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Business Analysis & Features

George Lois: 'Adverts these days are terrible'

Outspoken as ever, the original Mad Man, famed for Esquire's powerful covers, talks to Mark McSherry

George Lois has never been shy when it comes to talking about his own achievements – and why should he be?

He's the art director who created Esquire magazine front covers so powerful they have been displayed in New York's Museum of Modern Art, and he's cited as the inspirations behind Mad Men's Don Draper.

Lois' Esquire covers include a portrayal of Muhammad Ali striking the pose of Christian martyr St Sebastian in 1968; Sonny Liston, the heavyweight boxing champion, as a black Santa Claus during the high racial tension of 1963; and Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell's soup in 1969.

When the American Society of Magazine Editors named its Top 40 magazine covers of the last 40 years in 2005, the Ali and Warhol fronts were in the top five.

Lois' successful advertising campaigns include the "I Want My MTV" slots on television that ended up in a Dire Straits song, and adverts comparing fashion newcomer Tommy Hilfiger to Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis. They made Hilfiger famous overnight.

In his heyday, Lois was advertising's bad boy – bold, brash and brazen and he didn't care who knew it. Some rivals even accused him of exaggerating his contribution to certain campaigns. But it's water off a duck's back.

Sitting in his Greenwich Village apartment, his stories of New York advertising's golden age are full of mischief, stunts, humour – and lots of detail on the big ideas that made Lois famous.

He said his work was reflecting the zeitgeist of the time.

His work as an advertising art director got so much attention that Esquire editor Harold Hayes took him to lunch and asked him to do a cover for him. Lois ended up designing 92 covers from 1962 to 1972.

"Every third or fourth cover I'd call up Harold and say 'Harold this one is going to get us in trouble'," said Lois.

Lois also collaborated work with Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bobby Kennedy, Ed Koch, the former New York mayor, and Mickey Mantle, the baseball player.

He says he turned down $100,000 (£59,000) a year to work for David Ogilvy in 1959 – a salary almost unheard of in the sector at the time.

"People said 'how can you turn that money down' and I said 'easy' … I would have killed the guy," explains Lois.

"I said… I can't work for Ogilvy – I respect the man, but he's got a million rules. There's not one word in his book Confessions of an Advertising Man that I agree with."

Now aged 82, Lois is clearly proud of the role he played in advertising's golden age, when practitioners such as Bill Bernbach, Mary Wells and Phyllis Robinson helped lift the industry out of its cheesy jingle mediocrity and raise it to a higher, more creative, plane.

Before Bernbach, copy writers and art directors worked on different floors. Bernbach made them work together and, as sparks flew, advertising got a lot better.

Madison Avenue's period of creative revolution is celebrated in the 2009 documentary Art & Copy in which Lois plays a starring role.

Having been part of this revolution, Lois says he is disappointed with Mad Men, which he calls "a dark, miserable show".

How so? "The reason I hate it is because they told the world they were going to do a show based on advertising in the 1960s.

"Well, advertising in the 1960s was an heroic age – and the agency in the programme is a scumbag agency… where the guys are racist, they are anti-Semitic, they are womanisers, they smoke and drink themselves to death, and they are trying to schtoop their secretaries.

"They have zero talent – and I was better looking than Don Draper in those days."

Lois' knowledge of history, art, theatre and arthouse cinema are central to his best work. Based on Francesco Botticini's 15-century painting of the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, his April 1968 cover depicted a persecuted Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.

Lois said he got the idea to have Warhol falling into a giant can of soup from watching the scene in the Hitchcock film North by Northwest where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint climb dangerously across the face of Mount Rushmore.

But sometimes, Lois just wanted to shock America out of its slumber.

For the December 1963 cover, Lois said the Esquire editor had one request: "Can you make it Christmassy?" – perhaps expecting a happy Norman Rockwell-esque front.

Lois gave him boxing's Sonny Liston – an ex-convict with links to the underworld – as a black Santa Claus.

"That period of time … you had white America, even liberal white America, scared shitless and I rubbed it in their faces."

What does he think of advertising today? "Terrible… nobody brands anything."

But, he adds: "I work all the time. I just came from England the other day– I knocked them on their ass.

"I can pick and choose what sounds interesting to me. I still brand."