WHAT WAS MADISON AVENUE REALLY LIKE DURING THE “MAD MEN” YEARS?
My background for writing the novel, THE HOLIDAY PARTY (A Tale of a Corporate Takeover) is that I spent over 50 years of my life working in the advertising sales departments of major national magazines and newspaper chains in NYC and LA. This period of time included calling on advertising agencies and advertisers on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Therefore, it is perfectly natural for people to ask me, when they know this, how closely is the MAD MEN show to this actual period in time?
MAD MEN is certainly a great, well acted, show. They are right on target as to the working conditions and the way people dressed. A number of the commercials they reveal on MAD MEN are real ones. There usually always was a secretarial pool for women at most of the ad agencies and very few women, just like on the show, advanced out of it.
I close my eyes and I remember New York City in the 1960s. They say the Egyptians have the pyramids, but in a way when you walked up Park Avenue, in that decade and today, too, you’ll see the corporate “pyramids”. However, I should add, unlike the Egyptian pyramids, these corporate “pyramids” teamed and still team with lively living people. The Seagrams Building was on one side of Park and Lever Brothers and Colgate Palmolive on the other. Looming over Grand Central Station in the 1960s, facing Park Avenue, to the North, like a huge, broad shouldered, headless giant was the old Pan Am Building. The building still stands, now called the MetLife Building, but the airline has long gone out of business and so, too, has its original name. Along the way, was a dark grey looking building, on the West side of Park Avenue, which was a private club. Interestingly, many men with strong Ivy League social connections owed their livelihoods to their ability to be a member of this club. It was a club where key contacts for business were made.
Drinking and smoking, just like on MAD MEN, was very heavy. It was not uncommon for a luncheon guest of the magazine I worked for to order at least three drinks at lunch time. Regarding smoking, if you called on the NYC based tobacco companies as I did, they didn’t care if you didn’t smoke but God help you if you did and didn’t smoke their brand. No one spoke about calories at that time. No one ever seemed to hear of the word “cholesterol”. As the emphasis on health became more apparent, in later years, a number of the great steak houses that depended on the luncheon crowd went out of business. I remember the excesses of drinking when I once saw a couple of dapper looking gentleman, after the lunch hour, walking in a swaying manner along Madison Avenue and then Park. One of them actually forgot to zip up his fly, completely oblivious to the stunned lunch crowd passing by The drinking at lunch never precluded those who returned to the suburbs and rode the bar cars on their way back home in the evening. Bar cars also served the purpose of being a great resume exchange place for the commuters, too.
In this type of male dominated advertising society, there were very few women who performed other than secretarial work. Some exceptions who became great successes in this era were Mary Wells and Shirley Polykoff. Mary Wells became one of the founders of the ad agency, Wells Rich Green. Her airline account, Braniff, at her initiative, had the airplanes painted a variety of colors and the stewardesses dress in a very attractive manner. She later married the president of the airline. Ms. Polykoff, who actually began her career in the 1950s, was famous for her Clairol tagline which referred to whether or not a woman colored her hair, “Does she… or doesn’t she?”
The ad campaigns shown on the “Mad Men” show for Eastman Kodak’s Carousel Projectors or Samsonite luggage were actually as they were. It was a time of great creativity with giants like Bill Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernbach and David Ogilvy, who owned his own agency. Who can ever forget Bill Bernbach, after extolling the virtues of the Volkswagen, gave America a chuckle when he created a billboard with a Volkswagen with a flat time and had the caption, “We can’t all be perfect.” Or David Ogilvy, pitching the silent power of the Rolls Royce engine, as the car was pictured moving along a country road at a high speed and stating, “all you can hear is the ticking of its clock.”