'Mad Women' Book Excerpt: 'Get the Money Before They Screw You'

This Bit of Wisdom From Adland's 'Golden Era and More

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Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the book "Mad Women."

Jane Maas
Jane Maas

When Shirley Polykoff wrote the famous advertising slogan "Does she . . . or doesn't she?" for Clairol in 1956, only hussies dyed their hair. The slogan took off, and women all over America believed Shirley's reassuring answer to that question "Hair color so natural, only her hairdresser knows for sure." Within 10 years, almost 50% of them were coloring their hair (Shirley never used the word "dye"), bringing in about $100 million a year to Clairol, which owned half the market. Her agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, where she had once been the only female copywriter, had a lock on the Clairol business because of her.

She turned millions of women into blondes with campaigns like "Is it true blondes have more fun?" and "If I've only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde."

I bumped into Shirley at a pro bono advertising event in 1983, about 15 years before she died. She was already well into her 70s, but her hair was defiantly blond, and coiled in braids on top of her head. She looked like a buxom mother figure from "Fiddler on the Roof," good Russian-Jewish peasant stock -- which is exactly what she was.

She waggled a finger at me, inviting me to join her in a corner of the booth she was manning. "I've always liked you, Jane, and you're becoming a great success. So I want to give you this piece of advice. It could make a big difference to you."

I said I was all ears.

"Get the money before they screw you, darling," she said. "Before they screw you the way they screwed me."

Mad Women
Mad Women
The official Foote Cone story is that they doubled Shirley's salary twice in the early days. But women copywriters were earning just pittances. Most women who were writers in the "50s and "60s recall that they were making between $35 and $50 a week, about half the salary of a male copywriter.

On "Mad Men," when Peggy Olson is promoted from secretary to part-time copywriter, she asks for a raise from $35 a week to $40. "That's 15%," warns her boss, the creative director. Account man Pete Campbell explains to his bride why they can't afford to buy an apartment. "I'm only making $75 a week," he says, but adds that he'll soon be making a lot more.

Shirley could indeed have had her salary doubled and she still wouldn't have been making what a man earned.

Advertising was considered a glamorous field by scores of young women advancing on New York like lemmings, leaping from their secure ivy-covered heights into the world of Madison Avenue, completely unaware of what went on inside an agency. They soon discovered they could become either typists or secretaries, depending on whether they had shorthand. Shelly Lazarus, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, is considered one of the most powerful women in American business today. After graduating from Smith College, she wanted to work in advertising, but was offered only secretarial jobs. "I didn't type that well, and it didn't sound that interesting to me. A woman who worked at one of the agencies suggested that I get an MBA. She said, "I think if you have an MBA, they can't make you type.' "

Shelly Lazarus tells about discussions on women's products, like tampons, held in rooms filled with men from the client side and the agency side. "There would invariably come that moment when these men were arguing about which was the right approach and then someone would turn to me and ask, "Well, Shelly, what do women think?' So I actually wielded this enormous power because I was speaking on behalf of all women in the country. And whatever I said was believed. Because I was the only woman present. And how did the men know?"

If we couldn't balance our checkbooks, men figured, why should they pay us the same salaries as men? Would we notice? Would we care? To a large extent, they were right. We had no negotiating skills and were uncomfortable asking for money; it felt kind of whorish. In some weird way, it almost seemed proper for a man to earn more. A woman copywriter at Ogilvy discovered she was making a lot less than a colleague. She complained to her boss, who reacted with surprise. "But he's a man with a wife and kids to support."

"I accepted that explanation as totally plausible," she said, "and I didn't ask again." A male copywriter at Ogilvy in the same era told his boss he was getting married and immediately received a raise of several thousand dollars. "This will help with the mortgage," he was told. No woman in all my interviews told me she was rewarded for getting married.

In my early days as a copywriter, there were no women writing anywhere in the agency on "male" accounts like cars, alcoholic beverages or finance. I was the first woman to be assigned to the American Express account. The two Ogilvy account men, escorting me downtown to the American Express building for my first meeting, were understandably nervous. "Don't be surprised if the guys don't seem very friendly," one warned me. "They're concerned they'll have to watch their language around you." The second account executive added, "And they're afraid if they ever turn down creative work, you'll cry."

As they predicted, the young American Express clients were a little on the chilly side, but not downright hostile. We stood around the conference table, shifting from foot to foot. I didn't want to be the first to sit down; neither did anyone else. Then an older man entered the room, and all the guys sprang to attention. I didn't know who he was, but someone had the presence of mind to introduce us.

Howard Clark was the highest of the high, the client of clients, the CEO of American Express. He shook my hand warmly, escorted me to the table, and pulled out a chair.

This isn't going to be so bad, I thought.

"Did you forget your steno pad, dear?" he asked. "We can get you one."

From "Mad Women" by Jane Maas. Copyright 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press.

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