Industry heroes: Lee Clow – is his retirement the end of the ‘magical era of advertising’?

The industry is losing another hero following Lee Clow's retirement, but is this really the end of the 'magical era of advertising'? Asks Havas Group Singapore chairwoman and chief creative officer for South East Asia Valerie Madon

All throughout my career, I’ve heard about the legendary Lee Clow. Hard to forget a name so unique isn’t it. I guess rockstars were born to be, even starting from what their parents choose to call them.

Every now and then, pictures of him would continue to remind me of his presence in our industry, but I never had the pleasure to work with or know him in person. Like many other greats of advertising, he will live on as a legend that lingers in magical ways despite his retirement being announced last week.

Stories about him will continue to get passed around like folklore. And unlike some big names, who many may speak of for being notoriously nasty, I’ve never heard anyone speaking ill of him. This is quite an achievement in our industry, given the stressful environment we work in. An environment that often can turn the nicest of humans into monsters. For this itself, Clow deserves an award, besides all the awesome the work that most of us know him for.

Clow walked paths others dared not to

As Bohemian Rhapsody is to Queen, many know Lee Clow best for Apple’s 1984 television spot. It’s the ‘induction-to-advertising’ piece every creative will be shown when being taught about how marketing and communications can really make the world take notice.

You may try to dissect that film today and wonder at how bizarre it seems, but like pages in the Bible one can never appreciate the impact unless you understand the context it was created in. The business situation Apple was going through at the time and the bravery needed to conceptualise and sell an idea like 1984 is the sort of moments that don’t happen often.

Of all of his accomplishments and work at TBWA though, it’s Clow’s working partnership with Steve Jobs that I share the most with my creative teams and clients – despite the fact that I don’t work for Apple or TBWA. Their triumph together through creativity is what advertising legends are made of and continues to remind us why creative agencies are special.

It’s not just logic that creatives provide. It’s a touch of magic that makes moments like 1984 hard to explain. The perfect balance between the science of understanding the business and the art of storytelling.

It’s not just friendship that drove the partnership. It was trust from a very demanding client. That is something you have to earn. Bold work requires both sides – client and agency – to take the plunge together.

It’s not a one-hit wonder campaign. What you need is a long-term brand-building commitment to be a real business partner the client can count on. Sadly, this seems hard to come by as more agencies and individuals approach the business as extremely transactional.

Lastly, the chemistry and instincts that inspired Clow’s work is so uniquely human and personal. No data or artificial intelligence could have produced the same outcome or the journey now celebrated by the next generation of advertising hopefuls.

Increasingly today, we make our lives and our jobs more complex than we can handle. Maybe it’s as simple as two boys in a park with the most imaginative minds, dreaming up plans to change the game – and just having the best time of their lives doing it.

We are a business of talents and to certain extent individuals. It’s names like Lee Clow that will continue to be reminders that what we do is so unique and important for brands and the world. For me, that’s why we must be proud of the value we can bring so that we can reinstate our purpose as an industry. It’s why we should never allow our services and capabilities to be commoditised. We are artists with a gift.

As I search Google to find out more about Clow, I can’t help but feel his star-quality shining through every single image that comes up. Never in an obnoxious, trying-too-hard-to-look-cool, way but just someone who is having fun and really believes in himself and what he’s doing.

I felt a deep sense of loss and sadness when the news of retirement was released. Our industry is losing another hero. Is this really the end of the magical era of advertising? Will this art-form disappear like many others in history? Or do we care enough about what we love to learn from these greats and continue, building on their legacy?

Can we be the rockstars of tomorrow? That’s entirely up to us.

Madon says industry should learn from Clow

Valerie Madon is Havas Group Singapore chairwoman and chief creative officer for South East Asia 


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