Feature

The way we were

Mad Men, a drama set in a fictional US ad agency in the 60s, is about to make its debut on BBC Four. Here, five veteran adlanders tell us what the 'Swinging 60s' were like over here.

JOHN SALMON

During the 60s, I had the great good luck to work for Doyle Dane Bernbach in London, and later for Collett Dickenson Pearce. They were undoubtedly the best years of my life. I worked for the former agency for a year-and-a-half, and the latter for the rest of my time in advertising.

When I meet people nowadays who worked at CDP at that time, they often echo the same sentiment.

I owe a lot to John Withers, the copy chief at DDB. Working for him was like having a post-graduate course in writing copy, but after 18 months, CDP offered me considerably more money, so I moved.

CDP was following in DDB's footsteps, but at the same time it was very English. For one thing, like most agencies in New York, Doyle Dane was dry. Messrs Dickenson and Pearce usually had tall glasses of whisky and water in their hands before noon. Their example was infectious. Both men were clever, benevolent and generous, but they could also be tough.

Both agencies were totally focused on the production of outstanding advertising. The intense rivalry that developed between creative teams at CDP, and the rigorous editing of the output by Colin Millward, ensured that only our very best work went to the client. The client was then expected to approve it without question.

For creative people who came from agencies where their ads rarely got published, it was paradise. We were driven to excel, but the chance of our work appearing intact was high. It was hardly surprising the agency became a magnet for talent.

An illustration of CDP's determination to stick to its principles came when Ford of Britain hired a new marketing manager who insisted on having a variety of creative work from which to choose. John Pearce told him we would not do this, and fired the client.

Everybody in the place was fanatically interested in the work. The media people talked to the creative people about it with an eye to placing it where it could have its greatest effect. We sat around talking about advertising into the evenings. Even the doorman had views about the output.

But it wasn't all work. The agency was probably the first in London to install a pool table in the creative department, an in-house pub, and a directors' dining room (with a wine cellar) that served superb lunches and dinners. Clients fell over themselves to be invited.

Of course, the usual peccadillos and larking about went on during slack periods, and the fact that CDP attracted such exceptional and eccentric people led to some truly spectacular exploits. For example, David Horry persuaded the resident maintenance crew to shift partitions overnight in order to remove all trace of a planner's office. The next morning they made a video of the planner looking for it.

I could go on. And we did. We spent hours recounting stories of our colleagues' japes and excesses. But like all good things, the era came to an end. By then, together with DDB, we had inspired a number of start-ups. Even today, vestiges of the tradition can still be found, if you look hard enough.

WINSTON FLETCHER

If you can remember what it was like to work in the advertising industry in the 60s, you probably didn't work in the advertising industry in the 60s.

Although the phrase had not been coined then, it was all down to "binge- drinking". Not among teenagers. They didn't have the money. The binge- drinkers were the account men (they were all men in those days); client panjandrums (always up for a G&T or three); media buyers (you don't need to be sober to splash clients' dosh about); media sales executives (just a glassful of vino helps the space and time go down); creative people (liquid lunches bring creative hunches); and anyone else in advertising with not much to do (to wit, most people in advertising, since the business was grossly overstaffed).

Binge-drinking was not something to be censured by priggish press pundits and preachy, puritan politicians. It was something to be celebrated, as soon as you could afford it. Binge- drinking was what made advertising life worth living. It was what you did every lunchtime and every evening. One of my clients, over our post-lunch triple cognacs, gave me some of the shrewdest management advice I have ever received. "Only wimps work in the afternoons," he said. "If a chap can't do his job in the mornings, get rid of him. He's not up to the mark." Fortunately, not everyone was perpetually sozzled. A few diligent worker bees carried the rest of us. Nor was binge-drinking just confined to advertising. It was common throughout British industry. But in advertising, it was doubly encouraged by the 15 per cent commission system.

Creative and media buying agencies were integrated, and they got a fat 15 per cent commission on the space and time they bought for their clients. Commission cutting was forbidden - this did not change until 1979, when the Office of Fair Trading ruled such commission agreements illegal. But, meanwhile, the 15 per cent commission made agencies riotously profitable. In 1960, the average IPA agency made 19.2 per cent profit on revenue - and if that was the average, many agencies must have made piles more. Cheers!

To keep raking in profits like that, agencies were only too willing to buy clients generous entertainments. And clients, well aware of how much the agencies were pocketing, were only too willing to accept their generosity. Yet it was against this bibulous background that British creativity began to burgeon. Launched on April Fools' Day 1960, CDP led the revolution. But then John Pearce and Ronnie Dickenson were no strangers to a few tipples, and were rarely wholly sober after midday. Discipline was so lax it was virtually non-existent. Timesheets were a thing of the future. At CDP, the creatives took as long as they fancied, and produced fabulous advertising. The lifestyle and the work were not unconnected. They still aren't.

ROBIN WIGHT

The most frightening day in my entire advertising career was probably walking into Collett Dickenson Pearce at around 9 o'clock one morning in 1967. It was the first day of my work there as a copywriter. The security guard took me up to a long thin corridor with glass cubicles on either side that would contain its creative department. But not until 9.30.

As a keen new boy, I turned up early, and there was nobody there.

So I opened the first door. It turned out to be one where Charles Saatchi and Ross Cramer worked. The wall was papered with advertising concepts, quite unlike anything I had seen in my fledging ad career to date.

Not many months previously, my first agency had been Robert Sharp & Partners, which became famous for the "literary lions" who worked there such as Fay Weldon, Len Deighton, and Salman Rushdie. Not to mention Adrian Vickers, Martin Boase and Winston Fletcher, who all learnt their craft there as well.

It was Fletcher who approached me, following an article in The Guardian that wrote me up as the "undergradman", "tall, thin, even gangly", Benedict Nightingale wrote, describing me and the student ad agency I had set up at Cambridge. Back in those days, if you wanted to be a copywriter - my ambition - you either had a novel in your back pocket or were about to get a First at Oxbridge. (In fact, Sharp's ran an ad in The Economist professing that it would only employ people who had a First.)

A majority of adland then didn't have creative teams. The "visualiser" and "writer" worked in sequence, rather than together, which explains the focus on literary skills (and there were quite a few artists working in adland as well).

The piece in The Guardian led to me working in my final Cambridge years as a copywriter with Sharp's, instead of reading Land Economics - with predictable results.

As a "writer", I was tucked away in the back office with a record player loaded up with LPs that played away as I wrote. One day, in came a picture of the Battle of Austerlitz, with Napoleon's shadow over the battlefield and a bottle of Courvoisier cognac underneath. Could I write a headline to glue these two together? My perfect schoolboy French rushed to the rescue: "Apres la grande bataille, la grande bouteille." And that was splashed on the back of The Sunday Times Magazine as my first ad.

But before settling on Sharp's, I went to Ogilvy and met the legendary Stanhope Shelton, in a huge office that overlooked the Thames, where I was offered a gin and tonic in the afternoon. More soberly, Jeremy Bullmore sweetly and thoughtfully explained why JWT would be the best place for me, even arranging for me to win a £50 prize in a competition to find the ten most ingenious undergraduates in Great Britain.

But it was Colletts that was entirely different to everyone else.

And frighteningly so. As I opened more office doors, I saw layouts that would become famous ads for Ford, Pretty Polly, Bristol Cream.

I saw walls papered with the inspiration of Alan Parker, Paul Windsor, Tony Brignull, Ron Collins - I thought, how on earth am I going to do ads like these?

At about 9.30, my new partner, whom I had never met until then, turned up. He was a spikey, energetic, art director called Max Forsythe. And he was brilliant, which helped.

Within a few weeks, we were on our way to Cork to be briefed on the Ford of Cork account. Since Henry Ford had come from Cork, it was a separate company, and insisted on a different account team than the one working with Ford of Dagenham. Max and I dutifully listened to the briefing and then went on to a lunch with the white-shirted Irishmen. Promptly, at 1.30pm, during the lunch, the radio was turned on, so we could all listen to the news from Radio Eireann.

Maybe I said something wrong, because the following day John Pearce received a phone call from the managing director of Ford of Cork requesting that they were never again asked to meet up with that tall long-haired person in the pink suit.

Happily, John persuaded them that I should be given a second chance to impress. Max and I did an ad for the Ford Escort that made it the most popular car in Ireland. We were forgiven.

Several decades on, the hair may have altered, but the pink suit remains.

The 60s - that I can remember - was less about hard-nosed, marketing- focused advertising run by research and was more about leaps of faith. As shown on the previous page thanks to the help of the photographer John Claridge. Let's leap again.

CHRIS POWELL

The new dawn of the 60s, for most, didn't happen until the final years of the decade.

From my worm's eye view, when I joined the trade earlier in the 60s (by chance, like everyone else in those days), advertising was a fairly undifferentiated branch of marketing, and there was little sign of a dawn.

Account directors were socially pretentious empty heads living in fear of their clients, copywriters were anxious you knew that they were novelists just dabbling really (like minicab drivers claim to be), art directors were painters who were just getting some money in for a couple of years, and researchers were kept in a cupboard. They all made it obvious that they felt advertising was beneath them - socially and intellectually.

It is awful to work where people despise their own trade. I tried to think of something else to go and do.

Meanwhile, I wrote scripts. After all, there was no need to bother the creative department for yet another formula Pedigree Chum commercial. My account director slept on his sofa every day after lunch. Any attempt at original advertising was subject to sweaty-palm tests, eye-blink tests, 24-hour recall and people swivelling levers to register their (lack of) interest every second of the 30, all conduc-ted by client-hired researchers with no interest in a great outcome and no responsibility for making anything potent out of the meaningless wreckage they handed back to the agency.

Nothing made any sense, it all seemed to be gobbledegook.

I only mention all of this because it could all so easily return. There's nothing that makes the revolution of the late 60s immutable. It could all slip back if agencies don't stay vigilant in pursuit of the commercial power of original thinking and retain as much ownership of the development of their own work as they possibly can.

Although, to a young trainee, the immediate hinterland did seem pretty awful, there were, of course, some giants such as John Hobson and Jack Wynne Williams, there were thoughtful folk at JWT, and the stirrings of a new generation of bright enthusiasts at CDP and KMP. We were beginning to see work from DDB in America that appeared to have been produced by human beings.

In retrospect, we can all see that the 60s became a turning point for advertising. Towards the end of the decade, the excitement was everywhere - fresh, surprising work was coming out (although this was still only a tiny proportion of the whole) and the common sense of planning was improving the survival chances of good work. The young, and new ways of doing things, ruled the world. Indeed, the "British model" did go on to change the world of advertising.

But never forget how easily the bad times could return if we concede the freedom to develop our own work.

TONY BRIGNULL

What became known as the "creative revolution" was started in the 60s by DDB New York and, in particular, by the "B" in that title, William Bernbach.

I met Bernbach just once. It was at DDB London, when Martin Walsh and I were asked to do a campaign for Chivas Regal, a 12-year-old blend for which the New York agency had created an award-winning campaign of unprecedented wit and sophistication. We were determined to beat it and we came up with the line: "Non-burning Scotch." Somehow we managed to persuade ourselves and, more amazingly, David Abbott, that it was wonderful. As it was, Bernbach happened to be in town and we were given the privilege of presenting it to him ourselves.

He sat alone in a small office he'd borrowed for the visit. He was, I guess, just below average height and a few pounds over his fighting weight. He wore a cream shirt, a silk paisley tie, a jacket of soft tweed and shoes of softer leather. Everything about him, his face, his posture his hands was still, his manner gracious, courteous.

He said nothing while we showed him our work and when we finished (trying not to "sell" but merely show) he paused and looked through it all again in private thought. Then he thanked us for our fine efforts, "Very fine," he said ... he paused again. "Look," he continued, "we have developed a campaign for Chivas in America, do you know it?"

We knew it.

"It seems to be doing well. By all measures, sales, awareness, memorability, we think it's working. Don't we owe it to Seagrams to try it in Europe, too? I know this will be hard for you, but I wonder if I might ask you to see if we can?" It was a genuine question. The great man was asking us, two nobodies, for a favour. We fell over ourselves to comply. Within a week, we had developed a campaign of six ads, one or two of which were among the best in my portfolio when I left the business 30 years later.

I tell you this story for a reason. When you see the representation in the new TV series of our industry in the 60s remember Bernbach. He lifted us all to a new level of creativity, responsibility and dignity. For a while, ad people became as important to clients as their banks, lawyers, accountants. And thanks to Bernbach, our voice was heard at the highest level.

He set new creative standards, and had a conscience. There were things he wouldn't do for money. He wouldn't advertise cigarettes, for example. And he would have quietly and privately told distillers that alcopops would distress children and demean their business, and they would have listened to him. His obituary simply said: "He made a difference." He did.

- Mad Men starts on 2 March at 10pm on BBC Four.