Advertising legend George Lois passes at 91

(George Lois’ book that inspired advertising creatives)

He was the reason an entire generation of advertising men and women got into the business. George Lois, the self-proclaimed creator of “The Big Idea,” who inspired advertisers, claimed credit for “I want My MTV” and designed some 90 Esquire Magazine covers has died. Lois was 91.

Lois’ son, the photographer Luke Lois, said he died “peacefully” Friday at his home in Manhattan.

The son of Greek immigrants, Lois was born in New York City on June 26, 1931. Lois attended The High School of Music & Art, and received a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University, although he chose to attend art college, Pratt Institute.

He attended only one year at Pratt, then left to work for Art Director Club Hall of Famer, Reba Sochis, until he was drafted six months later by the Army to fight in the Korean War.

After returning home from the war, Lois went to work for the advertising and promotions department at CBS where he designed print and media projects. In 1959 he was hired by the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (aka DDB).

After one year there, Lois teamed with Fred Papert and Julian Koenig to form ad agency Papert Koenig Lois in 1960.

In 1967, he left to form Lois, Holland, Callaway. His last agency, Lois/USA, which created memorable campaigns for clients such as Minolta, Tourneau, and The Four Seasons, ended its run in 1999.

Nicknamed the “Original Mad Man,” Lois was among a wave of advertisers who launched the “Creative Revolution” in American Advertising in the 1960’s.

Lois introduced and popularized the Xerox culture; he created the concept and prototype design for the New York supplement for the Herald Tribune (the forerunner of New York magazine); made a failing MTV a huge success with his “I Want My MTV” campaign; helped create and introduce VH1; created a new marketing category, Gourmet Frozen Foods, with his name Lean Cuisine; and (by inventing yet another new marketing phenomenon) persuaded America to change their motor oil at thousands of Jiffy Lube stations.

Lois is responsible for making the totally obscure Tommy Hilfiger immediately famous with just one ad; and saved USA Today from extinction with his breakthrough “singing” TV campaign.

In 1994, almost overnight, he changed the perception of ESPN from a “Demolition Derby” sports channel to the number one sports network with his dynamic “In Your Face” campaign.

Additionally, Lois created the winning ad campaigns for four U.S. Senators: Jacob Javits (R-NY); Warren Magnuson (D-WA); Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-PA); Robert Kennedy (D-NY). His list of breakthrough ad campaigns goes on and on.

The only music video he created, Jokerman by Bob Dylan, won the MTV Best Music Video of the Year Award in 1983.

Lois’ Esquire magazine covers, from Muhammad Ali posing as the martyr Saint Sebastian to Andy Warhol sinking in a sea of Campbell’s tomato soup, defined the hyper spirit of the ’60s as much as Norman Rockwell’s idealized drawings for the Saturday Evening Post summoned an earlier era.

And in 2008, the Museum of Modern Art installed 38 of his iconic Esquire covers in its permanent collection, celebrated by a year-long exhibit: George Lois: The Esquire Covers @ MoMA.

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 is the only person in the world inducted into The Art Directors Hall of FameThe One Club Creative Hall of Fame, with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, CLIO, and the Society of Publication Designers, as well as a subject of the Master Series at the School of Visual Arts.


He was also a prolific author. He is the author of George, be careful (Saturday Review Press, 1972), an autobiography; The Art of Advertising (Abrams, 1976), praised as “the bible of mass communications”; What’s the Big Idea? (Doubleday, 1991), used as a text book in college communications courses all over the world; Covering the ’60s (The Monacelli Press, 1996), presenting his iconic Esquire covers during that turbulent decade; $ellebrity (Phaidon, 2003), a brilliantly reviewed book dealing with his extraordinary campaigns using celebrities in fresh and outrageous ways; Ali Rap, The First Heavyweight Champion of Rap (Taschen/ESPN, 2006), a compilation of over 300 rap rhythms, witticisms, insults and wisecracks from Muhammad Ali, wittily and powerfully visualized; and Iconic America (Rizzoli/Universe, 2007), a roller-coaster ride through the eye-popping panorama of American pop culture;  George Lois on his Creation of The Big Idea (Assouline, 2008), a mind-boggling archaeological dig revealing the influences on 100 of his Big Ideas and more.

Lois’ longtime wife, Rosemary Lewandowski Lois, died in September. A son, Harry Joseph Lois, died in 1978.

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