But the thought that kept nagging away at me was a slightly more cynical one. I was continually struck by how much easier advertising must have been then. Certainly great talent bestrode the land but, to borrow language from Olympic gymnastics, the level of technical difficulty is a lot higher now.
The obvious advantage they had was the established consensus over what good popular culture looked like, a consensus managed by a small group of editors, TV producers, publishers and ad executives. Mostly men, mostly white, mostly well educated. That ironic, subtle tone that is so lauded about the "golden age" of advertising wasn't necessarily reflecting inherent national characteristics. It was just what those people enjoyed.
It resonated with the rest of the media culture because the rest of the culture was made by the same sort of people. And a large part of its success was due to the lack of an alternative: making an ad part of the national conversation is a lot easier if the whole nation only has one commercial channel to watch.
And it's not like there was a plethora of other media to worry about either, or much of a hurry was required. Most brands seemed content to bang out an annual campaign of a couple of TV commercials, a poster or two and maybe something in the colour supplements. And some slightly grubbier agency, possibly in Earl's Court, would be entrusted with shelf-wobblers and dealer handouts.
No wonder there was time left over for legendary lunching and the cultivation of outrageous anecdotes. The average advertising person today has a slightly different furrow to plough. The nation is not dragooned into consensus through monolithic media: the media landscape reflects the crazy mixed-up character of the country. That makes mass marketing almost impossible, and direct, but constantly changing, conversations with discrete groups of people across a huge range of channels almost compulsory. Which means making good advertising is just much harder now.
Of course, all this wouldn't matter if the apparent golden age wasn't continually held in front of us like some sort of bar to be jumped. The remnants of that age linger on in boardrooms and on awards juries, lamenting declining standards and rolling out ancient layouts like aged generals, always fighting the last war. We should learn from their experience, but today's ad people should also be proud of what they can achieve under much tougher circumstances. Maybe one day they'll get their own documentary.