Last week George Lois died, and I put up a tweet about how influential one of his comments had been on my career:

“Don’t show me your portfolio full of great roughs, if it don’t run it ain’t advertising.”

Immediately of course, many people said it was unfair, that things were easier in his day and clients wouldn’t buy that kind of work today.

But it wasn’t just clients that quote refers to.

There are many things stopping your rough ideas from getting turned into ads.

Your idea may be ridiculous, being the first brand to have their logo projected onto Mars might seem like a good idea, but it isn’t possible.

It’s silly to have a portfolio of roughs that never got made because they aren’t possible.

Also the idea may not actually be any good, I’ve recently seen a car ad with two tortoises having sex, and a burger ad featuring rotting meat.

These ads ran, but they wouldn’t have if I’d been creative director, I love shock in ads but the shock must be relevant, not just shock for the sake of it.

When people look at Lois’s book, all they see are the ads, but not all of the ads are great.

The real story isn’t the ads, it’s how he managed to get those ads made.

The real story is the story behind the ads, that’s what we can learn from him.

Lois tells how he ran hundreds of ads for the NY Herald Tribune.

He’d get to the presses at 8pm, when the first copies began rolling off, then write an ad from a story in the paper, shoot it and run it in the 11pm news with the line: “There’s more to the news than you’ll hear in this programme”.  

That was such a great idea I stole it for a pitch for a newspaper; Sunday night we got Monday’s paper off the presses at 10pm, wrote the ad overnight and shot it at 7am.

Then, at the pitch at 9am, showed them an ad featuring that day’s paper.

They’d never seen an ad agency move at the speed newspapers did and we won the pitch.

Another time, we couldn’t get a Knirps ad featuring a carwash through the censors.

So we did what Lois did for Xerox, we told the censors to come along and watch the shoot for themselves to prove it wasn’t fake.

The ad was approved as we shot it, and it ran.

Another time, Jim Sullivan told me the account man wouldn’t ask Bob Hoskins to do the VO for his ad because we didn’t have any money.

I gave George Lois’s book to Jim and said don’t look at the ads, just read the words.

The next day Jim said to me he’d read the book overnight and phoned up Bob Hoskins himself, and got him to agree to do the ad for free.

That’s what Lois meant by: “Don’t show me your portfolio full of great roughs, if it don’t run it ain’t advertising.”

Don’t sit on your arse and wait for someone else to solve all the problems.

It’s your work, you’re the one who loses, whatever the blockage is it’s down to you to find a way round it.

If you read Lois’s story about beating the research system to launch Aunt Jemimah Pancake Syrup, a product Lois had just invented, you’ll learn that.

Or selling a year’s supply of Renault cars himself, with a pack of Band-Aids and a penknife.

Or talking Mick Jagger into telling teenagers to call their local cable supplier and demand they show MTV.

Until all the cable suppliers said they’d show MTV if they just stopped running the ads.

Or how to get 250,000 records made for a client, starring a Hollywood celebrity, for free.

I’ve used George Lois’s book for inspiration (polite way of saying nicked ideas) for decades, but people who’ve never even read it think they know better.

Well, if that’s working for you, great.

But it doesn’t look like it’s working from where I’m watching.

For George Lois the biggest barriers are in our own head and, if we call ourselves creative, that’s also where the solutions are.

Another line that was influential on my career was from Werner Erhard, he said:

“You can either have what you want, or you can have your reasons for not having it.”