how to create an environment where great things happen. Being a great boss means you help others around you succeed. There’s no doubt that Lee Clow lifted many brands, careers, and people to higher heights.

Nissan “Shift”

This is one of my all-time favorite car campaigns, another product of Lee Clow’s insistence on thinking differently.

Shift your mindset, and freedom will follow.

TBWA’s “Disrupt Manifesto”

Bravery is at the heart of Lee Clow’s point of view, and we can hear more about this concept here.

This is how you do self-promotion. It’s also how you set yourself and your agency apart.

“Don’t do the right thing, do the brave thing.”

Lee’s words in the voice over are powerful and encouraging.

“Do the thing that disrupts,” he says. “Do the thing the upends, that doesn’t just defy the status quo but reshapes it forever. You can do that. You have that in you. To do the right thing or not is a choice. To disrupt or not is a choice. Let’s do the brave thing.”

All creators need encouragement and here Lee provides it for his team, but also for all who choose to listen and act.

Lee’s Legacy

Lee brought a critical new “cool factor” to advertising. He wasn’t afraid to be himself or to share his vision, and that was the difference-maker for him.

Lee was close to Steve Jobs and Jobs was a believer in the ways of Lee.

Late in his career, Lee formed TBWA\Media Arts to help reframe the conversation about what advertising is. For Lee, ad campaigns are not just a means to the client’s end. Advertising is an end in itself and a welcome part of popular culture.

Lee Clow, Talent Magnet

Lee’s cultivation of talent and direct tutelage helped raise the bar for many creatives working in the agency business today, at Chiat\Day and elsewhere.

Like Hal Riney and Howard Gossage before him, Lee Clow is a Californian who made a massive difference in the advertising agency business. Like Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett, Lee Clow is a man who will be admired for generations to come.

Lee deserves praise and admiration, but I imagine that he would appreciate our willingness to learn from him and follow his lead even more.

Rehearsal: Ad Legends Workshop Presentation

It’s not easy to do the brave thing and make a career of it, but in Lee’s case, we can all see how it worked out. He’s a legend and the thousands who played it safe are not.