AdMan: How to get famous in two hours

Steve Henry, the advertising legend behind “You’ve been Tango’d” and other iconic ads, on why brands need to take more risks

In the early Noughties, the American adman George Lois was approached by Tommy Hilfiger. 

The designer said he wanted to be more well-known. Lois looked at his work, liked it, and asked the designer “Do you want to be famous in two days?”

He then proposed putting up a single poster on Seventh Avenue. The headline read: 

Who are the 4 greatest American designers for men ?

C ….. K …. 
R ….. L…..
P …. E ……
T ….. H ……..

P E, apparently, was Perry Ellis. 

(Did yo manage to decipher some? No, me neither). 

But what was great about the idea was putting the young unknown Mr Hilfiger in the same bracket as industry giants like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.

T H had to think hard about it. This was an incredibly bold thing for a virtual unknown to do.

He had sleepless nights. He worried if this would be the end of his career before it had even started. 

Eventually, he went with it, but he was scared to death.

When he was invited onto the Johnny Carson Show to talk about it, he pretended that his business partner had OK-ed the idea, not him.

His appearance on the show was two days after the poster broke. Lois hadn’t lied. It had taken two days to get the brand nationally talked-about.

Today, it would have taken about two hours.

When interviewed about working in advertising, Lois said words to the effect of “These ****** clients. I’m just trying to make them famous.”

And I must admit to occasionally feeling a bit similarly myself. 

Why don’t clients see that brave work is going to get them talked about ?

Why do they fight so long and hard against the very thing they need - like a dog spitting out the pill it needs to swallow ?

As long as you make sure to connect emotionally with your audience, it’s almost impossible to damage your brand.

The trouble is that most marketers think that their role is to implement brand guidelines. But brand guidelines are like stabilisers on a bike - you only need them early on, and then you need to throw them away.

You must never forget that brands don’t belong to marketers - they belong to their customers.

But these days there’s a sort paralysis that’s set in. In the old days clients bought ideas. Now they just buy time.

And it raises the question of how to harness the power of truly creative thinking.

You see, George Lois is brilliant, but he’s also a bit bonkers. Early on in his career, a client had turned down an ad Lois showed him. Lois had promptly climbed out of the client’s window and threatened to jump off the ledge unless the client bought the ad.

Now, I love that story and it tells me that Lois is a giant among men. But some people would be freaked out by it.

Great creativity can be close to craziness. That’s actually the whole point of it.

If you don’t believe me, get an accountant to tell you a joke.

(We’ll pause here while you relish the true awfulness of that situation.)

And the really awful thing is that more than 50% of the companies in the FTSE 100 are run by accountants.

But since “care in the community” kicked in (and there’s an Orwellian phrase to cherish, if you admire stealthy hypocrisy) we’ve all got more scared of the unusual people.

Maybe it’s drugs or maybe it’s just their personality - but you do meet people who are just a little bit too near the edge. And you don’t even need to be on the top deck of the night bus.

We’ve learned to distrust the unusual - when actually, it’s incredibly valuable.

The ad industry has always had a cunning plan to harness the craziness of creative people. It’s called account people. 

These eminently sane people put on a brave face while the craziness  is going on at the back of the agency, where the creatives - if they’re any bloody good – are stretching the bounds of possibility. 

I happen to think you need good processes too.

But the thing is that this unpredictability is the most valuable thing an ad agency can bring - if you want your brand to be famous.

Dudley Moore once made a very funny film about advertising. The title was “Crazy People”. 

Then there was the iconic TV series we’re all familiar with, with the very revealing title.

Whether the people who work in advertising really are mad or not is a moot point.

But in my view, to tweak the old cliche … you do have to be mad to work here.

Or, as an Apple ad from the 1990s had it - when Apple ads built the brand rather than just acting like a catalogue  ….  “Here’s to the crazy ones”.

Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in Campaign Magazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising over the past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.

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