Are Ad Men As Hollow As The Fantasies They Create?

Alex Witchel, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine spent some quality time with Matthew Weiner (pronounced WHY-ner). Weiner is creator, producer and head writer of “Mad Men,” the original series on AMC. The show begins its second season on July 27th.
It’s a long article with lots of interesting detail, like the fact that Weiner is a meticulous control freak from an over-achieving family and somewhat insecure for a man with industry cred spilling out of his golden pockets. But what interests me most is Witchel’s conversations with George Lois and Jerry Della Femina, two ad guys from the “Mad Men” era.

Weiner chose advertising as a subject, he said, because “it’s a great way to talk about the image we have of ourselves, versus who we really are. And admen were the rock stars of that era, creative, cocky, anti-authority. They made a lot of money, and they lived hard.”
Some of those rock stars are less than enthralled by Weiner’s interpretation of their careers. George Lois, the legendary art director who co-founded Papert Koenig Lois in 1960 and recently had an exhibition of the iconic covers he designed for Esquire magazine at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says: “When I hear ‘Mad Men,’ it’s the most irritating thing in the world to me. When you think of the ’60s, you think about people like me who changed the advertising and design worlds. The creative revolution was the name of the game. This show gives you the impression it was all three-martini lunches.”

People like me who changed the advertising and design worlds? That’s bold, even if it’s true.

Della Femina takes the other side. Weiner’s side.

Della Femina, who is now 69, says drinking abounded. “People had bottles in their drawers,” he recalls. “For lunch, we used to go to the Italian Pavilion, which is now where Michael’s is” (he’s referring to the media power spot on West 55th Street). “The bar was still in the same place, and the bartender would start shaking our martinis as soon as we walked in. They would literally serve us the first martini as we were sitting down, the second, the third, then we would figure out what to eat. It was such a wild time, and the best period for advertising, so much looser. We had Blue Nun, which was a terrible wine to sell to people. If there were a Nuremberg trial for selling bad wine, we should have been hanged.”

Witchel also spoke to Bill Bernbach’s son, John L. Bernbach, the founder and president of the ad agency NTM.

I was a teenager then, and our family was very close. My father never took clients out, he didn’t travel, didn’t entertain. In the show, there’s not a scene without somebody smoking and drinking. And it’s an overly simplistic view of the process of coming up with ads. You were handling millions of dollars of people’s money, and no one took it lightly. Here they’re smoking, joking, ogling girls, then they think of a line.”

I also found it interesting that the second season is going to pick up on Valentine’s Day 1962, after leaving off at Thanksgiving 1960. Sterling Cooper is home to anti-Semitic, racist, sexist “dinosaurs,” unprepared to meet the massive cultural changes they will soon face. This building tension in the story is a rich vein, and Weiner’s going to mine it. Witchell posits that Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss) will be a character to watch.

Lois Geraci Ernst, the C.E.O. and founder of Advertising to Women, says, “Right now, they’re just using Peggy Olson quietly, but there will probably come a time when a client finds the source of marketing genius is coming from her. Then she’ll start her own agency.”

Weiner employs two advertising consultants on the show: Josh Weltman, an L.A.-based creative director in his 40s, and Bob Levinson, recently retired as head of the television department at I.C.M., who spent 20 years in the media and television departments of BBDO in New York, starting in 1960.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. It is true. Those were the days when you had to make work to prove you were good. Nowadays all you need is a good scam ad.

  2. Fortyver says:

    Highly: Ha, ha, that is so true. Though there are some really good folks out there, but it seems the shit rises to the top and they are jealous, spiteful little men and women.
    Oh for the days that you really had to work hard and actually defend your creative. Oh for clients that really want good creative, instead of having their egos soothed and their pockets fleeced.
    Advertising will change for the better, but not before they are on life support.

  3. I definitely wasn’t around back in the heyday of advertising, but I can’t help but believe life was so much simpler. I think people lived simpler, and there certainly weren’t computers or the internet or $4/gallon gas to complicate life or work. Today’s culture is so much different, also. Have three martini’s at lunch now and you’re a full-fledged alcoholic that isn’t serious about work.

  4. Brunardot says:

    Being 78 and a life-long advertising propaganda critic, with associates in the ad business, I can only comment that there are all kinds of people that will act in all kinds of ways; and, usually quite unpredictably when in groups.

    That said, “Madison Avenue” has made America what we are in 2011; and because of our general level of intelligence, it would seem Americans deserve what we have become.

    Paul Fitz-Gibbon aka Brunardot