Close-Up: Live issue - The real 'Mad Men' of 1960s Madison Avenue

Mark Tungate, author of a new book about the history of advertising, takes a look at the industry's golden age in New York.

I wasn't surprised to learn that the latest TV series causing a buzz in the US is set in 60s Madison Avenue. Mad Men is a chiaroscuro drama full of flannel suits, skinny ties, bumper martinis, brimming ashtrays and dangerous sexual liaisons.

Although advertising professionals prefer to second-guess the future rather than dwelling on the past, for the public there has always been something alluring about this particular moment in advertising history. It has a rakish, wise-cracking, Rat Pack feel about it.

A few months ago, I strolled half the length of Madison Avenue, stopping only to grab a coffee and leaf through an ancient, yellowing copy of The Hidden Persuaders, by Vance Packard. At the beginning of the book I found a note scrawled in blue ink: "New York, Xmas 1960." It may have been the perfect time and place to work in advertising.

Then, as now, Madison Avenue was a symbol. Phil Dusenberry - the former creative guru of BBDO who came to work there as a young copywriter in the early 60s - told me: "Like Hollywood, it became an idea rather than a physical place. You could say that Madison Avenue was advertising."

Advertising at that time was considered a glamorous, if not strictly honourable, profession. The standard template for a New York advertising executive is "the man in the gray flannel suit" - the titular figure of Sloan Wilson's 1955 novel (who technically worked in public relations), or Roger O Thornhill, the hapless, feckless advertising executive as played by Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 classic North By Northwest.

Admen in the 60s were certainly paid enough to be smartly dressed. They also worked and played very hard, hence their susceptibility to ill health and heart disease - not for nothing was the avenue nicknamed "ulcer gulch" in 60s adland. Ad executives of the day combatted the mountainous stress with alcohol, giving rise to the near-mythical three-martini lunch.

One member of the Madison Avenue aristocracy was a donnish Brit named David Ogilvy. Despite his old-school charm, he didn't pull any punches. Joel Raphaelson, a copywriter who joined Ogilvy's agency in 1958, recalls: "He scared the hell out of me a couple of times. Once, he sent me a note that read: 'Joel, I thought you promised to show me the Sears ads last Tuesday. You have now been working on them for three months - longer than the gestation period in PIGS.'"

Another advertising giant, Bill Bernbach (the founder, as everyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of advertising history knows, of Doyle Dane Bernbach) was as good at spitting out one-liners as he was at writing them. When one of his underlings commented on the pleasant weather, Bernbach replied: "Thank you."

Bernbach was, according to Bob Levenson, "a visionary, with a visionary's zeal. And he was a worrier. It was a killer combination."

His worrying is evident in the infamous letter he wrote to his bosses at Grey, just before departing to launch DDB. In it he warned: "I'm worried that we're going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we're going to worship techniques instead of substance ... there are a lot of great technicians in advertising ... but there's one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art. Let us now blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art and good writing can be good selling."

It was a sound ideology, but not sound enough for his bosses at Grey, who appear to have ignored it, at their peril. Bernbach promptly left, taking with him the Ohrbach's department store account and a suit named Ned Doyle.

One of the most rewarding interviews for the book was with George Lois, a former DDB art director. A Greek florist's son from the Bronx, Lois was one of the street fighters of the creative revolution. Before joining DDB, he worked at an agency called Sudler & Hennessy, where he became known for his colourful language and incendiary temper.

Lois recounts the time that his boss and some clients entered his office while he was embroiled in a brawl with an account executive. "I literally had the guy off the floor by the scruff of his neck, shouting, 'You cocksucker!' Sudler turns to the client and says: 'All our art directors are very passionate individuals'."

Another of his anecdotes concerns the fact that at DDB art directors weren't allowed to talk to clients. "During my first couple of weeks, I produced a subway poster for Goodman's Matzo (snacks). It was basically a giant matzo ... a really striking-looking image. The account guy took it over to the client, Mr Goodman. When he came back, he said, 'He doesn't like it, do another one.' I said, 'Fuck you!', and I took the poster and went over there myself.

"So Goodman is sitting there in a big glass office, surrounded by his grandchildren. And they're all looking at the poster and saying, 'You know, that's kind of fun, we ought to run with that,' and the old man keeps barking, 'I don't like it!' Finally I lose my temper and stride over to the big casement window. I open it and lean out with the poster, as if I'm about to throw myself out. 'See what you make me feel like doing?' I shout. 'You make the matzos - I'll make the ads!'

"He yells at me to come back in, practically having a heart attack. His people are fanning him; they give him a pill and a glass of water. When he can finally breathe again he says: 'All right, kid, all right: run the goddamned ad. And if you ever get fired, come back and see me. I'll give you a job as a matzo salesman.'"

Even DDB wasn't big enough to contain the Lois persona. In late 1959, he and copywriter Julian Koenig joined forces with Fred Papert, who had left another agency. Papert Koenig Lois opened in January 1960 - and there seems to have been little doubt about who called the shots. "It was the first time the art director had assumed the most prominent role in an agency," Lois says. "From that moment on, every hip young kid wanted to work in advertising as an art director. We were like rock stars."

Parts of this article were extracted from Adland: A Global History of Advertising, written by Mark Tungate and published by Kogan Page, priced £18.99