Gilbert's Memoir Captures Love of the Advertising Game

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We get a lot of books over the transom here at Ad Age. Many of them get pitched in the garbage. Most get stacked in a pile labeled "To Read Later." That pile typically disappears once every six months after it topples over and severely injures someone. So what possessed me to pick up Richard L. Gilbert's Marching Up Madison Avenue: How I Beat the Entrepreneurial Odds Armed with a Pencil and My Imagination.? The book doesn't promise to teach me how to make a million dollars or how to navigate a "fragmented media landscape." In fact, the phrase "fragmented media landscape" occurs nowhere in the book. Rather, it's a memoir of Gilbert's life and a history of his agency, Gilbert Advertising, which was started in 1950 and made its name in the '60s with the help of a bunch of hippies and boundary-pushing stunts (such as offering Soviet Premier Alexey Kosygin a free tux from After Six because his were so ... well, so obviously Soviet).

The forward, in fact, is written by one of those former counterculture sorts, Donald McCaig. Gilbert said that back in those days, "Nobody wanted to hire Don. He looked threatening!" (McCaig would later undercut that tough-guy persona by writing "Rhett Butler's People," the authorized sequel to "Gone With the Wind.") McCaig, says Gilbert "introduced me to a world I didn't know. ... I was sort of square. I was the establishment, but even though I was, I was one of them, too."

That sensibility is perhaps best epitomized in what might be the shop's most famous ad, done for silversmith and retailer Georg Jensen ahead of the Christmas of 1969. The ad featured a teddy bear wearing a black armband under the stark headline "Some toys hate war."

"The campaign we started played a key role in ending the war," he remembers. "It's sort of frustrating to see voices today are so silent."

The book's full of interesting bite-size chapter of a different era in advertising, back when print was still king. "It was a more tactile time," says Gilbert. "You picked up the ad. You read it. You spent time with it."

But don't lump Gilbert into the "Mad Men" camp. He thinks the show is a wonderful piece of fiction. The real creative revolution was a response to the Mad Men. "We wanted to get rid of them," he says. An influx of creatives from different backgrounds trumped the man in the gray-flannel suit.

"Marching Up Madison Avenue" provides a breezy history from a man who is disarmingly passionate and—something that seems out of place in the modern ad world—sincere about his love for the business and its potential to change things.