Front-Line Dispatches From The Advertising War

In 1970, Jerry Della Femina wrote a gossip-filled insider's account of working on Madison Avenue, New York during the golden age of advertising: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line Dispatches From The Advertising War. It caused a sensation, became a bestseller and inspired the drama Mad Men. Now, 30 years on, it is being republished. Here is an excerpt ...

Most people think advertising is Tony Randall. In fact, they think it is made up of 90,000 Tony Randalls. Guys all very suave, all very Tony Randall. They've been fed the idea from Hollywood that an advertising man is a slick, sharp guy. The people know zip about advertising.

The average person who sits and watches Tony Randall perform ought to be around a large, bad agency when the big account is pulled out. Nobody cries the first day. What happens is an announcement comes around that says: "We regret to announce ..." The next thing that happens is that the president of the agency says: "Screw them. They were never any good in the first place." That's the unofficial attitude. They might even break out the drinks and everybody is talking: "We're better off without them ... and now we're really going to pull in the new business."

It's a very interesting thing to watch. As the account guys are talking, they start to break off into little groups. Immediate bravado. "Hey, we got rid of those sons of bitches. I will never have to put up with that bastard again. And his wife is a drunk." Then they break off into even smaller groups. On that first day, excitement. "We lost it!" And the next day, death.

The calls go out, guys get out their address books and start calling anyone they ever met in business. The second day they start calling Judy Wald, the lady who runs one of the largest personnel agencies in the business. "Judy," they say, "I'd like to bring my book over." Guys start leaving the office with suspicious-looking big packages under their arms. Those packages, it's their portfolio, their work, anything that they could put together that is going to get them a job. Everybody immediately assumes he's going to lose his job.

The top, the very top management very wisely stakes out a claim on an account not already in the house. Let's take a hypothetical example - let's say your agency loses Texaco Gas. Suddenly an executive vice-president says: "I went to school with a guy from Sinclair, and they must be tired of those folks over at Cunningham and Walsh. I'm going to give old Jack a call. Maybe we can have a few drinks. I think I can line up something with Sinclair." Not to be outdone, another vice-president says: "I have a cat over at Esso. Forget about your guy at Sinclair. My guy at Esso, like we not only went to school together, we fought in the Army together. Esso is unhappy with their agency. My friend has told me so many times. I think we really could work out something with Esso."

Each biggie in the agency picks a major company that he's going to shoot for. This is the way they express their fear. They all talk about a big piece of business that they could bring into the house. Nothing ever happens, but that doesn't matter. They try. They honestly believe that they can do it.

What beautiful calls they make. The executive vice-president calls his pal Jack, who may or may not remember who this guy is, and he says: "Hi, Jack, you see we've just been screwed by Texaco. What do you say we get together and have a drink?" He has his drink with pal Jack, and then he goes back to his agency and at a management meeting he says: "When I said to Jack that we lost the account, he smiled at me. I know that smile. I know the way he smiled at me - he was trying to tell me: 'I can't give it to you now, baby, but in six months it's yours.'" I have heard those exact words. There's a slight variation on it. "When he said no, he said no in such a way that he was opening a door for us - he really was saying that in six months it's ours. We've got it." That's how top management lies to itself and how these guys lie to each other. After a while they forget about it. They're out pitching new business, holding meetings, fooling around with the creative departments, and they forget about how Jack was going to give them Esso or whatever the hell it was they were pitching. The biggies keep occupied. They must keep busy. As for the little people, they've already been screwed by the biggies. They haven't got a chance. They've been fired.

If I were told to make a choice, I would say that copywriters are the craziest of all of the creative people. I once had a kid named Herb working for me when I was at Delehanty, a great nut. He was on everything in the world, you name it - speed, acid, grass, God knows what else. He used to come into the office looking very strange. It got to the point where if I had to stare into his dilated pupils one more time I would go crazy. I mean, he was bad news. But he was a hell of a good writer, so I kept him on. The real problem with Herb was not the condition that he arrived in, but when he arrived. He used to come into the office at four o'clock in the afternoon. He used to tell me he was afraid of the morning, that he hated the morning, so he would stay in bed until three or four and then go to work. It wasn't that he was shirking or anything - he used to work until midnight or one in the morning - it was just that he was working a different schedule.

Well, the problems started. Art directors were looking for him and of course he was in bed. Account guys were trying to pin him down, and there he was, breezing in at four in the afternoon, more likely than not zonked out, and account guys never did know how to handle zonked guys. And then the other copywriters saw Herb and the hours he was working and they wanted to work at night, too, and sleep in the morning.

I used to tell him: "Herb, you've got to come in a little earlier." Herb said: "I can't help it. I'll do anything else you want, but I can't help it." I said: "Herb, listen, you're going to be fired if you keep it up." And he wouldn't listen.

The day I decided to fire him he comes into my office. "Jerry," he says, "I figured out how to get in early. I want a raise." This surprised me a little so I asked him what he meant. "I've got a girlfriend and I need the raise so that she can leave her apartment and move in with me. If she moves in with me she'll wake me up in the morning because she isn't afraid of the morning like I am."

I said: "Herb, you need more money from me so that your girlfriend can move in and then she can wake you up, right?" "Yes," he said.

I said: "Herb, did you ever hear of an alarm clock?" "Did you ever try to fuck an alarm clock?" he said.

Herb went from Delehanty to several agencies where he did good work and always got fired, and he's someplace else now where he's about to get fired. He's been fired from some of the best agencies in town. One guy, at still another agency, fired him in the traditional Mafia method. He went out and bought a big fish and came back to the office and put it on Herb's desk. That was this guy's way of telling Herb he was through.

Many, many copywriters are paranoids. Herb felt that people and things were always rejecting him. One day he put a piece of paper into the Xerox machine at Delehanty to make a copy. Everyone was coming up to the Xerox machine and putting their pieces of paper in it and getting copies, but when Herb tried it there were some strange sounds and the original came out of the machine all ripped up. He picked it up, looked up, and said: "Even the Xerox machine rejects me."

There are hundreds of these guys floating through New York. One of them, named Wilder, has worked for practically every agency in the city. You hire Wilder and the next day he comes running down the hall barefooted, screaming, and causing a lot of commotion. He shows up at strange hours, doing very strange things. He keeps getting jobs because he's fairly good.

All the craziness doesn't stay on the creative side. The account side, which is the direct link between the agency and the client, has its madness, too. The main difference is that the creative side takes advantage of its so-called creative reputation, and guys can grow beards at the newer agencies and wear see-through shirts and pants and dilate their pupils.

The account side has to stay straight and narrow and wear Paul Stuart clothes and use Ban or Secret or Right Guard and bathe once a day.

The pressure sometimes gets to the account guys, however, and when they flip out it's something beautiful to watch. I know a bunch of account guys who once had to make a trip to Batavia, Illinois, to visit the people who run the Campana Company. The Campana Company happens to be very big in the menstrual business: they make an item called Pursettes. So here is this group of New York agency sharpies winging it in Batavia, Illinois, which, I guarantee, is maybe one step below Des Moines. They spend the morning talking about the marketing plans of Pursettes and then all go out to lunch. They've heard of martinis out in Batavia and the guys from New York load up - a bit too much. Back from lunch, the president says he would like everyone around the table to sit for a while and brainstorm about other uses that Pursettes can be put to. Expand the business, explore new markets, conquer new horizons, that sort of thing. The guys from New York are sitting there in a haze and one guy pipes up: "Hey, how about using Pursettes as torches for dwarfs?"

When you're living in Batavia and you get fired by the Campana Company, there's not many other places you can go to, so the tendency in Batavia is to downplay the cracks about Pursettes. The New York guys all break up at the idea of dwarfs using Pursettes as torches, but the president of Campana frowns and everybody shuts up.

They get through the brainstorming session, and the next item on the agenda is a tour of the plant. You can't get out of Batavia without a tour of the plant. With the president leading the way, they drift through the factory and suddenly the group comes across a very strange, very strange-looking thing. The president proudly explains that this thing is an artificial vagina, in fact its name is the syngina, and naturally, it tests how good Pursettes are. The guys from New York are looking at these synginas and they're biting through their lips to keep from laughing. The president keeps carrying on about how good these synginas are and finally one New Yorker says: "And if you're real nice, they let you take the syngina to dinner."

Here are guys collapsing on the floor of a factory in Batavia, Illinois, the president turning white with rage, the advertising manager petrified with fear, the agency guys still too stoned to worry.

Jerry Della Femina has worked in the ad industry for more than 50 years and runs Della Femina Rothschild Jeary and Partners in New York. "From those wonderful folks ..." is published by Canongate on 22 July, priced £8.99.