Illustration by Daiana Feuer
Tags: Q&A

George Lois Talks Mad Men and Hands Out Damn Good Advice

The advertising legend explains what Madison Avenue was really like in the 1960s and why successful women are hot sh*t.
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"Everyone says it's a fun show, but it's total bullshit."

Eighty-year-old George Lois is entitled to his opinion of Mad Men, especially since he practically inspired the show. After six decades in the ad industry, he's qualified to tell us what it was really like to work in advertising — and it's nothing like you see on television.

Even if you're not familiar with his name, you know his work. Lois has come up with ad campaigns for hundreds of iconic brands, from American Airlines and Xerox to ESPN and TIME magazine, to name a few. He's designed memorable logos for the likes of Nickelodeon and Jiffy Lube and prompted thousands to demand, "I want my MTV." In 1968, his Esquire cover of Mohammed Ali as Saint Sebastian became nearly as famous as the patron saint himself.

Lois is also the author of 10 books, his latest being Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!): How To Unleash Your Creative Potential by America's Master Communicator, and man, can he give it to us—straight.

A native New Yorker with a Greek heritage, Lois might come across a bit rough around the edges, but he's actually a charming, highly intelligent man with a lot to say, even if he likes to use foul language.

He adores strong women and big ideas, and he wants his fans to succeed in work, love and life.

We caught up with Mr. Lois (as he likes to be called) from his home in New York to hear his thoughts about Mad Men, women and why we should take his Damn Good Advice.

Damn Good Interview with Mr. Lois
How do you feel about being called "the original mad man"?

I'm being called that out of respect, so it's a little hard to explain why it pisses me off. See, they called me before the show came out and said, "We're trying to round up actual ad men of the 1960s, and everyone we talked to mentioned you." So in the beginning, I thought it was going to be about the creative evolution of the 60s. It was such a heroic period in advertising, literally changing the culture. But the show is total bullshit! And I don't bear no resemblance to no Don Draper. First of all, I'm talented.

So it's safe to say you don't like Mad Men.

I watched it the other night, and it's more disgraceful than I've already said it was. Every man in that show is a despicable WASP, anti-Semitic, son-of-a-bitch. There are [those] who like the show because they say they're telling it like it is, that women were playthings, they were taken advantage of. But how can you look at what's going on at that ad agency and say you'd want to set foot in there? I just don't understand the popularity of that show.

If you came across Don Draper at a meeting in the 1960s, what would you say to him?

I'd throw him out the window!

What does Mad Men get wrong about the 1960s ad world?

People constantly call me the "real" Don Draper, but my life was nothing like that! The show misses the mark by a mile. What you're watching isn't the generation of the most dynamic and innovative creatives the advertising world has ever seen. It's a bunch of hacks! There's no sense of the growing understanding of the "big idea" in advertising. Where's the brilliant marriage of copy and image? Where's the social consciousness? And more importantly, where's the enjoyment? Don Draper and his cohorts are miserable men trapped in a miserable work environment with miserable home lives. It just wasn't like that. I was up at 5:30am and in the office by 6:30am every day, and I didn't leave until late at night. But let me tell you, I enjoyed every minute of it, and so did everyone else! And when we weren't in the office, we weren't off cavorting with the secretarial pool. We were home with our families, or we were out on the basketball court or baseball field. The real mad men and our families bear little to no resemblance to anything portrayed on that show. It's insulting — not only to the men, but to our wives, as well. I would never in a million years have dreamed of cheating on [my wife] Rosie! And believe you me, she's no Betty Draper sitting up in Connecticut and worrying about Jell-O salads. You want proof? Check out point 72 in the book.

Have you met any of Mad Men's creators, or any of the actors on the show?

I went to a party for Mad Men, and Matthew Weiner was there. I said, "Mr. Weiner, my name is George Lois." He almost shit in his pants. He was very complimentary, almost to the point of being silly. He said, "You are very important to the show," and I said, "In what way?!" But Jon Hamm was there, too. He was so excited meeting me, I fell in love with the guy. He said, "I know everything you did. My God, I'm so thrilled..." He went on and on, and he meant it. I tell you, I really like the guy. Weiner, I got no respect for.

The show has helped get your new book, Damn Good Advice, before the public. Do you put your personal feelings aside in order to generate publicity for a campaign?

Anything I've said about a product always came from the heart. I refused to work on cigarettes throughout my career, when people still didn't think they caused cancer. I never smoked a day in my life. Bob Dylan used to make fun of me because I didn't smoke reefers. My job is to make the product I'm working on seem better than the other guy's. I can't prove that it is better, but I can prove that it's going to be a lot more fun.

How do you feel about the idea that women are the new men?

I think it's great. In one of my ads, I show a picture of a beautiful blonde woman shaving. It was a time when women's lib didn't show itself, but if you're a communicator, you smell the culture, and you knew it was coming. So many women were brainy, and they had balls. Even back then, I thought, "If you don't think a woman can kick your ass in business, you got another thing coming, because they're doing it now." My whole career, I worked with women — some of the toughest, most terrific, apeshit strong women in the world. I'm surrounded by really great women, and I got one at home. My wife works with me — she was an art director. I've always been faithful to my wife; you'd have to be out of your mind not to be. It's one thing to be lucky in your work and career, it's another to have a mate to share it with. So I'm surrounded by you broads, and boy, do I love it. Great women are hot shit!

Tell us more about your new book, Damn Good Advice.

Listen to me: If you want to be terrific, don't take the advice of all those assholes who don't know shit. You gotta not only do great work, you gotta be a good person. And in order to do innovative, exciting, dramatic work that is unusual — in any field — you have to be courageous. When I did those Esquire covers that are in the Museum of Modern Art, I didn't need the courage to do the work. I did these very iconic covers that were shocking, but I didn't need balls. The editor needed balls to say, "Hey, Lois knows what he's doing. I love his covers.” I'm saying, use your head. Think things through. You gotta be proud of yourself. You gotta believe in something. You can't live a bullshit life.

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