Lee Clow has surfed his final advertising wave. The legendary creative leader, who conceived some of advertising’s most iconic campaigns and helped transform a little-known computer company named Apple into a global powerhouse, announced on Feb. 14 that he is stepping down as global director of media arts at TBWA.
His retirement brings down the curtain on a singular 50-year career, much of it spent at the vanguard of creativity.
Clow is among a group of creative leaders—among them BBH’s John Hegarty and Wieden+Kennedy’s Dan Wieden—who transcended their respective agencies to become advertising icons, respected and revered in equal measure.
An L.A. native with a fondness for denim shirts and flip-flops, Clow, 73, is the embodiment of a California surfer dude. But he would prove as adept as making waves as he was catching them—helping transform Chiat\Day from a West Coast upstart into a creative powerhouse capable of going toe-to-toe with the Madison Avenue stalwarts.
Clow crossed paths with several prominent Canadian agency veterans during his more than 50 years in advertising.
“He’s the last of the Bill Bernbachs,” said Geoffrey Roche, the first non-LA employee at Chiat\Day’s New York office—which was opened to service the Suntory Whisky account—when he arrived in 1980. “You worked for Chiat\Day because of Jay Chiat and Lee Clow, who was an incredibly talented creative person.”
A 2006 profile in Advertising Age hailing Clow as the ad industry’s “creative godfather” stated that younger creatives considered him “mean.” But Jack Neary, who reported into Clow during his time as senior vice-president, creative director of Chiat\Day Toronto in the late 1980s and early 1990s, remembers him as “gentle, generous and hugely inspiring.”
He also maintained an unwavering commitment to producing what Neary describes as “really big, famous work.”
So much of the work that bore Clow’s imprimatur, from the Energizer Bunny to “Yo quiero Taco Bell” and Adidas’ “Impossible is Nothing,” would transcend advertising, becoming part of the pop culture firmament.
According to Neary, Clow possessed an almost preternatural ability to suss out winning ideas. “It was uncanny how Lee could wade through so many scribbles of ideas and pull out the one that had gold at its heart,” he said. “He could blow away all the extraneous crap and get right to that one nugget that had real potential. And he’d always have a comment or two that would elevate the idea even more.”
But for all the acclaim bestowed upon Clow’s work with brands like Adidas, Pedigree and Taco Bell, it is his 30-year association with Apple—and his close relationship with the company’s late leader Steve Jobs—that ultimately defines his six-decade carer in advertising.
From the legendary “1984” Super Bowl ad for Macintosh, to the “Think Different (Here’s to the Crazy Ones)” campaign that signalled the company’s 1997 rebirth, to its subsequent “Silhouettes” work for the iPod and the “Get a Mac (Mac vs. PC)” campaign, Clow was the creative mastermind behind work that transformed a brand appealing primarily to tech geeks into the world’s first US$1 trillion company.
“[His] body of work over five decades hums with cleverness, warmth and enthusiasm,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook in a release announcing Clow’s departure. “And there is no doubt that it will inspire and motivate generations of ‘Crazy Ones’ still to come.”
But Clow also helped inform the creative direction for some prominent Canadian brands. Nabs Canada executive director Jay Bertram first encountered Clow while he was a young account director at Chiat\Day in 1989.
Overcoming his intense dislike of flying, Clow would travel from the west coast to Chiat\Day’s Toronto office to offer guidance on what became the popular “La Beer” campaign for Labatt Dry, said Bertram.
“My first [impression on] meeting with this icon was that he was the most humble and gentle man,” said Bertram. “He said something that has always stuck with me: ‘There’s always a better idea out there, we just run out of time.’ It was his way of saying don’t fall in love with your ideas too quickly.”
Bertram would find himself on Clow’s radar in the early 1990s. It was after Clow raised the question “What do account people do anyway?” Bertram and future MacLaren McCann president and CEO Doug Turney responded by assembling a short film explaining the account person’s role at Chiat Day. “Lee loved it, and we became infamous within the Chiat\Day world,” said Bertram.
But while Clow has earned a reputation as a kindly, beneficent leader in recent years, creatives who reported to him also knew that he could be exacting and bloody-minded when it came to the work.
“We’d go to these meetings in Seattle, or San Francisco or L.A. and you’d have to show the previous six months of work to Lee,” recalled Roche, who reported into Clow while CD at Chiat\Day in New York, Seattle (where it operated as Chiat-Day-Livingston) and later Toronto.
Excuses about client budgets, or the fact they didn’t use as much TV, etc. simply didn’t matter to Clow. “You would sometimes come out of those meetings so bloodied,” recalled Roche. “It would just be awful.”
Ultimately, Clow was able to extract the best from creatives because they felt the need to deliver, said Roche. “If you put yourself in a situation where there are higher expectations on what you’re going to deliver, of course you’re going to do better,” he said. “The tone was set by Lee; he was the creative director of the whole thing. You knew you were meant to step up and perform.”
By all accounts, Clow knew several months ago that it was time for him to step down. He quietly announced his plans to retire to agency staff, alumni and close friends at an October 2018 birthday party for his longtime business associate Jay Chiat. The party was part part of the year-long “Chiat\Day 50” celebration marking the agency’s half-century.
Clow shared the news publicly in a Feb. 14 letter, a nod to Chiat’s longstanding tradition of sending Valentine’s Day cards to staff, colleagues and clients. “The years I spent doing this thing called advertising have been fun, challenging, rewarding, maddening, sometimes painful, but mostly joyful,” wrote Clow. “And I wouldn’t trade a day of it for anything else.”
He leaves behind an immense legacy. “He’s given way more than he’s taken from the industry, in terms of work ethic, the number of people he’s taught and trained and the famous campaigns he created. It’s all remarkable,” said Bertram. “I don’t see it as a loss, but a celebration of an incredible talent.”
Clow plans to move into an advisory role as chairman emeritus of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, the agency he founded in 2006 to serve Apple and his vision of an agency that impacts culture, rather than just “makes ads.” Lee Clow’s perfect wave may have crested, but it hasn’t quite reached the shore.