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Now It’s Time To Hear From The Real Mad Men

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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.

Stay tuned.

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 hank@conceptfarm.com.

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About Hank Wasiak

Hank Wasiak is a communications industry leader and partner at the creative hot shop, The Concept Farm. Hank began his advertising career in 1965 as a real Mad Man at Benton & Bowles. He is a best selling author, teacher, motivational speaker and three time Emmy award winning television host. Hank and Dr. Kathy Cramer created a best selling business - self help book series based on Asset-Based Thinking published by Running Press. Hank also is an Adjunct Professor at USC's Marshall School Of Business.
  • Terry

    Hank, an excellent blogpost, as per your usual. It was truly an honor to have had the pleasure of working for you. Your true leadership and the inspiring culture you cultivated is one of the fondest periods of my career. You have left an indelible mark on me and many others.

  • http://www.famefoundry.com/935/put-away-the-smoke-and-mirror FFcommunicator

    “Who are these guys?” is a headline that’s been used to create artificial buzz for as long as I can remember. I wish it meant something. It’s all about “smoke and mirrors.”

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Hey Terry…thanks for reading the article and your comments. We are due for a long overdue get together. You’re the best

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Hi FF. Thanks for reading the article. Sorry you didn’t like the “Who Are These Guys” caption. Thought it worked for this since the article is about getting to know the real men behind the MadMen and, in fact, they were mostly guys. I’ll do better next time.

  • sid lerner

    Hank,
    Thanks for those B&B memories. Glad we’re both stiil enjoying the trade. We’ll get it right yet.

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Thanks Sid. Practice makes perfect. Looking forward to siting down with you to discuss an episdoed of Mad Men. Back to the Future.

    Hank

  • Jo-Lynne Worley

    Great blog Hank. Love your take on it all.

  • Nick Bishop

    Ah Hank – those were the days – the reality is of course many of the challenges way back then are the same challenges now – only the media choices have changed (ballooned). Its always great to read what you think. keep it up !

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Thanks Nick. I’m sure I’ll be calling on you for some current day Mad Men wisdom for a future article.

  • Brian

    Hank,

    Being a huge fan of the show Madmen, I came across your blog here. What a great idea you have here. Bringing us back to the days of those fat expense accounts and the world of self indulgence. It will be great to watch the show then get your memories, as fuzzy as they may be, about the way it really was. Keep them coming.

    Brian

  • Suzanne Mills

    Thanks for an interesting and entertaining Blog on your real life Madison Avenue 1960’s experience. I am absolutely addicted to Mad Men, and I thoroughtly enjoyed your perspectice on the reality of 1960s Madison Avenue and the accuracy of the show itself. Thank you!

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Thanks Suzanne. Glad you like the article. I’m a Big Fan of the show as well. Will be posting a new article on the season finale soon.

    Hank

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/michael-piraino/a/b85/615 michael piraino

    my wife & i missed the first season, so we are just getting up to speed but we love the show. brilliantly written, cast and acted its the highlight of our TV week (how about that JFK episode?). it feels a lot like west wing used to feel. when you see the final credits you want more (right now). as a child/teenager of the 60’s its interesting to put context around how my parents might have been.

    hank wasiak is a dear friend, fellow golfer & mentor. his insights are always right on target. what a renaissance man? to be able to enjoy the show from within is quite a treat. keep ‘em coming hank.

  • Lexi vonderlieth

    I started watching Mad Men out of professional curiosity and was immediately intrigued by the honesty it portrays. Mad Men makes me wish I could be part of that rich and complex world. Thanks to Mr. Wasiak, I am able to see the truth behind the show and open my eyes to this crazy world of advertising that I want to be part of. I appreciate Mr. Wasiak’s knowledge, and love that he can speak from personal experience. Great Article.

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Thanks Mike. I like that JFK episode as well. Stay tuned. More to come.

    Hank

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Hey Lexi. Now that you’re in the ad biz you will have an even greater appreciation for what happens on the show. Thanks.

    Hank

  • su robotti

    Lvoe the blog, tell me more! I started in on the ad sales side (print) in the early 80s. Just in time to watch the three martini lunch die out.

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Thanks Su. I can guarantee that some of the real stories are even better than the show. When you started in the ’80’s the expense accounts were a lot smaller. Hope all is well. Stay tuned.

  • GINNY

    Loved the article. It brought back alot of
    memories of the past. Don’t ususally watch the show, but you made it sound interesting,so I guess I’ll give it a shot.

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Thanks Ginny. You are one of the coolest 1960’s Brooklyn babes I know.Keep watching.

    Hank

  • Tom Prendergast

    I spent my time in the sixties calling on the ad agencies and their clients.One had to learn how to drink copious amounts of alcohol if you wished to develop a strong relationship with those hard drinking people. This served me well when I moved to Detroit where they took the drinking up a notch. Inspite of the hard drinking there was a tremendous amount of hard work going on and some very sound thought being put into the creative, marketing, and media products. Unfortunately, in the end, it is all about product! Detroit did not have it in those days and that old adage “the worst thing that can happen to a bad product is a great ad campaign” proved out.

  • Charles P.

    A lot of businesses during this era had big expense accounts, liquid lunches and great parties, but I guess the Advertising folks took the cake in this regard!
    The last MM episode was the best so far.
    I do admire those folks who can create something out of nothing!

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Tom. Thanks for your comments. Great observations about the Detroit Mad Men. They sure did take the martinis up a notch and great classic example of great advertising making a bad product worse. Look forward to talking to you about this.

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Charles. Glad you like the show and thanks for your comments. It was a work hard play hard time and it certainly added fuel to the creative fires. Stay tuned

  • Jill

    Great blog Hank. Watching Mad Men is like visiting with polite versions of former colleagues. I certainly don’t remember my creative team being so calm. Hope the writers represent the impending drug-infested years as well as they have the more alcohol-infused 60’s. I look forward to checking back here to get your point of view.

  • http://assetbasedthinking.com/ Hank Wasiak

    Thanks Jill. You’re right, there seemed to be a bit more volatility in the creative teams we dealt with. Glad you like the show and the article.

  • Debi

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this show and wondered what it really felt like to be on Madison Ave at the start of the advertising boom! Thanks for this fabulous blog…looking forward to the next posting.