He wears sandals and shorts and loves surfing — just the advertising mind that Nissan needed to craft an edgy image.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1987
Role: Chief creative officer of Nissan's advertising agency
Key influence: Devised creative advertising that differentiated Nissan from Japanese competitors Toyota and Honda
But don't let the sandals, shorts and surfboard divert you. The persona cloaks a creative marketing mind that has delivered some of the most memorable advertising in modern culture.
As Nissan's longtime advertising creative leader, Clow, 64, is the force behind pivotal marketing campaigns such as "Built for the Human Race," "Enjoy the Ride" and "Shift."
His work solidified Nissan's brand image as sportier and edgier than Toyota and Honda.
"Lee would walk into meetings in sandals and shorts, surfboard under his arm," says Joe Opre, who worked at Datsun-Nissan from 1971 to 1997, including jobs as general manager and director of advertising and sales promotion.
"He was this smart guy who looked like a homeless person," Opre says. "But he talked marketing, not creative. All of his recommendations, no matter how wild they sounded, had firmly grounded reasons behind them."
Clow's era at Nissan began in August 1987 when his agency, Chiat/Day, won the account.
Clow describes Nissan as the "renegade Japanese brand."
He plumbed Nissan's image in part by working closely with Jerry Hirshberg, the automaker's chief designer in California. "His designers and our creative people hung out together to internalize and get at the soul of the company," Clow says.
"Built for the Human Race," Clow's first campaign for Nissan in 1987, was "crucial," says Rob Schwartz, executive creative director of TBWA/Chiat/Day in Los Angeles, a unit of TBWA Worldwide.
"Built for the Human Race," Schwartz says, "said a Japanese product can be emotional. Toyota was relentlessly selling on quality. Honda was selling on smart features. What parking space is open (for Nissan)? A more human approach."
It was Clow, Schwartz says, who immediately saw the potential of Nissan's 2002 "Shift" marketing campaign.
"We were in Lee's booth at Chaya Venice (restaurant)," Schwartz says. "I showed him about 50 (tag) lines. He is looking and looking, sipping his merlot. He has his pencil out. He always works with a pencil. He stops at one and circles it. 'This "Shift" thing is really powerful,' he says. He went off on the potential of it."
Stay on the edge
In 1999 Clow became chairman and chief creative officer of TBWA Worldwide. He was named TBWA Worldwide global director of media arts in December 2007.
In the future, Clow wants Nissan to stay on the edge: "People who drive Nissan are not quite the sheep that buy Toyota."