Working for Mad Men

My first job at an “ad shop”—the advertising world’s jaunty expression for houses of hooey hucksterism (sorry, couldn’t resist)—was at Wells Rich Greene in the late 1980s. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the creative folks there whose mantra was always, “This isn’t brain surgery.”

The big cheese in those days was Mary Wells, perhaps the model for TV Mad Men‘s Peggy Olsen, the sharp, budding feminist copywriter who makes it out of the secretarial pool and manages to be taken seriously in an era when women are just defining “the problem that has no name,” i.e., sexism.

Mary Wells’ genius, reputedly, is summed up in her early coup of doubling sales for Alka-Seltzer with the slogan “plop plop, fizz fizz, oh, what a relief it is” which forever sealed into our brains that a single effervescent pill simply won’t do. By 1969, Wells was the highest-paid advertising executive and the first woman CEO of any company listed on the NY Stock Exchange.

I was a 24-year-old proofreader who managed to get the job by sending myself on an interview when the posting came across my desk where I worked for six dreadful weeks at an employment agency. I used to tear my hair out about the racism of a job trying to secure employment for office personnel. Many of the client companies, whose hiring staff knew it was illegal to ask the race of the prospective employee, instead would inquire of the men and women I was sending out for interviews, “Could s/he be your cousin?”

Decades before we learned that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama actually are distant cousins (1o times removed), I tweaked the truth a bit no matter the race of the applicant and always answered, “Sure.” Suffice it to say, the only commission I ever received for getting someone a job was for my own placement at Wells Rich Greene.

In those pre-digital days, when a team of artists worked in an unventilated room sticking images onto story boards with toxic glue, every aspect of agency life was highly stratified. I earned exactly $25,000 a year, every year, to correct the grammar and spelling of men and women who made at least 10 times my salary. My supervisor drove to the office every morning in a $100,000 Bentley.

Since a major client was Benson and Hedges, cigarette smoking was practically enforced and the stressed-out production heads sucked in at least two packs a day inside a skyscraper where the windows were designed not to open.

The office was located across from the chic Plaza Hotel and the stately image of 9 West 57th Street can be seen in every movie and TV show where the camera spans the skyline over Central Park. Because the place was across from the Russian Tea Room, down the block from Carnegie Hall and diagonally across from Tiffany’s, buying food in that area was insanely expensive. Yet only the bigwigs had free gourmet lunches of lamb and beef bourguignon served to them off sterling silver carts by white-gloved immigrants who rolled these sumptuous meals past secretaries, receptionists and me, the proofreader.

I answered their contempt by wearing my “By Any Means Necessary —Malcolm X” t-shirt to company get-togethers where the muckety-mucks steered clear of the efficient word nerd with an attitude. The years passed, I moved on to other ad shops and other jobs, but salary ceiling and caste system aside, I always looked back fondly on these strange places where quirky, smart people threw their energies into such silliness in order to pay the rent.

I’m back in the biz, though the bourbon cart of the Mad Men sixties, replaced by coke lines in the eighties, seems have given way to ergonomically correct standing desks and herbal tea stations. I’ll be looking out for the smart-alecky twentysomething wearing a scowl and an “I Make Glenn Beck Cry” t-shirt. She’s the one I’ll be joining for lunches of pb and j.

If you’re voting in NY State Tuesday, Nov. 2., make your vote count for something—Howie Hawkins, Green Party candidate for governor, Teamster, genuine left alternative to the Democrats.

I’ll be speaking this Friday, Nov. 5, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on Fighting the Right.

3 responses to “Working for Mad Men

  1. Pingback: Tuesday Odds and Ends - AgencySpy

  2. Very well written story. I watched Mad Men a little bit and I’m fascinated by the whole style and scene of the advertising industry. But I think the advertising industry has rapidly changed from the scene you describe to lots of people sitting around their computers testing out ads online and seeing what sticks. Even beyond search advertising, the industry has changed to the point where sites like GetMorePopular just sell out Facebook Fans to businesses. I think this is a pretty interesting change and well

    PS: I never understood the whole smoking peer pressure thing of 20-50 years ago. I guess being a little younger, it’s good that I never had to go through that.

  3. Very interesting and useful information, thanks!

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