During the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s I worked at some of Madison Avenue’s largest and most prestigious advertising agencies. Most notably, I spent nearly twenty years at Y&R New York which at the time was considered one of the best of the best.
I started as a lowly junior copywriter struggling away in a tiny interior office (we didn’t have cubicles in those days) and rose to become an executive creative director assigned to some of Y&R’s biggest and best accounts. For a time, I even got to sit in an oversized corner office (admittedly on one of the agency’s less prestigious floors) where I got to choose my own furniture and knick-knacks with the help of our on-staff interior decorator.
In other words, I spent my Madison Avenue years kind of like a mini-Don Draper albeit with glasses and curly, instead of slicked back, black hair. Unlike Draper, after my first seven or eight years on the job, I got to wear jeans and turtleneck sweaters to the office instead of Brooks Brothers suits and skinny ties. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, wearing jeans to the office became a sign that one possessed greater creative powers. As did sporting facial hair, though only for men. After that, the suits came out of the closet only when I had to go to meetings with senior clients which was was because most of our senior clients had yet to be informed of the creative powers of blue denim.
Anyway, when Madmen came on the air six seasons ago, I watched one or two episodes and then stopped. I didn’t find the ones I saw all that interesting and except for news and NY Giant football games I don’t watch a whole lot of television anyway. Obviously, the show turned out to be a big hit and for the last six years whenever I meet someone new at some kind of social function, they inevitably exclaim, ”Oh, you were in advertising. You must watch Madmen.” Up until this weekend, I inevitably disappointed them when I responded “No.”
I had the sense they wanted to question me about the show’s accuracy depicting life in a big New York ad agency back in the day. I suppose, if I had been a Mafia hitman instead of a copywriter, they would have been equally disappointed at my inability to comment on Tony Soprano’s methods of bumping off other wiseguys.
Since I still practice copywriting when I’m not writing my Mike McCabe thrillers, last Thursday I attended a party thrown by the Advertising Club of Maine to celebrate this year’s season finale of Madmen. After chatting about the show for most of the two or three hours I was there I decided it was time I got up to speed with what all the hoopla was about. So Saturday morning I hit the Netflix “Watch Instantly” button on my computer and, in something of a Madmen marathon, spent the next two days arbitrarily watching nine episodes of Season Three.
So now I can finally stop disappointing all those people who have been asking for the inside skinny for last six years and provide the definitive answer. Yes, I will tell them, the show is fairly accurate though more than a little exaggerated.
Yes, we worked hard. “If you don’t come in Saturday, don’t bother coming in Sunday,” was a quip one often heard in the halls of Y&R on Friday afternoons.
Yes, the politics could be gruesome. But politics anywhere are always gruesome.
Yes, we drank and smoked a lot. The creative head of the agency, my boss for most of my twenty years at Y&R, swilled down at least two and usually three vodka martinis and smoked about ten cigarettes during the course of each and every two hour lunch I ever had with him. Even so he worked till nine or ten practically every night and showed no signs of diminished judgment. In fact, even after three martinis, he was one of the smartest guys I ever worked with.
And yes, as in Madmen, people had more than a few illicit office affairs often with other people’s spouses. I remember one young female copywriter who worked for me complaining bitterly about another young female copywriter who received what copywriter #1 considered an undeserved promotion by the time-tested tactic of sleeping with her boss. “That bitch,” copywriter #1 snarled after the event, “She’s the only woman I know who actually f*#&ked her way to the middle.”
What Madmen misses, at least in the nine episodes of the show I watched, was the fun we all had. Being in advertising in those days of big budget commercials and business class travel, especially at a great agency like Y&R, was a ball. Sitting around with a bunch of smart, funny creative people and dreaming up whacky ideas for new TV campaigns, then selling them to the client and then going out to shoot them in Hollywood or on some exotic location somehow made all the hard work and political baloney worthwhile. For me and for most of my friends from those days (many of whom I still see), it was a great way to make a damned good living.