Dad's Gone, but the Jingles Survive

Pete Blackshaw Remembers His Father Bill, One of the Original Mad Men and an Imperfect Genius

By Published on .

Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
I had a weird, sinking feeling when the call came during the middle of a Nielsen meeting at Google's headquarters two years ago to this day.

Within a few minutes of my sister Amy saying "Dad died," I was racing to the San Jose Airport for the quick flight to the assisted-living home of my parents in Pasadena, Calif. It felt too abrupt. I mean, he'd just entered hospice care.

A zillion thoughts and emotions raced through my mind: Six distraught siblings (and many more grandchildren); my mother's Alzheimer condition; and the exhausting inevitability of telling her over and over. All that funeral stuff.

Oddly, throughout the flight, a number of ad jingles kept jingling in my mind. Old Chevy commercial melodies. The dramatic theme of now-gone Great Western Savings. The sweet "Catch Us" melody of the old Pacific Southwest Airlines.

Bill Blackshaw (left) was an ad man for 30 years, and many of his experiences matched those at Sterling Cooper on 'Mad Men.'
Bill Blackshaw (left) was an ad man for 30 years, and many of his experiences matched those at Sterling Cooper on 'Mad Men.'
Funny how emotions work.

Bill Blackshaw, my father, was one of the original Mad Men, and he logged more than 30 years in the industry, starting at BBBO. He wasn't nearly as suave as Don Draper, or as slick or fast-talking as Duck Phillips, and was miles apart from the pompous elitism of Pete Campbell. But trust me, he was one of them.

Consequently, I grew up on copy reels, Saturday morning agency trips, occasional TV shoots, agency perks such as Dodger World Series tickets and, oh yes, plenty of ad jingles. My passion for marketing and advertising, and the consumer understanding that undergirds it, traces to those precious experiences.

Interestingly, the show "Mad Men" opened up my father's agency world to me in ways I'd never appreciated or fully absorbed. He died halfway through the first season, but that was enough of a catalyst for us to have a number of priceless conversations about all aspects of the purported "Golden Age of Advertising."

True to my social-media passion, I captured many of these conversations on video, and even posted a summary version on YouTube, which he loved. I knew I was on to something when one of the "Mad Men" cast members, Rich Sommers (who plays Harry Crane, the guy who fortuitously heads the TV department) pinged me with a few appreciative comments and questions about my dad after seeing the video. (Let there be no doubt, folks -- social media is a listening lab!)

Bill Blackshaw's post-war advertising roots started at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he developed programs for major auto advertisers. That led to BBDO's Detroit office, where he was involved in campaigns such as "Dodge Boys." Transfers bounced him to Chicago, Pittsburgh and, ultimately, Los Angeles, where he jumped ship to Hollywood-based Eisaman, Johns & Laws, then one of the West Coast's most-successful independent agencies. Agency clients included Chevrolet, Penzoil, Kahlua, Alpha Beta, Cooper Tires, Pacific Southwest Airlines, Great Western Savings, Vail, Cooper Tires and Suzuki. He wrapped up his advertising career independently managing advertising for the Southern California Association of Mercedes Dealers.

All this and more put him in a prime position to critique "Mad Men." Overall, he gave high marks to the show's portrayal of the ad agency of the '60s: the look, feel and overall routine. The BBDO he joined in 1960 had much in common with the show's Sterling Cooper, from the firm's involvement with Richard Nixon's campaign to serving U.S. Steel. He also thought the show nicely portrayed how agencies would go to all lengths to serve clients, especially on the entertainment front.

Bill and Jeanette Blackshaw
Bill and Jeanette Blackshaw
He also thought the elitism portrayed in the show was spot on. A Catholic outsider who never would have made it to the agency world had it not been for the G.I. bill and St. John's, my dad's favorite quote was "Never trust a guy whose first name sounds like his last," a line I couldn't resist playing back at his funeral.

He lamented the sexism and the anti-Semitism of advertising. He talked of an insulated, mostly Protestant and privileged industry where Pete Campbell-types debated the wisdom of Sunday radio buys because everyone "would be at the polo matches."

In my video interviews, he did offer a few points of clarification of Matt Weiner's world. He took issue with the show's portrayal of the copy-development brainstorming process in which everyone would participate. "Most of the copy process took place with copywriters and art directors in a conference room screaming and arguing," he chuckled.

Moreover, the notion of a bar in every office, he suggested, was a total exaggeration, almost preposterous. That said, he openly concedes that the three-martini lunch was "invented by the ad business."

On this point, my dad's life and the show's script collide on a darker side of the business: alcoholism. By the time he died, at age 83, he had already passed his 30th anniversary without a drink, and whatever took place in the years before remains a bit shrouded in mystique. Until his final days, he still regularly attended AA meetings, and he coached and mentored countless peers from rough spots. At least one early colleague outright died of the disease.

For me, what resonates most about "Mad Men" is not the glamorization of advertising -- the style, the postmodern architecture, the '60s coming of age -- but its brutal honestly about the blemishes. Amidst the jingles, copy reels, ad shoots and occasional trips to the Hollywood office was a more complicated aspect of the industry. Indeed, most of what grips us about the show is much more subtle than Don Draper trading dog tags after the Korean War.

It's precisely such uncertainty, even instability, that's helping so many of us find deeper -- arguably more "authentic" -- connections with the show.

In my case, the connection runs deeper. Curiously, in my dad's subtle imperfections also lay his creative genius and ability to connect and relate with others. Now, on the two-year anniversary of his death, I regret we didn't have the opportunity to continue the "Mad Men" conversation.

Just imagine where that ad jingle might have taken us.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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