NEW YORK – George Lois, who passed away on November 18 in Manhattan, was more than a brilliant and revolutionary ad man. He was a keen observer of cultural change and American society. The sub-headline for the New York Times story on Lois’ passing reads: “He brought the counterculture to advertising and designed memorable covers for Esquire magazine, many of them wordless critiques of American society.”
The obituary written by Robert D. McFadden, himself a legendary journalist who has been with the Times since 1961 and witnessed both the world and the impact Lois had on it, writes, “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.”
McFadden continues: “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.” He did note however, in his book Damn Good Advice, “when I was in my 30s I was better looking than Don Draper.”
And he did have a catchy formula for his great success, what he called “the Big Idea” – encapsulating “the unique virtues of a product and searing it into people´s minds.”
George Harry Lois was born in Manhattan on June 26, 1931. His parents, Harry and Vasilike (Thanasoulis) Lois, were Greek immigrants and his father was a florist. George and his sisters, Paraskeve and Hariclea, grew up in the Bronx.
Fiercely proud of his Greek heritage and delighted to be known as ‘The Golden Greek’, he believed strongly in giving back to the homeland. His 1985 campaign for Greek tourism is legendary. Lois recruited non-Greek celebrities who declared: “I’m going home to Greece…where it all began.” George and his son Luke wanted to resurrect the highly successful campaign in recent years. One attempt came close, but Greek demands reportedly made it impossible.
The Associated Press writes that Lois “would cite the racism of his Irish neighborhood for his drive ‘to awaken, to disturb, to protest.’ He liked to say that a successful advertiser absorbed as many influences as possible, and he prided himself on his knowledge of everything from sports to ballet. He was a compulsive drawer and for much of his life made weekly visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
He graduated from the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan in 1949 and “after a year and a half at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn” – where he met his wife – “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,” according to The Times.
From 1960 to 1967 he was a partner with Papert Koenig Lois and then founded Lois Holland Callaway. He was its chairman and chief executive until 1976. After working at Creamer/FSR he founded Lois/EJL in 1978 he eventually served as chairman and creative director before it closed in 1999. Lois then founded Good Karma Creative with his son Luke Lois, working and creating nearly until his death.
Lois was a member of 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.
The Associated Press noted that, “George Lois was among a wave of advertisers who launched the ‘Creative Revolution’ that jolted Madison Avenue and the world beyond in the late 1950s and ’60s. He was boastful and provocative, willing and able to offend, and was a master of finding just the right image or words to capture a moment or create a demand.”
Lois, most famous for his Esquire magazine covers, “from Muhammad Ali posing as the martyr Saint Sebastian to Andy Warhol sinking in a sea of Campbell’s tomato soup,” AP said he “defined the hyper spirit of the ’60s as much as Norman Rockwell’s idealized drawings for the Saturday Evening Post summoned an earlier era,” leading to his Esquire work being added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
AP continued, “as an ad man, he devised breakthrough strategies for Xerox and Stouffer’s and helped an emerging music video channel in the 1980s by suggesting ads featuring Mick Jagger and other rock stars demanding, with mock-petulance, ‘I Want My MTV!’” That campaign echoed his earlier “I want my Maypo!” ads which featured sports superstars like Mickey Mantle.