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

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. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.