Mad Men

The Real Scoop on Ad Age in the 'Mad Men' Era

Our Cameo in AMC Drama Skims Over Real-Life Drama of the '60s-Era Newsroom

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NEW YORK ( -- Legendary and irascible adman George Lois contends that "Mad Men," which began its new season Sunday, "misrepresents the advertising industry by ignoring the revolution that changed the world of communications forever. That mortal sin of omission makes 'Mad Men' a lie."

Writing in the August issue of Playboy, he called the show "nothing more than a soap opera set in a glamorous office where stylish fools hump their appreciative, coiffed secretaries, suck up martinis and smoke themselves to death as they produce lifeless advertising," unaware or uncaring about the creative and/or the social revolution swirling around them.

Lighten up, George. Even if "Mad Men" is a soap opera, so was a lot of what went on up and down Madison Avenue in the '60s�and, for that matter, today. Maybe it doesn't pay proper homage to the Creative Revolution, but that's not the program's purpose. Ask anybody who's participated in a big pitch, and he or she will affirm what a crazy and frenetic environment it was and is. And "Mad Men" does a pretty good job of capturing it.

I felt George's pain in the opening scene of Sunday's episode, however. Don Draper is at lunch with an Ad Age reporter, and our guy's first line is: "Who is Don Draper?" Don doesn't know what to say, so he asks how other people responded to such a question. "They say something cute," our reporter says. "One creative director said he was a lion tamer."

The Ad Age reporter is taking notes for his story in shorthand. He asks about a Glo-Coat ad that caused "a bit of a squeal," then says he has enough for his story. "It's only going to be a few hundred words. The picture may be bigger than the article." At that point other members of the agency show up, including Roger Sterling, and when the reporter gets up to leave he turns his leg entirely around and explains he lost his real limb in Korea. When he departs, Sterling quips, "They're so cheap they can't afford a whole reporter."

What's wrong with this picture? No. 1, we never did interviews over lunch; No. 2, we didn't take notes in shorthand; No. 3 we didn't ask cute-ass questions; and No. 4, our pictures were never bigger than our stories.

So what was it really like being a reporter for Ad Age in 1964?

I was a member of the Ad Age editorial staff in Washington, New York and Chicago in the '60s and, heaven help us, we would knock down walls to be the first to report a big account change, major product introduction or agency startup.

We had about nine reporters and editors in the New York bureau, including "Whispering" Larry Bernard, whose hushed phone manner made it sound like he was extracting state secrets; Maurine Christopher, the best broadcasting reporter in the business; and Bob Heady, surely the most dogged reporter Ad Age ever had. He used to comb the bars night after night looking for hot stories. Phyllis Johnson, our unflappable bureau chief, was close to many of the women creatives such as Shirley Polykoff, who did the "Does she ... or doesn't she?" Clairol commercials. We'd get a lot of inside stuff because of her relationships.

We'd come to work in at least a sports jacket or suit and tie�we had to be ready to have interviews with ad bigwigs�and we did a lot of lunches, but they were of the relationship-building kind, where we'd try to get in good with our sources.

I recall having lunch with George Whipple, who was the PR director of Benton & Bowles (and the namesake inspiration for the grocer who squeezed the Charmin roll in that iconic ad). After lunch, I was walking along Fifth Avenue and heard the bells of St. Patrick's ringing. I got back to the office at 630 Third Ave., and everyone asked: "Have you heard anything more?" I asked more about what? President Kennedy had been shot.

Then there was Jerry Della Femina, who would try to wow reporters at lunch by taking the lemon peel that had been doused in alcohol from his martini and lighting it on fire.

We gave big play to the story when Mary Wells broke off from Jack Tinker and Partners in 1966 and took the Braniff account with her; she later married the head of Braniff. And we devoted lots of coverage to the rise and fall of Marion Harper in '60s and covered the story when Papert, Koenig, Lois went public.

I was the new-product czar, and I would call supermarkets in test markets all over the country to find out what products were being tested and how they were doing. I could not tolerate being scooped, and one of the saddest days of my life was when I picked up Supermarket News and read that Kellogg Co. had discontinued a corn-flakes-and-dried-bananas cereal that they had been selling along the East Coast. Unlike today when we post breaking news to the web, we had to wait a whole week to see if the stuff we dug up would stay exclusive to our paper. "Everybody on our staff would be working the phones, trying to get every piece of information we could, make it a news item, and see how much success we had on Monday, when we would open the Times, and the Tribune in Chicago to see what they had," recalled Fred Danzig, who was editor of Ad Age from 1982 to 1995, in a recent video we taped for our 80th anniversary.

"You got on the phone, you talked to your sources. What do you hear? What's up? And somebody might mention something they heard at lunch. And now its 3 o'clock in the afternoon on Friday; our deadline was 5:30."

Fred continued: "Our sources would tell you, you know, I think Charlie Jones is leaving his agency, and he controls the XYZ account over there, and that's 20 million bucks, and he's going over to so-and-so. ... Items, news bits, tips would lead one into another."

Our publisher, Sid Bernstein, and our copy desk were in Chicago. So the New York office was an outpost, and we transmitted our stories via teletype.

It was Jim O'Gara, our executive editor out of New York, who said something to me back then that has kept me out of trouble ever since: "Assume, assume, assume," he sternly advised me, meaning never assume anything.

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