Monday, July 26, 2010

That's Mighty Small of You

Today, as I was procrastinating on an elliptical trainer, I happened to hear an old This American Life segment on NPR about a dispute between two ancient advertising legends; Julian Koenig and George Lois...both of early Doyle Dane Bernbach fame. Apparently George Lois (decidedly more famous among us history-of-advertising nerds than Koenig) has been taking credit for coming up with campaigns and even famous headlines he had nothing to do with. This just in. Lois has always been known for that. His primary reputation is for having an ego with it's own gravitational field.

But Julian Koenig, a one-time creative partner of Lois, has been fighting a  running feud with his Voldemort for years. Everyone who knows industry history knows it was Koenig and Helmut Krone who originally conceived the famous "Think Small"  ad for Volkswagen in the early 60s--an ad rated by Ad Age as the best ad ever created. But George Lois has been claiming credit for it to this day; in interviews, in his books, and in documentaries about The Early Days of the Advertising Revolution (which Don Draper is currently not getting on Mad Men).

And it's not just this one ad Lois has been claiming authorship of, according to Koenig and several other eye-witnesses to the contrary, it's the whole subsequent Volkswagen campaign, the "We Try Harder" Avis campaign, and virtually every other idea that Koenig, Krone, and a whole host of other creative genii thought of. Several people are trying to prove that Lois is actually the Shakespeare of the advertising world; i.e. he didn't write any of it.

Think Small, indeed, you're probably thinking. Who cares? It's only advertising. It's not as if Lois was claiming to have written Martin Luther King's speeches, or discovered the Double Helix, or anything truly meaningful in the last half century. It's just a bunch of cute headlines in ads and a bold use of white space. That's all. But it does matter because back then, some truly momentous things were happening in the industry, and it was people like Koenig, and Krone, and Bill Bernbach, and even George Lois who were discovering the principle that creativity could actually sell stuff. What matters is truth. Truth in history.

Lies in history can get us in big trouble. As we've only seen recently; they can start wars; they can kill us.

And I can understand Koenig's indignation, and his lifelong urge to set the record straight. I've had credit stolen from me; learning that campaigns I had conceived and produced were later claimed by people who were nowhere near it. I even once experienced an acutely uncomfortable moment when I was showing my portfolio to a creative director at a respected ad agency in L.A. and he remarked that he had seen the very same work in another copywriter's book a week before, a freelance writer who had evidently helped himself to the morgue at my former agency and presented the pilfered tearsheets as his own work. My work. It wasn't just the flush of anger that someone had claimed credit for something I had done, it was that my own integrity and professional reputation were now called into question...just his word against mine.

But I'm not lily white, either.  I've also acted like George Lois. In my own little career, I've taken credit for coming up with a locally famous campaign called "Seize the Weekend" for a now-defunct sports equipment retailer, G.I.Joe's.  But the actual phrase, "Seize the Weekend" was first uttered by my wife in our living room as we were brainstorming about it. She said it first, I have to admit. I merely yelled, "That's it!" And subsequently took all the credit for it when it was enormously successful. I want to go on record right here for giving her conception credit for those three words. Take that, George Lois.

I know, who cares?

Still, who knows what really happened 50 years ago on Madison Avenue (when ad agencies in New York really were on Madison Avenue)? Maybe it's Julian Koenig who misremembers what really happened (and a host of other people). I doubt it. But it's possible.

At least he got credit for naming "Earth Day."

1 comment:

  1. I have purchased only one coffee table book in my life: and it was a compilation of all those great VW ads... even before I worked in advertising... that's how memorable and enjoyable they were to this lay person... Nice commentary.