Ad Legend Lee Clow Formally Announces His Retirement To Industry At Large
Lee Clow
TBWA global director of Media Arts, and chairman/founder of TBWA\Media Arts Lab honored with “chairman emeritus” title, and a love-filled celebration on Valentine’s Day
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Lee Clow, the visionary creative who touched the hearts of consumers and revitalized brands with iconic advertising campaigns, is retiring. 

The global director of Media Arts at worldwide advertising collective TBWA, and founder and chairman of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, will move into an advisory role as chairman emeritus of the agency he founded in 2006 to serve Apple and to embody his vision of an agency that impacts culture, rather than just “makes ads.” 

“The years I spent doing this thing called ‘advertising’ have been fun: challenging, rewarding, maddening—sometimes painful—but mostly, joyful. And I wouldn’t trade a day of it.” Clow—an original Chiat\Day partner and one-time TBWA\Worldwide Chairman—mused, in his “Love Note to Advertising,” released today. 

Clow continues to work on a personal film project that tells the story behind some of the most famous and culture-altering advertising in history, recalling his 50 years at Chiat\Day—the people, the work—and retelling how they did it. 

He will also remain involved in the agency’s social-impact group, For Good, based in Los Angeles, where he will advise on select projects for clients who share his commitment to the planet and the people (and animals) who inhabit it. 

“Don’t do the right thing,” he challenged the agency, the advertising world, and clients, on TBWA\Chiat\Day’s 50th anniversary in 2018. “Do the brave thing. Do the thing that doesn’t just defy the status quo, but reshapes it, forever.”

Clow actually announced his retirement to the agency, alumni and close friends in October 2018, at a party on Jay Chiat’s birthday, part of the year-long “Chiat\Day 50” celebration. His decision to formally now share the news with the industry on Valentine’s Day is a nod to Jay Chiat’s unconventional custom of sending Valentine’s Day cards to staff, colleagues and clients, instead of the expected, “Season’s Greetings,” typically dispatched during December holidays. 

Clow’s career, that started at Chiat\Day in LA, spans five decades. It tells a story of “doing the brave thing,” with disruptive campaigns that epitomized “California cool.” He took Chiat\Day’s creatively audacious style of advertising global when he helped lead the successful merger with TBWA, crystallizing the agency’s reputation as the destination for creative professionals who want to do groundbreaking, iconic work.

“Lee will always be our creative conscience,” said Troy Ruhanen, president and CEO, TBWA\Worldwide. “He has given so much to our company and to our industry.  His challenge to us, to do the brave thing, to Disrupt, will continue to be our North Star.”

“Lee is one of the most talented and visionary leaders in our industry,” said chairman and CEO of Omnicom Group, John Wren. “Over the past five decades, he has built a foundation of creative excellence for the TBWA network that has distinguished the agency among its peers. On behalf of the Omnicom family, I would like to thank Lee for his invaluable leadership and significant contributions to our group.” 

There’s perhaps no better example of Clow’s impact on the industry than his 30-plus-year partnership with Apple. From the launch of Macintosh in 1984, to the now-famous “Think Different (Here’s to the Crazy Ones)” campaign that launched the rebirth of Apple in 1997. During the past two decades he helped orchestrate Apple’s moves, into music with iPod and iTunes with the celebrated “Silhouettes” campaign, into phones with the category-redefining iPhone and then, creating the “campaign of the decade,” “Get a Mac (Mac versus PC).” Then, he helped Apple forge a whole new category with iPad. Most recently, Clow led the creative teams that launched Apple Music into the world, and worked on the introduction of Apple Watch.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, added: “During his long partnership with Steve (Jobs) and Apple, Lee told powerful visual stories that elevated new technologies with the passion, creativity and ingenuity that define our own humanity. He helped Apple carry itself through times of challenge, and his work inspired audiences to look beyond the horizon as an exciting future came into view. Lee’s body of work over five decades hums with cleverness, warmth and enthusiasm—and there is no doubt that it will inspire and motivate generations of ‘Crazy Ones’ still to come.”

Lee Clow/Steve Jobs connection
In 2011, SHOOT’s Agency of the Year coverage featured the observations of several key players at TBWA\Chiat\Day and TBWA\Media Arts Lab, none more key than Clow. An icon in his own right, Clow offered reflections on another icon, the late Steve Jobs--chairman, CEO and co-founder of Apple--with whom he made advertising/marketing history. After a first go-around which yielded the classic Apple “1984,” the commercial that put the Super Bowl on its path to becoming an advertising event, Jobs returned in 1997 to the company that had ousted him. He immediately sought out Clow. 

“I remember Steve telling me that Apple was in big trouble and he wanted to save it,” Clow told SHOOT editor Robert Goldrich in 2011. “We were in a fire drill mode and the ‘Think Different’ campaign and the ‘Crazy Ones’ commercial were part of the reassertion that Apple was going to find its soul again. Steve was speaking to the public but also to Apple itself and the software developers. He didn’t have any new computers or product to point to yet. So he pointed to what made Apple great. ‘Think Different’ was a promise that Apple would get back to its values and what he and Apple’s customers believed in. Less than a year later, the iMac was unveiled and the turnaround of the company was underway.” 

A few years later “Think Different” is what Clow, Jobs and their colleagues applied to the agency itself handling Apple. From that thinking came the formation of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, a separate unit dedicated to Apple. 

“We built this unit for a perfectionist communications genius,” said Clow in reference to Jobs. “We built it to give Steve the security and consistency of talent he demanded.” 

Clow explained that security was very much “needed because there was stuff on the office walls that needed to be kept under wraps, new Apple innovations. Security on our shoots and at the Media Arts Lab offices is tight--that’s not paranoia. It was part of Steve’s communications strategy. He was P.T. Barnum who at the right moment would say, ‘Ta-dah, look what we just did.’ We worked in a unique way for a unique guy. 

“Steve came to every marketing meeting every week,” continued Clow. Here’s the chief executive making that commitment when for other clients you often don’t have ad managers who show up for each week’s marketing meeting. We built Media Arts Lab totally around the dedication of our people to the things that Steve wanted us to deliver.” 

Clow observed that Jobs “understood early on that everything a brand does is advertising. The ad agency has to be the keeper of the flame--one who understands the core belief and soul of the brand and to make sure everything the brand does and says stays true to that emotional center...We are in charge of finding the soul and center of a brand and trying to tell stories that reflect that core, that do in fact resonate in the culture and give people something to tweet about, talk about and relate to in some meaningful way. The center of it is that a brand has to have some kind of passion, a soul.”

Now the agency will continue to serve Apple around the world—led by global president of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, Katrien De Bauw, and by global chief creative officer, Brent Anderson—and to set global creative standards. In 2018, Media Arts Lab won 64 awards: for the launch of HomePod, with its Cannes Lions Grand Prix-winning film, “Welcome Home”; for the evolution of its “Shot on iPhone” campaign into long-form content across the globe (notably, the film, “Three Minutes,” in China), and into social media, with @apple; and for its “Behind the Mac” campaign (including an animated short for Apple’s holiday campaign called, “Share Your Gifts”).

“In constantly pushing ourselves to reach the creative standard he set, we are better than we ever could imagine being,” said Anderson, adding that, “So we’ll do just as he always asked us to do: ‘Make it smart. Make it beautiful. And have fun.’” 

California roots
Clow often credits his artful, freethinking, creative style to his California roots. To celebrate his outstanding contributions to the creative community, and his love for his hometown, the agency has established a scholarship at the College of the Arts—School of Art at Clow’s alma mater, California State University Long Beach (CSULB). Additionally, all proceeds from his film project will go into a college fund previously established in Clow’s and Chiat’s names at Art Center College of Design, which was created to assist low- and middle-income students with tuition fees and costs. 

Also, TBWA agencies in Los Angeles will continue to honor Clow’s impact on the Southern California creative community by partnering with Turnaround Arts: California, a national, public-private partnership that leverages the arts to spark transformation in the state’s highest-need schools. Agency leaders and staff will work with Turnaround Arts educators on programs that will bolster the creative skills of teachers and students, including hosting workshops focused on graphic design, coding and creative problem-solving.

Clow is a member of the One Club Hall of Fame, the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and the Museum of Modern Art’s Advertising Hall of Fame, and has been honored by the Clios with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and by Cannes Lions with the Lion of St. Mark. Clow was also inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame and the American Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame. 


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