DDB’s Si Lam – widely acknowledged as the king of LA Posters – Originally published in Hayburner Issue 19.

Volkswagen of America’s much admired Beetle and Bus ads lived on inside many thousands of vintage US magazines and can now be viewed and bought on a bunch of internet sites. 

Sadly, feasting your eyes on VW’s equally cool billboards has been another matter. They unfortunately led a fleeting life. They were pasted up, and after a month or two, came dow. Never to be seen again – Until now. 

When we were putting together the latest edition of “Remember those great Volkswagen Ads?”, I resolved to try and find some reference to them. 

I knew they had won a couple of advertising prizes and a looking at the credits in an old awards annual revealed that, unlike the ad campaign, the posters were created in Doyle Dane Bernbach’s (DDB) LA Ad Agency, not in New York. 

Happily, the credits also revealed the name of the Art Director who designed them – Si Lam. And, with a swift trawl of the internet revealed a four-year old article about him in ADWEEK – an American advertising magazine. 

Unhappily, it was an obituary. So any hope of meeting the great man was gone. However, a 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 and we set a date to meet up. 

Over breakfast at my hotel, just south of Sunset Boulevard, Perrin conjured poster after poster from his bag. Each one an A4 scan of a Sixties or Seventies LA street scene with a VW billboard almost filling the entire frame. 

Lucky for me, his father had always ensured that each of the VW posters was photographed while it was up.

Some were simplified versions of DDB New York’s ads, but most were created by Si locally in LA. Award winners like “Mass Transit” I had seen before, but most of them were entirely new to me. 

Si Lam had initially landed a job with DDB in New York. To get the job, Lam rang one of the founding partners, Bob Gage, every Friday for 23 weeks. 

DDB was the ‘hottest’ agency in the world at the time. MADMEN fans may recall it had dozens of name-checks throughout the series – one being a discussion about ‘Lemon’, one of the first VW ads (kicking off the third episode of series one).

When DDB decided to open an office in LA, Lam, being a native Californian was the natural choice to help set it up. The VW poster brief was to arrive a few years later. 

The high-cost and low-availability of billboards on the East Coast had prevented the New York Agency from recommending VW use them. But, on the West Coast, these giant outdoor ads were a popular medium and one that Si made his own with award-winning work not just on VW but also on several other of DDB LA’s clients including American Airlines. 

When I returned home I passed the scans to John O’Driscoll, the book’s designer, and working with Zone, a Wardour Street studio, he had the posters removed from from their backgrounds, straightened and retouched to meet the needs of the book’s layout. 

If these examples whet your appetite, you’ll find a whole chapter full of them in the new book. 

Hot off the press I sent a copy off to Perrin, who was overjoyed. As he gratefully acknowledged, finally there is a clear and permanent record of his father’s outstanding VW poster campaign.

VW Ads - Full Gallery