How the Lee Clow Talent Tree Spreads Far and Wide in Advertising and Creativity

An outsized impact on careers and lives

Lee Clow (left) and Jay Chiat in 1984. Norman Seeff Studio

The “coaching tree” is a familiar phenomenon in football. Much like a family tree, some of the most successful coaches in the sport can trace their lineage back to a legend who gave them the chance to earn their keep. In advertising, the theory of the coaching tree is pertinent as some of advertising’s earlier leaders counted Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy as not only legends but as key mentors.

Many of today’s top leaders can also recall the moments that gave them confidence—and can point to prominent people who propelled them to successful, productive and rewarding careers. Lee Clow, who yesterday officially announced his retirement, is one of a handful of creative leaders who planted the seeds that helped grow some of the biggest names in the business.

Yet, and let’s be honest, he really isn’t going anywhere. There is a convenience in the word “retirement,” but thankfully, in his new capacity, Clow will continue to inspire the industry’s people and work.

Jeff Goodby, no creative slouch himself, put it most succinctly and may speak for many when he said: “As a reasonable spokesperson for the industry, your request for retirement has been denied.”

In looking back, we asked how Clow impacted advertising and creativity.

Colleen DeCourcy, co-president and chief creative officer, Wieden + Kennedy

DeCourcy was the chief digital officer at TBWA and worked with Clow on Pepsi and Gatorade

Lee is the only legendary creative I ever worked with who truly didn’t give a fuck about “the ad” in isolation. He wanted to own the air the brand moved through, the sky and the ground around it. Lee forced you to dream beyond the script.

Lee loved the art of the big orchestrated brand act.

As a young creative, I would draw huge paper maps of the way a brand could impact the world and then have and place ideas across it for each of those moments. Lee didn’t look down on that—he called it Media Arts. Brand Belief + Brand Behavior. He still informs my creativity, every day.

Gerry Graf, CCO, Barton F. Graf

Graf was executive creative director at Chiat/Day N.Y. from 2004 to 2008

There has never been a better visual artist than Lee Clow. The woman throwing the hammer in 1984, the Nike Olympics takeover of L.A., Barbie driving away from Ken in the red toy Nissan, the yellow and black of the ABC TV stuff, he even made the white tangly cord of the iPod earbuds famous. We have all these amazing, disruptive images burned into our brains because of Lee.

Lee hired me to run the creative department of Chiat N.Y. He believed in what I wanted to do, and I had his full support. I never felt the hand of Chiat L.A. forcing me to do things. He was always there when I needed help, but he left me alone in N.Y. to die or succeed. (We succeeded.)

Margaret Keene, executive creative director, MullenLowe L.A.

Keene was at Chiat/Day from 1992 to 2011 and became group creative director

Lee is the greatest advertising artist of all time. Imagine Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley and Vincent van Gogh rolled into one guy. That’s him. He has a brilliant twinkle that I imagine most creative geniuses possess and he should have definitely been added to (Apple’s) The Crazy Ones. He has influenced you whether you know it or not and everything you’ve done that is beautiful and funny and unique in this industry has probably been done better before, by him. But he’d never tell you that.

With Lee, you knew immediately if you had a good idea. He could see in an instant, even if it was just a kernel, something truly great. His steel blue eyes would light up, his laser focus would kick in (even if he had ten, mind-numbing client meetings that day) and he would in an instant, say something to make it thousand times better than you ever imagined. If he said, “Just don’t fuck it up,” you knew you had something really special.

I can’t begin to thank him for the profound impact he has had on my life. He showed me that advertising can be art and taught me that a great idea can come from anywhere and anyone. He believed in me, and many other women, way before it was cool and gave us every opportunity to be successful. And most of all, he has been the best example of pure respect, love and devotion for his partner that I have ever seen.

Rob Schwartz, CEO, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York

Schwartz was CCO at TBWA\Chiat\Day in L.A.

I grew up in New York City. I fell in love with advertising when I saw a billboard for the NYNEX yellow pages featuring a sleeping bull. I wanted to find out who created that. It turned out it was Chiat/Day. From that day forward I read everything about the agency and this creative force at the helm of the agency, Lee Clow. I realized that all of these ads I loved were done by him: Apple, Nissan, Energizer. Chiat was the only agency I wanted to work at. And he was the guy I wanted to learn from.

His impact is enormous. He helped show the world that advertising could be likable and cool. He invented the Super Bowl commercial with “1984.” He taught five generations of creative people how to be leaders. And not for nothing, he continually reminds the world that dogs are the noblest creatures on the planet.

Margaret Johnson, CCO, partner, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

The first thing I think of when I think of Lee Clow is a sledgehammer smashing through a screen. He never stopped breaking heroic new ground.

Rich Silverstein, co-chairman and partner, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners

A true Mad Man from the Pacific coast. A surfer dude of extraordinary talent. He’s truly made from the “real stuff.”

David Angelo, founder and chairman, David&Goliath

Angelo was associate creative director and art director on the Reebok account for Chiat/Day New York

I remember working with Lee late one night in the New York office. We were gearing up to present work to our Reebok client the next day, and Lee flew out to New York specifically for our presentation. He had given me some direction for the campaign we were presenting, and, if you’ve ever worked with Lee, you know that his guidance is golden.

At around 2 a.m. we finished, but couldn’t find Lee. We looked everywhere. A few hours later, he appeared, somewhat winded. I asked him where he was, and he told me that he was running up and down what seemed to be an endless flight of stairs because my dog was stuck in the stairwell, and he was trying to rescue him. It was at that point that I realized this man was not only a creative genius but also had a huge heart.

Craig Allen, CCO, Callen

Allen worked with Clow at Chiat/Day

Chiat/Day was my first job in advertising, and it had an incredible bearing on who I am today. I attribute this largely to Lee Clow and the culture he helped create. I was fortunate enough to work with him on several occasions and although those moments were brief, I still very much hear his advice echo in my head to this day. The work he and Chiat/Day did is a big reason why I ended up in advertising in the first place.

Chuck McBride, founder and CCO, Cutwater

McBride worked with Clow at Chiat/Day as executive creative director from 2000 to 2007

Lee’s no different from Bill Bernbach or George Lois. He’s a legend in his own lifetime. A master. A genius. And for a guy that never had his name on the door, there’s no doubt TBWA\Chiat\Day was Lee’s place.

But what makes him so special is his humility. He told me, “I don’t think I’m a genius, but I am resilient.”

He almost singlehandedly ushered in an area of West Coast thinking that changed the way the world looked at advertising. It was brave, iconic and reckless, clearly marking the time when New York City lost its hold as the center of the advertising industry.

Lee would always be personally involved in the work. To have the body of work that came out of his shop for 50+ years may never be duplicated. He’s set a very high bar for any agency or creative to get over. And few ever will.

Thas Naseemuddeen, chief strategy officer, Omelet

Naseemuddeen was a strategic planner at TBWA\Chiat\Day in 2010 and 2011

I was ready to run from this industry eight years ago when I watched a documentary with him in it and was inspired to give it one more go. By luck and circumstance, I landed a job at Chiat/Day L.A. a few months later, and on my first day, I sat alone waiting for orientation, and I looked up as Lee Clow was walking through the Chiat tunnel and he just said: “Welcome to your first day.” It’s all been history from there.

Jerry McGee, executive vice president, 4As Western Region

When I was the CEO of Ogilvy Los Angeles, I had the great misfortune of having to compete against Lee and Chiat/Day when we were in new business competition. We always felt like a Little League pitcher going up against the great Babe Ruth.

His creative brilliance endures and is a constant reminder to all those who labor in the creative vineyards that “If it’s been done, do it better. If it hasn’t been done, do it so well that better isn’t an option.”

He may retire from our business, but his inspiration is hard at work every day.

Jason Sperling, senior vp, chief, creative development, RPA

Sperling was a writer and creative director on Apple from 2005 to 2010 under Clow, notably on the “Mac vs. PC” campaign and the iPhone and iPad launches

Lee was a tremendous role model. The most important lessons I took away were to be brave in your thinking, indulge your creative passions for as long as you can, a napkin makes an acceptable art canvas, and a T-shirt + jeans totally works.

Lee didn’t know my name for a long time after I was hired at TBWA\Chiat\Day. Then I wrote something that made him laugh out loud in a meeting. From that point on I was known as ‘funny guy.’ At some point, I think he learned my real name.

Brett Craig, CCO, Deutsch

Craig worked with Clow as a copywriter, associate creative director and creative director from 2000 to 2008

He made me care about the creative almost to the exclusion of all else. The idea is the only thing that matters. We can talk all day about strategies and agency philosophies, but it all comes down to the work. Is the idea good or not? That’s all that matters. That’s all that anyone cares about. I’m often asked what inspires creative departments. Lee knew what inspired creative people were brilliant ideas. Focusing in this way on the idea tends to remove all the extraneous politics and bologna.

Ricardo Diaz, partner, executive director of digital, Omelet

Diaz worked with Clow from 2007 to 2014 as director of creative technology

He is one of the real legends in our industry. The word “legend” gets overused these days, but Lee Clow is a true personification of someone who influenced the industry. I love that he put the West Coast on the advertising map.

Rick Boyko, former co-president and CCO at Ogilvy and VCU Brandcenter director

Boyko worked with Clow from 1982 to 1989

Lee had the unique ability to inspire all who worked for him to reach for and achieve more than they ever thought they could. His passion inspired all to reach for greatness.

Jeff Roach, president and chief strategy officer, Schiefer Chopshop

I started my advertising career by making gig posters for my band, cutting and pasting them together on a Kinkos photocopier. Then someone introduced me to a Mac at the same time as “Think Different” launched. Both challenged my understanding of what advertising could be. I was fascinated to learn that had Lee Clow rejected the grammatically correct “Think differently.” His gut to go with what everyone else would say is wrong is what made that so special.

Marianne Stefanowicz, chief communications officer, Droga5

Stefanowicz was TBWA Worldwide U.S. PR director and, ultimately, global communications head from 2007 to 2015

Everyone I know who has worked with Lee has come away better for it—better at their craft and better human beings in general. He teaches you to care deeply about what you do and genuinely love the work you are doing. You want to be your very best version of yourself when you are working with him, and I will always push myself to do the most as a result.

Brent Anderson, global CCO, TBWA\Media Arts Lab

After one of my first meetings with Lee back in 2008, he sent me an email. A simple note, in true Lee fashion, It was one of the most memorable and motivational messages I’d ever received. It simply read: “Brent, I love how much you care.” (signed) “Lee.” That sparked something in me and made me want to work harder and be even better.

I tried to care every day. Lee often said that the foundation of his relationship with Steve Jobs was that Steve knew Lee really cared for Apple as much as he cared for Apple. When you find something you care about, you never settle. Lee never settled. Even when it would have been so much easier to do so. Lee taught me the importance of caring. And the good things that come of it.

Chuck Monn, group creative director, TBWA\Media Arts Lab

A long time ago, I was a freelance junior art director, and my friend Jeff Maki was a creative assistant at Chiat/Day. We asked if we could help out on a pitch for the Olympics account. We worked all night long, sleeping a couple hours a night for a week. Until one day we finally got to pitch it to Lee. We were presenting against some of the greatest creative directors at the time. When we finished, Lee picked the work of two stupid kids to pitch and win the Olympics. It was the greatest feeling of my career, and I have been chasing it ever since. Lee didn’t care where ideas came from.

Tim Galles, chief idea officer, Barkley

Galles was an art director for Reebok at Chiat/Day in New York

One of the highlights of my career was to present at a young age to Lee and Jay Chiat in a quiet war room in the New York office at the height of the Reebok-Nike wars. They had such a dynamic relationship with each other and gave my partner and me such positive and inspiring feedback, “You’re really on to something. This is important work.” I’ll never forget the bar they set that day. It made an impact on my entire career.

Jeremy Miller, global chief communications officer, McCann Worldgroup

Miller was TBWA global head of communications from 1997 to 2012

Lee undeniably believes in the power of brands to resonate emotionally across media and express a consistent identity every time they come into contact with consumers, whether itʼs via advertising, packaging or the store experience. He, more than anyone I had the honor to work with, would fight for the power of a single minded-idea and instilled in me that all great brands have a story and our job is to tell them.

Greg Greenberg, group creative director, TBWA\Media Arts Lab

Greenberg started at MAL in 2012

I remember one time my partner and I presented an idea to him and he really liked it. He then asked us to think about what the T-shirt would be. Which I found odd at first. Everyone was talking in BS jargon about innovative-360-immersive-snackable-media friendly content, and we were being asked to make a T-shirt? I learned later that’s how simple he thought about things. If it worked on a T-shirt, it was a simple and clean idea that would work anywhere else. We could all use a bit of T-shirt thinking these days.

Duncan Miller, creative president, MAL\For Good

Miller worked with Clow for over 25 years at TBWA\Chiat\Day and MAL

At a time when all the best ads were coming out of New York, Lee showed the industry that famous, disruptive work could come out of anywhere, even a scrappy little agency in Los Angeles. Because of Lee, Chiat/Day was the only agency I really wanted to work at.

Marcus Wesson, CCO, Dailey

Wesson worked at Chiat/Day in the 1990s at the agency’s regional office

The reason I and tons of other creatives are in advertising is because of Lee. He’s one of the few people that can be both modest and badass at the same time.

Rich Siegel, freelance copywriter

Siegel worked with Clow on the ABC “Yellow” campaign in the late 1990s

Lee made me want to work harder than I ever had. Once he had a party at his house. And he showed us a huge telescope that looked out from his patio. You could see the ocean and people on the beach in Catalina. I thought, ‘Damn, I better work hard. I want one of those.’

Mark Ray, co-founder and CCO at North

Lee made it cool for art kids, weirdos, introverts, musicians, filmmakers and of course, surfers, to take the advertising profession seriously, to see it as a potential art form and cultural force.

Gina Grillo, president and CEO, The Ad Club

On an ANDY’s judging trip, we were all in awe of his presence. My husband, who isn’t in the business asked me who he was, and I said: “Advertising royalty.”

Geoff Edwards, co-founder, Saturday Morning

Helped launch Adidas’ “Impossible is Nothing” as creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day S.F.

Lee likes simple so I’ll honor that.

Thank you for giving me my first job in advertising at Chiat/Day.

The only agency that I’ve ever returned to in my 20+ year career.

Your wisdom and humanity have been my theology.

Thank you.

You’re the G.O.A.T.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.