A lesson from Lee Clow.

When I joined Chiat-Day in the late ’80s it was a place where anything felt possible.

Four years earlier, Chiat-Day had created Apple’s 1984 ad. Directed by Ridley Scott, it changed forever how people watch the Super Bowl. Today, brands spend millions of dollars a minute to make the first Sunday in February as much an ad day as it is a game day.

Now I come along, a young writer from a regional agency ready to make my mark.

Almost immediately I discover I am punching way below my weight. In almost every creative presentation I’m getting the shit kicked out of me.

I grew up in The Valley, so working in Venice Beach is far from a hardship. No, the hardship is the look on Lee Clow’s face as I present my ideas. Lee is never mean or disparaging, but I can tell I am not living up to his expectations nor my own.

Then one day as Lee is looking over my shoulder at an ad I am working on, he says something that changes my whole mindset. He says, “That’s kind of cool. Now make it cooler.”

After some introspection, I realize that Lee is not telling me to make the ad itself cooler. He is telling me to push farther. He is telling me to think bigger. He is telling me I am working for one of the most creative agencies in the world. He is telling me to start thinking like it.

He’s right of course. I mean, how many ad agencies re-invented the Super Bowl? How many agencies had their headquarters designed by Frank Gehry?

My next assignment at Chiat-Day is to introduce the new 240SX, Nissan’s entry-level sports car. On the creative brief, one fact jumps out at me. Handling and corning in the new 240SX feels like it’s riding on rails. The car is a blast to drive because it really sticks to the road.

As I said earlier, in agency presentations, I’m not exactly knocking it out of the park. So, this time, instead of trying to sell my idea, I decided to make it.

Working with an in-house editor at Chiat-Day and my creative partner, we take two very different things and put them together. (This is another example of connecting the dots differently.)

First, we take a first-person point of view of riding on a roller coaster. Then we overlay it with the sound effects from the chase scene in the movie Bullitt. Every hair-pin turn, every stomach-churning drop, every straightaway jolt of acceleration is intensified by the throaty sounds of downshifting, upshifting, and squealing tires pushed to their limits.

The ad never shows the car. In mid-acceleration, we cut abruptly to black and fade up the tagline:

The all-new 240SX. Built for the Human Race.

It isn’t a real ad yet. But it gets the idea across in a way that a script and a storyboard never could. The demo video plays well in the creative presentation. First there is stunned silence followed by applause.

Ultimately the ad never made it on air. I never got to take America on its first-ever TV test drive. But for me, this new way of thinking more than made up for it.

For the first time in my career, I stopped worrying if we could do something and started asking, “How can we get this made?”

Published by bassetts49

50 years in advertising, 20 years as the creative lead on Geico. A life in creative thinking.

One thought on “A lesson from Lee Clow.

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