By Rob Whittle
If, when you buy an econo-sized bottle of shampoo, you wonder which will last longer – you or it – you’re of an age when you might remember the three-martini lunch. I entered the advertising industry at the tail end of the Mad Men era as chronicled, quite accurately, by the TV series of that name.
My first week, I was invited to tag along to a lunch given by a radio sales rep. It wasn’t a three-martini lunch only because, as I recall the drinks of the participants were colored brown, but it had the same effect. What, you might reasonably ask, could anyone accomplish after such a midday bacchanal? The answer is: nothing. Absolutely nothing. Maybe a nap.
The Mad Men series did not focus on the inner workings of the agency in pre-computer days, choosing instead to feature big ideas, bodacious babes and the drinking and smoking habits of the principals. You could almost get lung cancer just by watching.
But without computers or the internet, the gears that ground to get the work done seem prehistoric today. The art department was a big room full of easels, overhead lamps and big magnifying glasses. A print ad was produced by pasting down a headline and type, which was ordered to specifications over the phone and delivered by courier. An illustration or photo was plunked down and likewise glued to the whole affair.
With an account like Steven-Windsor men’s clothing, an account executive would drive over to the client, ad in hand, for approval. Oops. There’s a typo on line three, second paragraph. Back to the agency, fill out a change order, wait for new type to be ordered, drive back to the client, get final approval.
When the first crude FAX machines came out, I not only bought one for the agency, but for all our clients as well.
Technology saves the day!
What drew me to the ad business was the power of a big idea that could change the direction of an enterprise and, in some cases, affect the popular culture as well. Advertising famously attracted its share of snake oil salesmen, but a brilliant creative mind, buttressed by a great presentation, could sway not only a room full of executives, but rule the airwaves as well once that idea was transformed into a 30-second piece of art.
Mad Men’s hero, Don Draper, could change the course of commerce solely on his say-so. Did you see a single example of a focus group in that entire series? No, you did not.
“It’s morning in America.” (Reagan reelection); “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” (beef) Maybe these famous lines were focus-group tested, but I doubt it. They, and hundreds like them, entered the zeitgeist of the culture of America, and to be a part of that was intoxicating, even if it was only on a regional level.
The most Don Draperish person of the Don Draper era was my agency’s founder, R. Hamilton Morrison, who recently passed away at the age of 88. Good-looking and charismatic, Ham cut a dashing figure in the industry.
Our partner, Andy Williams, was a character with a capital C. He was a Renaissance man who loved art, cooking, good wine, hunting and fishing. Business? Not so much. But back in the day, you could get away with that if you had the personality and the belief that you could change the world.
So, here’s to all the Mad Men – and Women – past and present. May your inspiration never be dulled by a focus group.
The writer is CEO of Williams Whittle Advertising and is the author of two historical novels, “Pointer’s War” and “Pointer and the Russian.”