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An Interview with Lee Clow’s Beard
An Interview with Lee Clow’s Beard

For the past few months, I’ve been following @leeclowsbeard, a particularly poignant Twitter account that claims to be crumbs of wisdom caught in the beard of advertising giant Lee Clow. The advice offered up ranges from aspiring aphorism to being downright oracular, and often goes beyond the advertising industry to comment on sales, marketing, and business at large.

The account is, in fact, not Lee Clow. Nor is it his beard. It is the brainchild of Jason Fox, the executive creative director of Webster in Omaha. When the real Lee Clow caught wind of it, he did what you might expect Lee Clow to do. He threw a Hang Ten, and put out a book of tweets collected from the account.

And when Jason connected with me on LinkedIn last month, I decided to con him into taking part in an interview.

So, why Lee Clow’s beard? Why not George Lois’ bald crown? Or Hal Riney’s bushy brows?

Capturing George’s voice without a plethora of cursing would have been nigh impossible with Twitter’s 140-character limit. And today’s youth, sadly, know little of Mr. Riney beyond the YouTube videos I make them watch while they’re loitering on my lawn. Lee is both currently active and well-regarded. And sending a cease-and-desist my way seemed antithetical to his laid-back surfer vibe. In the end, I was lucky that my tone of voice is apparently quite similar to his (I accidentally fooled more than one acquaintance of his). I just happen to languish in obscurity while he most decidedly does not.

Did you have any expectations when you started @LeeClowsBeard? Did you start it thinking, “Started from the bottom, now we here!” or was it just for fun?

I expected the sweet sounds of swamp crickets. I mainly started it to see if I could gain any traction with a quasi-branded account. I was freelancing at the time and wanted to acquire my official Social Media Ninja creds (credz?) and knew trying to do so from my personal account would be foolish given my hatred of listicles. So I started with a satire of Alex Bogusky, which lasted about three hours before I discovered Bob “Beancast” Knorpp’s @bogusbogusky account. After an intensely synergistic brainstorm session with my dog, I went with Lee. From there, I quickly shifted from satire to being the fountain of wisdom, insight, inspiration, joy, inclusiveness, stain-removal tips, beard dandruff and pie beloved by an inordinate number of Torontonians and South Africans today.

And now you’ve amassed 38,000 followers. Of course it helped that the real Lee Clow gave you the “Surf’s up, dude!” What do you think attracted people to @LeeClowsBeard, even before Lee endorsed it? Do you think people tuned in because you were saying the things they wish their own directors were saying?

The day we rent the veil of secrecy in two and revealed my identity and the LCB book, I hit 26,000 followers. I honestly expected my follower count to go down afterwards, given that I think a lot of folks liked to believe Lee was really behind the whole thing. As to the popularity and fairly rapid growth (about 1,000 new followers a month), I think a lot of people found a kindred spirit in LCB – a spirit that could coalesce their beliefs into 140 characters without sounding like a Successories poster or a completely cynical jackwagon.

I think variety was also key. Some things were inspirational. Some cut through agency chicanery. Others deconstructed the prevailing wisdom of the current shiny thing. I also played relatively nicely in the sandbox. I’d skewer beliefs, paradigms and QR codes, but I’d never call out specific people, work, agencies or clients. Although many tweets – often the most acerbic ones – were inspired by actual events both immediate and long passed.

As a creative director, do you sometimes find yourself talking to yourself through LCB? That gets kind of meta, I suppose, but I can imagine that, given the different pressures of agency life, it can sometimes be difficult to take your own advice.

I don’t post anything I don’t truly agree with and attempt to live by, and I never play devil’s advocate just to stir the pot. But, more importantly, I hope no one reads LCB thinking everything posited is a hard-and-fast rule. They’re principles that I think will make your work and possibly life better, but they’re not holy writ. So tweets about ethics, honesty, etc. excepted, most things discussing process and behavior are generally meant as guidelines and not dogma. After all, it’s advertising. For example, if I were an agency owner and was confronted with taking a giant chunk of poo of a client to keep the doors open and avoid laying off a ton of folks or risking my own family’s well-being, I’d have to seriously consider it. Ad reality can hit you hard, bro. Now, actually taking that client would naturally go against my most popular tweet of all time (“You cannot become the person or agency you wish to be by doing the type of work you wished you never had to do.”), and the agency would have to live with that consequence until we could resign the account. On the other hand, anything I’ve ever said about committees or meetings should not be questioned.

Which reminds of your recent post about boring brands, since “approval by committee” is often cited as the reason for that. What would you say is the leading cause of bad advertising today, e.g. committees, fear of offending the market, etc.?

Through the years, I’ve noticed three major things that seem to crop up with frightening regularity.

First, clients tend to think advertising is about having something they want to say, instead of having anything the public wants to hear. They’re too close, too inside, too jargony, too assimilated to view their brand as a consumer would. Even though every last one of them will tell you they want to be like Apple.

Second, a lot of clients don’t really trust their agencies to do what they’ve hired them to do. Little things like identifying the soul of the brand, establishing a voice, and creating work of lasting impact – the usual. This is most often true of those clients who have the first problem. So, instead of working with the agency to solve problems, they prefer to muddle. It’s a natural proclivity, of course. Everyone tends to think they can improve something they’re being shown, even if only a little. (Which is why I hate showing creative to focus groups.) So this type of client usually sends back notes asking for more features, more corporate-sounding copy, and the removal of whatever personality the creative team managed to inject. A good agency can deal with this problem and generally get the work back to where it should be, unless they’re also faced with problem number three.

Third, if one client adding their organic quinoa to the creative stew is bad, imagine what happens when they show it around the office, or run it up the food chain, or send it off to legal. Hint: It’s not the name of a 1970s sitcom starring Jimmie Walker.

I think these problems are all rooted in fear. But then, most problems are.

Okay, one final question at the risk of this interview inciting the kids to TL;DR the whole thing. It’s obvious to me that @leeclowsbeard is trying to be something much more than the run-of-the-mill parody account. And that you yourself are trying to be something much more than the run-of-the-mill ad guy. When you walk out the door on the day you retire, what do you hope to have achieved?

As far as advertising goes, I’ve taken a rather circuitous trek through my career, so I hope my best days are ahead of me. If that pans out, I hope folks remember me for doing some great work, doing some work that actually mattered, helping others both inside and outside the industry and not being a massive tool. If it doesn’t pan out, I hope people remember me for doing some work that actually mattered, helping others both inside and outside the industry and not being a massive tool. And perhaps visit me in my Econoline down by the river. In the grander scheme of things, I hope they say I was a better father, husband, friend and Christian than I ever was a writer. But those things are all much more difficult than advertising, so wish me luck.