The Truth About ‘Mad Men’ Told by a Real-Life ‘Mad’ Woman

Advertising Great Mary Wells takes a good hard look at AMC’s Golden Globe-winning hit ‘Mad Men’ and tells us what the glory days of advertising were really like.

Question: Is the advertising business really full of collegiate WASPs who do nothing but talk about sex and drink while holding a cigarette in each hand?

Ye gods no. “Mad Men” is a smartly written and juicy sitcom about personalities and their relationships – and it is highly addictive. But you could pick up the whole pack of those boys and girls in “Mad Men” and drop them into the old “Sopranos” set or into a hedge fund or change the name to “Desperate Husbands” and drop them into that. Enjoy it, lust for Don Draper if he’s your type, but don’t imagine it’s about advertising. Even in the early ’50s, when America had things to buy again after the war and it was easy to sell almost anything, there was fierce competition among agencies – and people worked their heads off. In agency creative departments, we were smothered with research to help us find the perfect sales line or jingle for our clients. It took until the late ’50s, though, for the Jews with their great imaginations and dramatic writing skills and the powerhouse Italian artists to join up, take over and make advertising the preferred entertainment.

Even before 1960 the agency world was glued to the new-wave movies by Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, to Mike Nichols and Elaine May, to the Group Theatre and Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. And do you remember when the movie “The Graduate” happened? And the Beatles – we had a Beatles-wave in America. I remember the shock when they first appeared on American television. By 1960, it was as if the world had handed authority for the future over to the young and talented.


Advertising is always part of the front line. We watched with appreciation when David Ogilvy smartened things up. But when Bill Bernbach joined the creative revolution with a new agency that based free and courageous thinking on extraordinary talent, it seemed as if half of New York got in line and applied for a job with him.

What a breakthrough time that was! The fierce competition among advertising agencies for accounts became a fierce competition among talented people for stardom. The lust we felt those days was not about sex – although there is always a string of sex running through every business of every era. By 1960 the “big lust” you felt as a creative operator in the film, theater, music, dance, book and advertising world was for yourself – your desire was to be a star, to make a difference, to be the one that threw out the old ways and brought in thrilling new ways. You lusted to be FAMOUS for a great campaign, a great song, a great movie – to walk down the street knowing you had taken something unimportant and made it vital to millions of people. If you could have such a success, oh, what a thrill you were to yourself as well as to others. None of that dazzling period is in “Mad Men.” Though it would make a great show, too.

The women’s movement was gathering speed then and there were many strong and aggressive and successful female talents in the advertising revolution – believe me, secretaries were not coffee carriers and a large percentage of agencies were comprised of women! Just one example:  Phyllis Robinson at Doyle Dane Bernbach was a wonderful copy chief and co-creative head with Bill – and the first person I know of who understood that advertising on early television was flat like a newspaper or a magazine and needed to become dimensional; it needed to become theater. I was working at Doyle Dane then and Phyllis and Bob Gage brought a new dimension to Polaroid television advertising. I remember promising myself that one day I would have an agency that made advertising as emotional as movies, advertising that would make people feel deeply about the product or service we were selling, advertising that would make people feel nervous if they hadn’t tried it.

I can understand what fun it is for the advertising community to see “Mad Men” and feel celebrated again. I like watching it, too, and I love the way they all dress on the show. The women look so stylish for that time and the men are so smoooooth. The timing is a little askew though; dressing so smoothly was really in the early to mid-’50s. In 1960, the great talents – Julian Koenig, George Lois, Ed McCabe, Carl Ally, Jerry Della Femina, Jay Chiat, Hal Riney and Charlie Moss – were not fashionistas, and Bill Bernbach kept looking like a middle-class banker; in the ’80s he felt rich enough to start buying very good suits. I never met a movie-star smoothie like Don Draper in the agency business although there may have been some. There were some David Bowie types. And there were some wild, wild women.

Just about everybody smoked though and nobody thought there was any danger. The smoking in “Mad Men” has been hilarious. I love all those arms holding the cigarettes as far away as possible! It’s been clear from the start that nobody on the show ever smoked or knew how to smoke before it was shot.

But I miss the revolution that took place in advertising at the end of the ’50s and beginning of the ’60s; it’s not on “Mad Men.” I miss the fights for the breakthrough ideas, the buzz about the new stars, the campaigns that changed industries and made all of us in advertising important and exciting. I miss the compliments we all got just walking down the streets from people who loved our campaigns. I miss the glamour in our work that made our mothers so proud. It is glamorous to be on the front line of change the way advertising so often is and was, especially, in 1960.

I know that some people in the industry are blue about where advertising is going in this befuddled media industry as it struggles with the Internet. Sometimes the most important television shows that pay the highest salaries seem to be the least watched in this befuddling new-media era.   But I also think the web-television-movie blurring that is mobilizing is a blessed advertising opportunity; I see it as media on the verge of another advertising revolution. I’m betting it is just a question of who has the genius to lead the charge. It was Bill Bernbach in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Now, as more women are going onto the web than men, I’m betting it won’t be a Bill – it will be a Bernice.

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