Season three of AMC’s Mad Men ended with a bang, break-ups (a marriage and an agency), and the promise of new beginnings. So, while Mad Men fans everywhere are having hiatus withdrawal and anticipating what Don will do next, Mad Men Confidential is a special series that looks at the show from a different perspective… from the inside out.
I’ll be bringing you commentary and discussion about the Mad Men episodes from fellow real Mad Men insiders. Frank talk about what life was like on (and off) Madison Avenue — colorful behind the scenes accounts about how ad campaigns were created, client meetings happened, office politics played out, the three-martini lunches and after hours hijinks that are the fabric of the Mad Men TV series. And, just for fun, some of today’s brash and bold Mad Men and Women will join in for interesting conversation, lively banter, and creative one-upmanship — a provocative “then and now” look at Madison Avenue that’s guaranteed to make sparks fly over the martinis and Merlot!
Who Are These Guys?
Mad Men is an Emmy Award-winning phenomenon that has also succeeded in popularizing the advertising business of the 1960s. Well, I am one of those ad guys lucky enough to have started my advertising career in the Mad Men era and fortunate to be still at it today. In the ‘60’s, Madison Avenue was synonymous with creativity, style, panache, and power and was seen as the trendsetting arbiter of American values. It was considered a glamorous business and an elite occupation populated with A-type egos who either decided to skip medical school, leave after the first year of law school, wanted no part of Hollywood or didn’t like the downtown vibe of Wall Street. So, we took our MBAs and English Literature degrees uptown to Madison Avenue to make our mark at one of New York’s legion of advertising agencies.
Mad Men Roots
My first day on the job was February 15, 1965 at Benton & Bowles (B&B), one of Madison Avenue’s top tier “white shoe” ad agencies. I started in the Media Department working under some legends of the business: Lee Rich, Bern Kanner, and Merrill Grant. Starting pay, $100 per week… $20 more per week than they were paying at McCann or Grey. After a few months I was promoted to be one of those account men you’ve come to know at Sterling Cooper. Rather than Peter Campbell or Ken Cosgrove, my mentors were Roy Bostock and Tom Griffin, smart, savvy guys who set me on the right path and went on to assume leadership roles in the Industry. The Don Drapers who put me through the creative wringer were Whit Hobbs, Joe Bacal, and Sid Lerner, who created some of the classic advertising of the period. The executive suite at B&B was populated with a trio of the classiest Mad Men in the business: Ted Steele, Jack Bowen and Vic Bloede, inspiring role models.
I stayed at B&B until 1970 and from there went on to work at other great ad agencies on an array of some famous and not so famous accounts, and a seven-year stint on the client side. (We’ll save that story for another TV series.) Fast forward 45 years, and I’m lucky to still be at it working with today’s new breed of Mad Men… and Women. Over the past five decades I’ve seen it all, including being vice chairman of the largest global agency network, McCann-Erickson, and had the pleasure and privilege of working with some of the biggest, coolest, craziest people in the business.
It Was A Special Moment In Time
Mad Men depicts a time when men in suits and ties literally defined the way regular people lived their lives. Way before PCs and Macs, the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter, Mad Men used the growing power of television, radio, magazines, and outdoor advertising to conjure up and deliver images that endured and still define our culture today. From Aunt Jemima to the Marlboro Man, to Mr. Whipple, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, “soaps” and soap commercials, the VW Beetle and “Look Ma, no cavities” these Mad Men showed us who we wanted to be and told us what to buy. And we loved it!
Meet The Real Mr. Whipple
My big break at B&B came when I was promoted to be the account executive on P&G’s Charmin toilet tissue account. We were riding high on perhaps one of the most successful ad campaigns in history featuring Mr. Whipple — a grocery store owner obsessed with keeping people from “squeezing the Charmin” (because it is so soft, of course).
Mr. Whipple was brilliantly brought to life by the great character actor Dick Wilson. I was about to go to LA for my first Charmin TV production and to meet Dick Wilson. I was invited to a meeting to discuss potential PR around the shoot with Sid Lerner, the creative director, and the agency’s director of public relations whom I’d not yet met. When the meeting started Sid said, “Hank, meet the real Mr. Whipple,” and he introduced me to George Whipple who was the charismatic PR Director of the agency. The creative team that originally developed the campaign a few years earlier borrowed George Whipple's name for their obsessed grocer. B&B paid George a buyout fee of $1 for the use of his name. A 1978 newspaper poll named George Whipple the third best known American behind President Nixon and Billy Graham. Not bad for a dollar.
The Big Picture Of What’s On The Small Screen: My Take
I often get asked if Mad Men is an accurate reflection of what it was really like. How realistic, or perhaps not realistic enough, is the life of the ad men being portrayed on the show. Mad Men is TV at its best so there is an expected degree of exaggeration and hyperbole. While some of the situations depicted seem a bit over the top, at its essence and in large part what is portrayed on Mad Men rings true with me in many ways. The attention to detail, staging, and casting is wonderful and almost mesmerizing. Sterling Cooper is eerily similar in tone and texture to Benton & Bowles. The client situations, office dynamics , meeting banter and, of course, the drinking, sex, and smoking are pretty much on the mark. Except, when I arrived, most of us were smoking something a lot more stimulating than Lucky Strikes. I’m sure as the show moves forward, the nature of what gets inhaled will progress accordingly.
Work Hard — Play Harder
Then, as today, advertising was a high pressure business that demanded hard work, long hours, personal sacrifice, and a flair for the dramatic. In the 1960s the “work hard, play hard” ethic was in full force, especially on Madison Avenue. No, it wasn’t all about martinis, misogyny, and mischief, but there’s no doubt that these ingredients were part of the play hard culture that also crossed over into personal lives and relationships. Hell, we practically had no choice but to indulge. Given client entertainment “duties,” lunches, dinners, parties, and boondoggles hosted by media companies, printers, production houses, and other suppliers you could virtually pick your party and your pleasure every day — for free. Remember, these were the T&E glory days of anything goes expense accounts and these extracurricular benefits helped us survive and thrive on salaries of $100 per week.
On the work hard side, Mad Men also nails it pretty well. The pressure to perform and stay ahead of the game was relentless. One of Roger Sterling’s lines from a season one episode sums up the pressure very well. "The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them."
The stakes were high and the tempers and temperatures of many of the agency meetings ran even higher. Another creative director at Benton & Bowles, Dick Anderson, always had a wonderful way of putting all this angst and antics into perspective. One day he saw that I was a bit frustrated by how difficult it was to actually get advertising created, produced, and on the air. The office politics, endless meetings, ego battles, and the amount of client “handling” required could sometimes seem endless. I’ll never forget what he said to me. “Remember this. You’re working with some of the brightest creative people on the planet who spend most of their time smoking, drinking, and selling soap to each other. Relax. Enjoy it." I can’t say that I spent the rest of my career relaxing but I certainly did enjoy the journey… and still am.
In the next installment of Mad Men Confidential we'll be taking a closer look at the final episode of season three, "Close The Door and Take a Seat," an episode that hit all too close to home with me 20 years later.
If you are a fellow real Mad Man with a story to tell or would like to be interviewed for this series please attach a comment or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.