Everybody wants to know about the drinking. According to this momentous TV series, Mad Men, a lush recounting of the frolics and foibles of New York’s advertising execs and their secs in the ’50s and ’60s, those guys always seemed to be pulling on a stiff drink and a cigarette, and probably trying to pull someone else’s spouse into their arms.
Season Five of Mad Men has just started up again on AMC, and it’s likely we’ll be hearing a lot about the Vietnam-era of social upheaval. It remains to be seen if the fires of feminism finally come to scorch the fingers of those fanny-pinchers who have made life hell for the secretarial pool.
The lurid chauvinism is perhaps one reason why some women can’t stand Mad Men. An oft-heard complaint from women who lived through the chauvinism of yesteryear is that there is no joy in seeing evocations of the boozy, sexist past. It does not matter that the whole purpose of the show might actually be to remind people of how far we’ve come, baby. It still gives some women the willies. It is not like Downton Abbey or some other distant, Edwardian-era starchfest. This is our American world, just a little removed.
Here in the hills of Greenwich, however, there is one crowd that has taken a special interest in the show—the folks who actually worked in that long-gone era when Madison Avenue seemed to rule the land and, perforce, the world. They, too, share mixed emotions about the Emmy-winning show.
“I’m often asked, ‘Verne, was it really the same as Mad Men?’” laughs Verne Westerberg, a publishing executive who took many a wild 5:11 trainride to Riverside back in the day. “And I always say, ‘Those guys are amateurs.’”
Of course, it’s not as if Mad Men is the first show to ever take the advertising business to task. Even during the years of its postwar ascendancy, Madison Avenue’s loyal troops were the subject of countless japes and satires. Movies like The Hucksters and Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys competed with bestsellers like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in portraying the business as crass and unseemly. Mad Magazine, then very influential, constantly ridiculed the timid, half-sloshed ad men tumbling out of the bar car at suburban stations.
When asked if he thought Mad Men was realistic, Riverside resident John Rindlaub, formerly of Young & Rubicam, just laughs: “How would I know? I was drunk all the time—you’ve seen the show!"
Does Mad Men actually give an accurate picture of America in the days when the stolid Eisenhower-era 1950s gave away to Kennedy’s Swingin’ Sixties? Hard to say. The last we saw, lead character Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) was still wearing a stingy-brim fedora and it was 1964, a year by which most men had stowed their Elliott Ness hats in the closet.
The show’s creator, Matt Weiner, maintains that it is not a documentary, any more than the last show he worked on, The Sopranos, was an accurate portrait of the New Jersey mob.
Still, he has to tolerate the fans who obsessively check out every show for anachronisms. Hey, those IBM typewriters are not period correct! And did all pregnant women in the 1950s really smoke like chimneys? Can that be true?
And, most important, were female office workers of the day really treated like so much sexual chattel?
“I don’t think it was quite as misogynistic as it was portrayed,” opines Rindlaub. “Yes, there were affairs in the office and marriages were hurt, but I didn’t know anyone quite as promiscuous as Don Draper.”
“The emphasis on melodrama is not accurate,” says Jim Swan, a former art director for Young & Rubicam who raised a family in Riverside. “All that emphasis on booze, smoking and babes—there was also a lot of great advertising going on that they’ve ignored in favor of the melodrama.”
This is what sticks in the craw of the Madison Avenue veterans. They tune in to see folks working the way they used to work, and instead see this sudsy bacchanalia. In Mad Men, ad campaigns are thought up with the snap of the fingers; it’s never as a result of creative teams working for weeks. (This, of course, is the way TV dramas usually speed up life. In the legal dramas, trials never drag out for years—they always wrap up at the fifty-nine-minute mark.)
While many veterans tell us that the boozing wasn’t so serious in those days, the reason may well be, of course, that the heaviest drinkers are no longer with us, having spent one too many evenings quaffing libations at top hangouts like Les Champs, P. J. Clarke’s, Christ Cella steakhouse, The Palm or Gallagher’s.
But talk to enough people and it becomes clear that the stories of three-martini lunches were not just the stuff of comedy routines. Socializing in that milieu did require a strong constitution. Westerberg remembers meeting with a friend who worked on a major account. “We’d have lunch and start at about 12:30 and have three or four martinis and a bottle of wine. When lunch was over we’d go to the King Cole bar in the St. Regis and sit with Jimmy the bartender and drink Cordon Bleu cognac till about six or seven o’clock at night.” While this battle plan might have led to a few pickled livers, it also brought about “an intimacy between clients and yourself that was very special. Business was a lot more creative then; it’s more mechanical now.”
However destructive it might have been, the bar scene fostered a kind of convivial society. “It is true—we were a gang,” says Don Zuckert, a former Greenwich resident who rose to become chairman of Ted Bates. “Folks at all the agencies knew each other.”
Don’t tell Barbara King that there was not a lot of drinking in those days. “I beg to differ,” scoffs Barbara, who went straight from college to the BBD&O agency, where in the late fifties she was an assistant account executive. “You’d see many of the men coming back at three o’clock. You knew they’d been having a good time. I think they captured it very well: the smoking and the long lunch hours. And the role of women, for the most part… I was never aware of all the hanky-panky that was probably going on at the time.”
Was there a glass ceiling? “I knew there was, but I didn’t think much of it. We didn’t know any better!”
Advertising was probably no different than any other Manhattan business of that era. “The agencies had very, very attractive women,” acknowledges Dick Lord, a former Greenwich resident and top director at Young & Rubicam who went on to form his own agency. “Advertising was a very attractive job — you could make a lot of money and have a lot of fun. It was also insecure, but that’s why you made a lot of money. I remember the day when we lost the Tide account: 120 people lost their jobs.
“Did the women get coffee? Yes. In my agency, though, we got our own coffee. Did they dress provocatively? Yes. Everyone wore a bullet bra. Well, not all of them.”
In the two decades following World War II, when television and the economic boom turned advertising into a major industry, women were generally consigned to the creative areas. “Women just didn’t get into management in those days,” Lord remembers. One important exception, Lord says, was Jean Rindlaub, mother of John. “She was just a little girl from Pennsylvania who came in as a writer and eventually became very important in management, running accounts like Campbell’s Soup.”
Mad Men’s depiction of women getting treated shabbily was accurate, says Zuckert. “They played women down, that much was true. One of the key guys at Bates sent out a memo that no woman could wear pants to the office. And the next day every woman in the place came in wearing a pants suit. Women were getting a foothold. I know I was the first guy to hire women account executives, and had to listen to crap like, ‘Well, what if they get raped on the road?’”
Hedge Funds With Humor
One thing that might not be so apparent in Mad Men is that in those great gold-rush years, Madison Avenue attracted the nation’s best and brightest. “It was like the hedge-fund business today,” says retired Darien industrialist Henry Huse. “The smartest guys coming out of college wanted to get into advertising.”
“They were sharp guys because they were allowed to be sharp,” notes Swan. For artists and writers who wanted to get paid well, advertising was about the only game in town. The top guys might have all been Ivy League men in matching Brooks Brothers suits and Florsheim shoes, button-down collars and skinny ties, but they made their way to Manhattan, then the most exciting city on earth, the only place to be. If you were transferred to Detroit or Rio, you still had to get back to Manhattan.
Indeed, the characters in Mad Men seem vaguely obtuse, unaware of pop art, the hip new styles, the civil rights movement, or any of the social forces that powered that era.
Lord remembers his past coworkers as being extremely sharp: “They were alert and alive and aware of what was going on in the world.”
“It wasn’t as intense as Mad Men depicts,” says Barbara King. “People had more fun in those days. Don Draper seems so humorless, his personality seems so flat. I don’t recall anyone who didn’t enjoy the job they were doing. They were relaxed. People seemed to enjoy one another more. There was a lot of joshing.”
Zuckert remembers when an ad team working on the account for the feminine product Modess put together a fictitious ad proclaiming it, “Not the Best Product in the World but Next to the Best.” They submitted it just to see if anyone was paying attention.
It seemed to be an industry that was built on practical jokes. At one time or another every guy in creative came back from lunch to find a live chicken in his office, or maybe a burlesque dancer. One joker went to a used bookshop and bought an armload of old books for a dime apiece. He wrote “Reward for Return” inside all the covers and included the office address of an office rival. He then scattered the books all over the Bowery.
For weeks, Dick Lord remembers, hobos were showing up at the office looking for their prize.
Then Lord tells a fantastic story of a famous wit named Stanley Jones: “A young account exec got a promotion and a raise; he was so full of himself he went to the Cavanagh Hat Store—this is back in the day when men wore hats—and he got this beautiful fedora with his initials stamped inside on the band. He wore it back to the office and proudly showed Stan Jones his new hat. And Stan that very day went to Cavanagh and got two of the same hat, one a half-size smaller and one a half-size larger, and he had the guy’s initials stamped in it. And every time the guy stepped out of his office, Stanley would put maybe the smaller hat in there, or the next week he might start putting the half-size-larger hat in there.
“Finally the guy walks up and says, ‘Stanley, I don’t know what’s happening to me. My head is shrinking and expanding.’ He was calling his doctor for a checkup!
“Stanley said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ So he brought the two hats into the guy’s office just to show him.”
One thing to remember about the years of the postwar ascendancy is that it was indeed “postwar.” Many of the white-collar men of that era were ex-GIs who were toughened by combat and familiar with the notion of getting schnockered on leave. Connectivity was not something arranged by the Internet; people actually sought out their pals, their cronies, their brothers-in-arms.
And, yes, people got rowdy.
“There was a wild guy from Y&R,” says Westerberg, recalling an evening that started with highballs on the train, “and he threw a party at which he had about ten gallons of different colored paints. And it was a Paint His House party. So you could pick any color and any area of the house you wanted to paint. When we finished with the house it was ten different colors. Those were the days of too much alcohol, wine, women and song.”
Dick Roberts of Riverside, another Young & Rubicam veteran, also remembers all the gags, but cautions: “In spite of all the fun and games, these people cared deeply about doing advertising that had never been done before. And they worked their tails off to think it up and persuade clients to buy it. They didn’t take themselves
seriously, but they took the work very seriously.”
Vast changes came to the advertising business, and thus the American landscape, thanks to some of the larger-than-life characters the business produced. David Ogilvy, who is now often called “the Original Mad Man” (even though no one remember using that term in the old days), was a flamboyant Scotsman who, at the helm of Ogilvy & Mather, brought a snappy storytelling sense to ads. The father of the well-known Greenwich Realtor, David Fairfield Ogilvy, he reshaped the business with rules like “A consumer is not a moron. She’s your wife. Don’t insult her intelligence, and don’t shock her.”
The younger Ogilvy remembers his father’s hunger to know everything about people. “My father did not like to fly very much,” he recalls. “If he had to go to Los Angeles, he would take the train. It was a long trip, but by the time he got to LA he had probably talked to everybody on that train. And he was totally up on what was going on in America, and what the average person thought. So he could be extremely knowledgeable.”
The senior Ogilvy, who died in his French chateau in 1999, lived in Greenwich until he separated from his first wife. “He liked Greenwich and was very much welcomed here, but it was my mother’s territory. And his second wife wouldn’t have been caught dead in Greenwich.”
While Ogilvy’s plummy Brit accent and flamboyant style (he was not above wearing a cape) ensured his fame as the king of Madison Avenue, it was his rival Bill Bernbach, mastermind at BBD&O, who helped revolutionize the ad business—and America—by going against the old, button-down establishment style.
“It was a fairly Waspy business in the ’40s,” notes Rindlaub. “With the advent of television, that changed dramatically. And things happened gradually. After all, Greenwich and Riverside didn’t have any Jewish people in the ’40s.”
“The whole agency business was divided into cultural groups,” remembers Zuckert, who started in 1960. “For instance, all the media people at Bates were Irish then. All of the art directors were Italian. The creative writers tended to be Jewish. And the account guys were all Wasps.”
Mad Men even had a scene referring to the landmark Volkswagen ads devised by BBD&O. “Here’s this little Jewish agency,” Lord laughs, “working on a Nazi car.” BBD&O changed the business, says Lord. “You didn’t have to go to an Ivy League college. You could be Jewish, you could be Italian, you could wear sneakers. All you had to do was be good, and do good work. And that opened up so much.” And that changed America.
A host of changes occurred that, in effect, decentralized the advertising business. High rents in midtown led many companies away from the golden gulch of Madison Avenue. In the ’70s, the conviviality of drinking was replaced by the madness of cocaine.
Then came the corporate takeovers. One of the Mad Men storylines concerned the struggling agency’s pain after it was bought by an unfeeling British company. This actually was the fate of many Madison Avenue giants, although it happened in a later timeframe than seen in the show.
Further diminishing the power of the big agencies is that corporations began to move the marketing decisions in-house. Why pay some outsider to figure store placements and Internet campaigns?
Many ad agency art directors went on to become directors of TV commercials and even feature films.
One of the biggest reasons that Madison Avenue is no longer the center of the advertising world is, of course, that the world just grew. Computers happened. “Now, great advertising is being done everywhere,” says Jim Swan. “Brazil produces great things. There is some tremendous stuff being done in Asia now.”
If you were to produce a contemporary version of Mad Men now, you’d have to tie together the hot creative guy working out of his bedroom in Aspen with the cute graphic artist laboring in Kanjikkuzhi, India. Something might well be lost in the translation.