Lee Clow Retires From TBWA With One Last Parting Gift to Advertising

A love note on Valentine's Day

Lee Clow, the shaman-like longtime TBWA\Chiat\Day creative leader and one of the towering figures in advertising over the past half-century, announced his retirement Thursday morning—choosing Valentine's Day as the perfect day to say goodbye, with love and gratitude, to the industry that made him a legend.

The 75-year-old global director of media arts at TBWA and founder and chairman of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, who has been semi-retired for several years, will officially move into an advisory role as chairman emeritus of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, the Apple-focused unit of TBWA.

As a parting gift, he penned a love note to the ad industry, and to the company where he worked for the past 48 years—having joined just two years after its founding. 

"The years I spent doing this thing called 'advertising' have been fun, challenging, rewarding, maddening—sometimes painful—but mostly, joyful," he wrote. "And I wouldn't trade a day of it for anything else." 

Read the full letter here: 

Clow's storied career in advertising includes some of the industry's most famous work, from Apple's "1984," "Think Different," "iPod Silhouettes" and "Mac vs. PC" to classic campaigns for Taco Bell, Adidas, Gatorade and many more. 

Clow took Bill Bernbach's creative revolution and created a freewheeling West Coast version of it—trading the suits for shorts and flip-flops, and the boardrooms for the beach, but sacrificing nothing in seeking and applying the transformational force of creativity. 

Steve Jobs turned to Clow as his trusted advertising partner during both of his stints running Apple. In a 2003 Adweek profile of Clow, Jobs called working with Lee "one of the most wonderful experiences of my life."

Tim Cook, Apple's current CEO, said in a statement Thursday: "During his long partnership with Steve and Apple, Lee told powerful visual stories that elevated new technologies with the passion, creativity and ingenuity that define our own humanity. He helped Apple carry itself through times of challenge, and his work inspired audiences to look beyond the horizon as an exciting future came into view. Lee's body of work over five decades hums with cleverness, warmth and enthusiasm—and there is no doubt that it will inspire and motivate generations of 'Crazy Ones' still to come."

Apple | Here's to the Crazy Ones

At Muse, we were thrilled to sit down with Lee last fall for a career-spanning conversation that eventually became the eight-part podcast "Lee Clow Will Only Say This Once." The podcast presents Lee, in his own words, describing the arc of his career, as well as his thoughts on creativity—past, present and future. Among his slew of famous ads, Lee told us his favorite was "Here's to the Crazy Ones," the signature spot from Apple's 1997 "Think Different" campaign, articulating the company's sweeping vision upon Jobs' return to the company. 

You can listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Play.

"Lee will always be our creative conscience," said Troy Ruhanen, president and CEO of TBWA\Worldwide. "He has given so much to our company and to our industry.  His challenge to us to do the brave thing, to Disrupt, will continue to be our north star. We all love you, Lee." 

"In constantly pushing ourselves to reach the creative standard Lee set, we are better than we ever could imagine being," added TBWA\Media Arts Lab global chief creative officer Brent Anderson. "So we'll do just as he always asked us to do: 'Make it smart. Make it beautiful. And have fun.'" 

"Lee is one of the most talented and visionary leaders in our industry," said John Wren, chairman and CEO of Omnicom Group. "Over the past five decades, he has built a foundation of creative excellence for the TBWA network that has distinguished the agency among its peers. On behalf of the Omnicom family, I would like to thank Lee for his invaluable leadership and significant contributions to our group." 

Clow continues to work on a personal film project recalling his 50 years at Chiat/Day—the people, the work, and how they did it. All proceeds from the project will go to a college fund formerly established in Clow and Jay Chiat's name at Art Center College of Design. 

TBWA has also established a scholarship at the College of the Arts—School of Art at Clow's alma mater, California State University—Long Beach (CSULB). 

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of Clio Awards.