The Real Mad Men

In the first of a two-part series looking at Madison Avenue's finest, former adman Andrew Cracknell tells the story of the original Don Drapers.

Papet, Koenig and Lois in 1962
Papet, Koenig and Lois in 1962

"The more I think and write about Mad Men, the more I take the show as a personal insult. So f*ck you, Mad Men, you phoney, grey-flannel-suit, male-chauvinist, no-talent, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-Semitic, Republican SOBs!"

George Lois is angry. Mind you, Lois, the brilliant art director, agency owner, author and designer, and as central as anyone to the real story of New York advertising in the 60s, has always been angry. From his days bare-knuckle-fighting the Irish kids as the only Greek boy in his part of the South Bronx, to later in the 50s at Lennen and Newell, where he overturned his boss' desk because he was dismissive of Lois' ads, or later still, when he climbed out on the windowsill of his matzos client's office and threatened to jump unless he bought his ad, Lois has never held back.

But this time, he's quietly angry - a controlled fury, fuelled by contempt. And this time, it's aimed at the people behind Mad Men. He hands me a typewritten wodge of paper. "Here," he growls - he really does. I know it's a cliche, but he actually growls, in his 80-year-old but still-heavy Bronx accent: "I've written this for August (2010) Playboy. Take it."

By now, I'd spent around six hours talking to him, and come to realise that, with Lois, there's no such word as maybe and no such mood as temperate. But even by his standards, this is explosive stuff. I start to giggle as I read it: "The producers went the whole hog to depict the scum of the industry, rather than the upbeat world of culture-busting creativity... "

If less profanely expressed, this is the predominant view among those who worked in New York agencies in the 50s and 60s who I talked to in the last 18 months researching my book. Some put it quite movingly. Richard Gilbert, who ran his own agency from the mid-50s onwards (never a big outfit but usually a presence in the awards shows - a huge accolade in those days as the competition was so hot in New York), puts it very personally. Now in his eighties, still passionate, he says: "I don't want my grandchildren looking at this and looking at me thinking: 'So, that's what you did, was it?'"

It's not just the shagging, the drinking, the smoking and the sybaritic excess they object to (we'll come to that later) it's the lack of principle. There's an intensely proud group recollection of a more honest code, of an integrity in professional and personal dealings during that era that they feel the show betrays.

The makers of Mad Men have only themselves to blame for this initial antipathy. They claimed that "Mad Men explores the golden age of advertising", and, indeed, the period it covers was a golden age - perhaps the golden age. But it was only so because it was the period at the birth of what was subsequently dubbed the "creative revolution". It was the era when not so much a new generation but a new demographic of advertising people took over from their tired and burnt-out forebears and turned advertising on its head.

They did it through a new pact with consumers, and a more respectful and congenial understanding that the public recognised advertisers' well-worn tricks and were sick of them. The new creativity, pioneered at the then ten-year-old Doyle Dane Bernbach, put an end to material and social aspiration as the hook and replaced it with an appeal to wit and intelligence. A Volkswagen or a Volvo, a holiday in Jamaica, drinking Wolfschmidt or Chivas Regal, eating at a Horn & Hardart automat or renting a car from Avis no longer made you look richer or socially successful - it made you look cleverer.

They were an unstoppable force. Bill Bernbach had rightly realised that the pool in which agencies had traditionally fished for copywriters - the WASP, Ivy League graduates - was woefully limited, and he employed an army of "new Americans", principally Jews and Italians. They were fuelled by one of the biggest local explosions in culture the world has ever seen - the New York art, music, theatre and literary scene of the 50s, which received nourishment and oxygen from an equally massive urban economic expansion. Building and redeveloping New York in the 50s doubled the entire world's office space. And, further, this was the decade of the rise of the suburbs and the suburban dream, all creating a huge demand for the product of the agencies: advertising.

Bernbach also elevated the power of creative people. Almost without exception, until he left his position as creative director of Grey and started his own agency in 1949, creative people (including the creative directors) were sad and cowed people, powerless against the whim of the account people, then all exclusively male. I was repeatedly told how it was routine for them to change copy, and even rewrite it completely, without any consultation with the copywriter. As for the art directors - usually known as "visualisers" - they were just invisible peons, often on a separate floor, sitting at easels waiting for the copywriter's "idea" and copy to turn up in the internal mail for him or her to execute.

Bernbach put them together and made them the powerplant of the agency. Vibrant, committed, intelligent and supremely talented, they seized the moment and blazed an incandescent trail through the decade with utterly original campaigns. It was witty, honest and intelligent work produced from a string of new and radical agencies that were, for almost the first time in history, creatively led. When Lois, with two copywriters, Fred Papert and Julian Koenig, opened PKL on 1 January 1960, it was the first time an art director had ever had his name over the door of an agency. Within six years, with the opening of Wells Rich Greene, what had been unthinkable only a decade previously had come about: again three creative people, but this time two Jews and a woman, had started an agency. Within two years, when she took that business public, Mary Wells became the first woman to become the chief executive of a quoted company in any field in the US.

Of course, much in advertising went on as before; the old agencies and most packaged-goods clients took no notice and carried on harrying and insulting the intelligence of the consumer - even more annoyingly, on the new medium of television. But the major story of the decade was the creative revolution, and the makers of Mad Men have missed it so far. Sterling Cooper was not a creative agency - of the first VW ad, Don Draper says: "I don't know what I hate about it most." And Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce set up with no art director on the payroll - unthinkable by 1964. Above all else, in the eyes of the creative revolutionaries, Draper is a phoney.

Phoniness. You hear the word, time and again, contemptuously applied to their predecessors and less-blessed rivals - from art directors and writers like Ed McCabe and Amil Gargano, Jerry Della Femina and Bob Giraldi. It was one of the aspects of the business the new breed of creatives hated when they started their own agencies, or assumed power within the existing ones, along with the lies and the paucity of thought in the advertising itself. There was a new candour. Often it was the centre of the appeal, with VW urging you to "think small" or Avis making a virtue out of being only No 2. This candour permeated not just the advertising but the way the agencies behaved. But with Draper's slick presentations and Roger Sterling's quite open contempt and cynicism ("I gotta go learn a bunch of people's names before I fire them"), the creative revolutionaries are reminded of all they fought to change, and they resent the fact that the lay viewer will learn nothing of their struggle and the work that they produced.

But I think they're being a little unfair. Sterling Cooper doesn't claim to be a creative agency, although Draper likes to think it is at times. And while some events are overly dramatic, we're always over-critical of fictional portrayals of subjects we think we know well. Maybe all these things don't happen in one week, but in the course of two years? Rick Wakeman says he has seen every single event portrayed in the gloriously unlikely rock band satire This Is Spinal Tap, including a drummer having to be released with oxyacetylene equipment from a pod on stage.

And if you don't believe that senior management can be maimed in the office by a runaway lawnmower, bear in mind that a potential client walked into PKL's offices in the Seagram Building in 1961 to find staff wobbling around on mopeds. It was the result of a deal whereby, for a brief period, PKL became not just the advertising agent but the importer of a brand of French motorised bicycles.

One thing everyone faults is the portrayal of prodigious drinking on the premises. Many agencies were actually dry, with no alcohol at any time, although Fred Danzig, an AdAge reporter from 1962 who retired as editor in the 90s, remembers executives smuggling drinks into Ogilvy & Mather from Ratazzis, a favourite Madison Avenue restaurant and bar opposite O&M's offices.

Dave Trott, who'd studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the training ground for so many of the era's best art directors, experienced an even more censorious atmosphere. In 1968, at the end of the first week in a new job in which every day he'd gone for a quiet pint at lunchtime (as he would in London), he was taken to one side and asked if he'd like to discuss his "problem".

David Abbott, another Englishman in New York, recalls DDB as being a headsdown, earnest sort of place - a strong work ethic in deeply unglamorous offices. Although his contemporary, the art director Bob Kuperman, while agreeing in general, says: "At the same time, it wasn't a monastery. There were plenty of shenanigans going on - people screwing on their desks ..."

There was always the womanising - in that, Mad Men is probably spot-on. There was less respect and no political correctness. Carl Ally, an enormously colourful Turkish/Italian ex-World War 2 and Korean War fighter pilot, who started one of the best agencies of all time, once sent a memo to all staff urging that everyone be at yet another staff party, ending with: "And I want you all there - remember, there are three of you I haven't yet had."

Today, when you talk of the casual and daily sexism, harrassment and exploitation, most of the men will nod, some a little sheepishly, and the women may just shrug, sometimes with a little gleam in the eye.

Joy Golden, a BBDO writer from 1955 onwards, describes it as "a little nonsense at the office", and one secretary of the time said, without resentment: "It's just the way it was." Mary Moore remembers going to an interview for an art director job in the mid-60s and being asked to stand up and "do a twirl", rightly actionable today. "I thought it was a bit much, but I didn't go home in tears or anything."

Della Femina still talks with pride of the annual all-agency vote to see which male and which female employee the staff of Della Femina Travisano most wanted to sleep with: "They'd campaign. One otherwise demure account woman put up posters around the place saying: 'Vote for me - like Bloomingdales, I'm open after nine every night.' The first prize was a weekend for the happy couple at The Plaza. I can't remember what the second prize was, but the third was the offer of Ron Travisano's couch."

But this was the 60s. Women's consciousness movements were in their infancy and the contraceptive pill was making sex uncomplicated. This wasn't peculiar to advertising - everyone was at it. The ultimate tale of the hitting on secretaries and the abuse of staff in the pursuit of sex was told in Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine's 1960 film The Apartment, set in a life insurance office.

Peggy Olson's story is pretty accurate too, although she wasn't quite as alone in the business as perhaps may be suggested. There were plenty of women copywriters, going right back to the 19th century. In the first few years of DDB, there were more women writers than men, and some drew good salaries and garnered industry fame for their work. Their route to agency writer was either through an in-house job with a retail advertiser, writing on a women's magazine or, as with Olson, converting from secretary. But the iron ceiling and the appalling pay differential, though resented and quietly discussed, were rarely challenged. Moore discussed leaving the agency at which she worked with her then boyfriend, another art director. "Yeah," he said. "I should be getting $14,000 and you're terrific - you should be getting $12,000." But there was little she could do about it.

These smaller accuracies, and the intriguing nature of the agency story, with well-portrayed events such as the loss of the Lucky Strike business and the formation of the new agency in a couple of hotel rooms (utterly authentic), has begun to warm a few of the initial sceptics. Mike Tesch, an art director who worked at Carl Ally Inc, said: "I hated it - and now I love it."

But for Lois, Mad Men's original sin can never be eradicated: "A soap opera placed in the setting of a glamorous office where stylish fools hump their appreciative, coiffured secretaries, suck up Martinis and smoke themselves to death as they produce dumb, lifeless advertising..."

Phew! And then the killer, his very last line: "Besides. When I was in my thirties, I was better looking than John Hamm."

Andrew Cracknell interviewed nearly 50 advertising veterans of the era as part of his research for his book, The Real Mad Men, which is published by Quercus on 4 August. Next week, Campaign marks Bill Bernbach's 100th birthday.