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George Lois: The Iconic World-Renowned Advertising Dynamo

April 24, 2021
By Catherina Ploumidakis

George Lois is an iconoclast and a genius – there is no hyperbole in that statement. On the contrary, he is an innovative, revolutionary Greek-American art director, designer, and prolific author who shook up the magazine industry with his iconic covers.

Who doesn't remember the image of Andy Warhol being sucked into a can of Campbell’s soup?

His Tommy Hilfiger poster was on telephone kiosks in the 1980s and jump-started the designer's career.

He is a legend in advertising – in virtually every presentation to a client, would come up with a big advertising idea – a marketing miracle-worker.

His talent is a gift that keeps on giving – and inspiring the next generations.

Lois has donated his entire archives to the City College of New York and the covers he designed for Esquire Magazine are in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – which is also fitting because George and his wife, painter Rosemary Lewandowski Lois, both art lovers, have  created one of the world's most incredible art collections in the gallery of their Greenwich Village apartment.

Lois’ son, Luke is a distinguished photographer who has worked with award-winning art directors. His passion is portraiture, but the bulk of his work is advertising. In 2000, he started Good Karma Creative. Teamed with his father, they have also been designing books while creating advertising campaigns. He is currently producing a documentary film on his father.

The National Herald: You created 92 covers for Esquire Magazine; 36 are in the permanent collection at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

George Lois: It is quite an honor. My covers being installed in the Collections of MoMA are the first time a group of modern magazine cover designs had been put in a museum since Norman Rockwell's covers for The Saturday Evening Post.

TNH: Muhammad Ali’s 1968 ‘Esquire’ cover is one of the greatest of all time.

GL: I had met Muhammad Ali, who was at the time Cassius Clay, when he was on his way to fight in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. I created an Esquire cover extolling Muhammad in 1966, when he changed his name, showing him posing with Floyd Patterson, the fighter who refused to call Muhammad by his chosen name and instead kept calling him Cassius.

I had already known of Muhammad’s integrity and honor when the whole world was calling him a traitor and a coward. I knew those were the last words anyone should ever use to describe Muhammad.

When Harold Hayes called and told me he wanted to do a cover on Muhammad refusing to fight in the Vietnam War (a war America should never have gotten itself into), I knew I had to present him as a martyr. And every time I think of a martyr, the famous painting by Francesco Botticini depicting Saint Sebastian comes to mind – showing the saint in the perfect pose of anguish and relief.

Once I saw Muhammad posing similarly to that in the painting, I knew it would l be a groundbreaking cover.

TNH: What is the idea/inspiration behind the iconic image of Andy Warhol being sucked into a can of Campbell’s soup?

GL: Esquire was going to run a story on the decline and collapse of the art's avant-garde movement. So what better way to illustrate that than to have the most famous avant-garde artist drowning in his own creation?

TNH: How did you come up with the name ‘Lean Cuisine’.

GL: In 1977, I was having dinner at the Four Seasons Restaurant with the heads of Stouffer’s, celebrating my landing of one of their accounts. Fast food, TV dinners, and healthy eating were becoming all the rage. So, during the dinner, I asked them if they could make and produce fully cooked and prepared, healthy, gourmet, frozen meals. Believe it or not, they laughed at me. I thought about what to name a frozen diet gourmet food … Lean Cuisine!

It was a no-brainer. The next day, I sent a designed logo over to the head of Stouffer’s, who thought it was fantastic. A year later, Lean Cuisine was becoming a significant brand for Stouffer's – and I didn't even get the account! Go figure!

TNH: Mr. Lois, you have had such successes; what is it that you do differently from the competition, and what does it take to remain successful?

GL: What separates me from the competition is that I create Big Ideas. Look at advertising today. You see silly ads that don’t make a point and don’t ask for the sale.

I don’t understand how you can do advertising and not ask for the sale. In my infamous Maypo commercials in which I used Mickey Mantle, Wilt Chamberlain, and four other famous athletes, I had them ask for the sale six times by saying, “I want my Maypo!" Big Ideas create seismic shifts in the culture and, at the same time, sell my clients' products.

To remain successful, you need to be ahead of the culture, predict the culture, and then when you create your Big Ideas, you can shape the culture.

ESPN came to me in the 1980s when their TV network was in dire straits. My ‘In Your Face’ campaign turned ESPN around and turned them into the world's premier sports news and information network.

TNH: What is aesthetics to you? Are you unconventional? What happens when they doubt you?

GL: If you look at my work, there’s no single line, point, dot, or word that is not there for a reason. Aesthetics are essential – but at the same time, superficial. The whole idea is creating an idea – an idea that sells.

I’m a revolutionary!

Clients come to me when they desperately need a Big Idea. And if a client doubts me, they don’t run my advertising. And it’s their loss because I’ve made millionaires from paupers.

TNH: Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self?

GL: I would tell myself to read DAMN GOOD ADVICE –  my book of advice to young people on how to live their lives and be productive and successful.

TNH: What is life all about?

GL: Life is about family and living a successful, productive life of helping your community and fellow man.

TNH: What is the best thing you did in your life?

GL: My great friend Muhammad Ali and I formed a national committee, with the help of dozens and dozens of other celebrities, to free the innocent Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter from a lifetime of incarceration. I cannot stand it when I see racial injustice, bigotry, and hatred.

TNH: Mr. Luke Lois, you started Good Karma Creative. How ‘present’ are you?

Luke Lois: When George closed his advertising agency in 2000, he wanted to keep working but didn’t want the expenses and pressure of having employees. So we have kept Good Karma Creative small – usually just the two of us. If we need additional help or a project requires a particular photographer, illustrator, director, account man, media company – we would bring/hire whatever assistance was needed.

So, I’m very ‘present’. I do all the computer work – layouts, mechanicals, typography, photography, retouching – and consult on the creative with George. I help with writing copy, book keeping, accounting.

TNH: Luke, which character trait has led to your successful career?

LL: Persistence. I find that I am constantly recreating myself. I began my career as an advertising and editorial photographer – photographing people, places, and products. Then I began directing television commercials. Soon after, I started Good Karma Creative, where my father and I have been creating ad campaigns, branding, logos, and books for the last 20 years.

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