LOST AND FOUND.
By Alfredo Marcantonio.
I first saw the name Si Lam alongside “We’ll never make it big” a Volkswagen poster that appeared in 1967’s New York Art Directors club Annual.
It was produced by DDB’s Los Angeles office and I reasoned that Mr Lam would be one of the many talented Californians who boasted Japanese extraction.
It was a misapprehension that I fostered for 40 years or more.
DDB New York’s legendary Beetle and Bus ads lived on inside many thousands of vintage US magazines and can be easily viewed and bought on a bunch of internet sites.
Sadly, feasting your eyes on DDB LA’s equally cool billboards has been another matter. They led a fleeting life. One or two made it into award annuals but most were pasted up and after a month or two, came down, never to be seen again.
When the latest edition of “Remember those great Volkswagen ads?” was being put together, I resolved to try and find some reference to the posters via the man who the annuals credited with creating most of them.
A comprehensive trawl of the internet revealed a 2005 article about Si Lam in ADWEEK. Sadly, it was an obituary, so any hope of meeting the great man was gone. However, a funeral quote from his son Perrin Lam gave me what the boys in blue call ’a line of enquiry’.
I contacted Perrin through a social media link and joyously, he confirmed that he had an archive of his father’s advertising. Even better, he offered to get the Volkswagen work copied for me and was happy to chat through his dad’s involvement.
As luck would have it, I was due to shoot a TV commercial in LA the following month, so we set a date to meet up.
My assumption that Lam was an oriental surname was well wide of the mark. Over breakfast at my hotel, Perrin’s photographs revealed a stocky half Jewish Art Director with a long-broken nose. Better still, Perrin conjured poster after poster from his bag, each one a sixties or seventies LA street scene, with a VW billboard almost filling frame.
Lucky for me, his father had always ensured that each of the agency’s posters was photographed while it was up.
Some of the VW billboards were simplified versions of DDB New York’s ads, but most were created by Si locally. Award winners, like Mass Transit, I had seen before but many of them were entirely new to me.
Perrin also had a copy of Communication Arts from 1971 which outlined the great man’s career in some detail.
Uninspired by the Los Angeles advertising scene and bewitched by the output of DDB New York, Si had flown there with the hope of landing a job at what was then the USA’s hottest hotshop.
“I showed my portfolio to Bob Gage, DDB’s head Art Director. He said ‘Keep in touch’ and I figured he meant it. So I called him every Friday for 23 weeks.”
“No-one told me a hundred bucks didn’t last long in New York. What I wanted was DDB what I got was YMCA. They gave me work in the kitchen and a meal every night. Every night the same thing, chicken croquets and two veg.”
“I didn’t like New York much and I still don’t. I like what it generated in terms of advertising. I like what gets done but not how they do it.”
He was eventually hired by two agencies but lasted only a week at each of them and ended up back in the YMCA. But Good Friday 1952 turned out to be a very good Friday for Si. He was offered jobs at both Cunningham Walsh and Ogilvy. He rang Bob Gage for that twenty third time. “He didn’t say Keep in touch he said Can you start Monday?
“He was a wonderful man to work for. He saw to it that DDB sent me to study one night a week with Alexey Brodovich.” Quite a tutor to have – Brodovitch was the highly acclaimed designer of Harper’s Bazaar and is widely regarded as the father of what we now know as Art Direction.
After 18 months at the agency, his wife, who was as unhappy as he was in New York, became pregnant. They decided to return to LA.
Gage and Bernbach were impressed by his work and encouraged him to contact Ted Factor, a scion of the Max Factor family and boss of Factor-Breyer the agency DDB was lining up to become their LA office.
No doubt keen to impress his new partners, Factor took Lam on. But it was hardly a meeting of minds. Factor was an entrepreneur, a businessman who, unlike Lam saw advertising as commerce rather than a calling.
A number of DDBers told of Lam’s directness. He was clearly a man who ‘called it as he saw it’ without fear or favour. Not surprisingly he argued with Factor on a regular basis with one altercation seeing Lam chase Factor with the building’s fire axe.
Factor avoided giving Lam the Creative Directorship on two occasions, but the Art Director’s impressive output saw him buckle on the third.
The man who worked with Lam to help DDB Los Angeles take off was Monty McKinney. He cared a lot about advertising and was a great champion of the agency’s work and like Lam he was something of a thorn in the side of the money-driven Factor.
As might be expected, Factor retired McKinney off just as soon as he could. But it is a mark of the man that he was immediately snapped up by Jay Chiat of the fledgling Chiat Day agency in nearby Venice.
Over his two decades as Creative Director Lam hired and partnered some outstanding copywriters, including Janet Boden, Ed Bigalow, Stan Jones and Ron Rosenfeld. Our own John Withers also worked alongside him in Los Angeles on Paul Masson wines.
It was a line-up that created great work, not only on Volkswagen but on American Airlines, Bekins Moving and Storage, First Western Bank, General Telephone, Hill’s Brothers Coffee, The Gas Company and the pest controllers Termanix.
For me, Lam’s partnership with Ed Bigelow on the Transamerica campaign is arguably the agency’s best work. The eschewing of the traditional headline/copy layout and the conversational tone of voice Bigelow bestows on the Company President John R Beckett certainly prevent it from being a faceless corporation.
However, it was California’s outdoor advertising that provided the agency with its most memorable canvasses and Lam was justly crowned king of the billboard.
The high cost and low availability of roadside posters on the East Coast prevented New York Agencies from recommending them. But on the West Coast these giant, often hand painted ads were a powerful and popular medium.
“We did all the billboards for New York” said Charline Elfeldt, a 30-year veteran of DDB’s paste-up and traffic departments. “In those days New York didn’t have a clue about outdoor.”
The simplicity that that a poster imposes on its creator chimed with Lam’s no-nonsense approach to life. Colleagues joked that he’d worn the same suit for the 12 years that the agency had been open. He never wore a ring or even a watch. “I bought some funny shirts recently but I still reject ornament in ads, words and pictures, it hides bad thinking or no thinking.”
As his longtime colleague Bob Matsumoto said of Lam’s remarkable poster output “His personality came out in that work: It was straightforward, humorous, bold and memorable.”
Simon “Si” Lam died in June 2005. He was 80 years old and living in Santa Monica, a couple of billboards away from the agency at which he worked for more than thirty years.