I Was an Ad Biggie

Let's get the doctored photo image out of the way first. That's my face in the photo allright. But not with those lovelies. However, I did have my own share of tempting taxi cab rides.

Before the time professionals in advertising came to be referred to as "Mad Men", we called ourselves "Ad Biggies". The "Mad Man" moniker comes from when a lot of the advertising agencies in New York City were headquartered on Madison Avenue. Does anyone not know that?

Calling ourselves Ad Biggies was somewhat of a self-mocking thing to do. The kind of boast "Young Turks" like to make. An inside joke. Not something we actually would claim, unless we thought it would bring a laugh. And, the term "Young Turks". I remember there was a headhunter who would typically specify in her NY Times classifieds, "Wanted: Young Turks". This was code for eager beavers who would go 100% plus right out of the box, and be put on the so-called "Fast Track". Carrots before horses.

Lots of jargon in the Biz. We "Targeted" "Optimized", "Maximized". Definitely, "Synergized". We got "Penetration" and "Saturation" and "Efficiency" and "Bang for the Buck". We "Blitzed" and made sure there was enough "Reach" and "Frequency". There was "Duplicated", and then there was "Unduplicated". Sometimes we would "Put it on the train to Greenwich to see where it gets off". "Put it on the back stoop to see if the cat licks it up." "Run it up the flagpole to see who would salute it." But, we only used those phrases in jest. You get the meaning. And, the cynicism.

We all liked a good advertising joke. During the blackout of 1965 the story went around about a young lady claiming to have been deflowered by an advertising account executive while trapped in a pitch black elevator. When asked how she was certain is was an advertising guy, she stated, "I had to show him what to do".

News came through the mill that a certain advertising man had died. Someone over cocktails asked, "What did he have?" "He had $10 million with Procter and Gamble and $6 million from Prudential."

I did a stint on Madison Avenue myself, at my last job in the business with Doyle Dane Bernbach. Bill Bernbach was still roaming the halls then, and Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane had offices in the building, those two rarely seen. That was before DDB went public and then was subsequently gobbled up into a huge holding company. Media billed at 15% commission, production costs at 17.65%. That's it; no negotiation. Now everything is negotiated. 

It was the time when that brilliant author, Patty Volk, was a hard working copywriter, with antimacassars on her office couch. She had a thing for lace and wore lace collars frequently. She is a nice Jewish girl, and if it weren't for her public acclaim as an author, she could have fallen back on her inherited fame as the descendant of one Sussman Volk. The gentleman is said to have served the "foist" pastrami sandwich in America way back in 1887. Read Ms. Volk's book Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. Props to Patty.

Technologically, when I was last in the business we were just getting typewriters in from IBM with the capability of storing documents in memory. Believe me, it was all directly from the typewriter during that time. An original business letter had to be perfect, no mistakes. There was such a thing as having a good secretary. Mistakes, if any, were whited out or taped over, but only in documents meant to be photocopied from the original. Particularly troublesome was when you had an exhibit for a presentation which was all numbers, ten rows across, twenty down. If you were projecting the presentation on a screen you had to go to a dedicated A/V department to have your material photo copied onto a slide. And, if there was an error in a chart, back it went for type correction and a new slide. Rush, rush. Panic mode. We didn't even have a glimmer of what in the digital world now takes minutes and is as easy as pie. Now you can practically correct a slide mid-presentation. It's hard to convey the kind of anguish with the time pressure you had to go through to get ready for a presentation with that ancient level of technology.

Alright, so I'm sounding like an old timer. Hey, so what?! There was a time when all that was new and fresh to me too. And, though ultimately it wasn't the field for me, I did learn a lot; interacted with some very nice (some not so) people, and super sharply smart folks.

My first job in advertising was at the venerable J. Walter Thompson Company in 1968. JWT was headquartered in the Graybar Building on Lexington Avenue, across the street from the magnificent Chrysler Building and directly connecting to Grand Central Station. At that time Kodak displayed a giant photo mural covering the entire East wall of the terminal. 

Four years before I arrived in 1968 JWT had celebrated its 100th year of operation. At the time it was also the largest ad agency in the world. It too has since been gobbled up by a conglomerate.

The executive offices at JWT were pretty swell. I was a newly minted Account Executive and I had an office with oak paneling, a coffered ceiling, furnished with Early American antique furniture. The big execs had offices with custom artistically made wrought iron panels floor to ceiling backed with frosted glass. The agency even had a snooty arty type on permanent staff to manage its in house art collection. I don't remember her name, but she looked the part and breezed about in flowing caftans. I am grateful to her. At one Christmas party, there was a raffle and I took home a huge original Jules Cheret poster.  It was under glass in a slim gilt frame, something like 30 by 40 inches. I took it home to Park Slope on the subway, genuinely fearful it might break in two with the crush of riders.

The company occupied several floors in the Graybar Building. In the lobby we had the south bank of elevators. Vogue Magazine went to the north. I remember all those unattainable "stuck up" Vogue girls so fashionably going to their office. You work for Vogue, you gotta pose, right.

In the reception area on most floors at J. Walter Thompson there was a receptionist. Women of a certain age who were all very well dressed, carefully coiffed, and expertly made up. All those gals looked like they might have had, shall we say, history with some of the bosses back in the day. On the floor with the creative types, the receptionist was a slim old colorless woman, gaunt and gray with a huge beehive hairdo, lots of makeup, bright red lipstick, and black cat eye glasses. Her look said, "Creative". I never passed her that I didn't take special notice. In the 12th floor, where the top executives lived, the lobby featured Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs in black leather and a Richard Lippold wire sculpture adoring the North wall. He is fabulous. Take a look at his work "Flight", which adorned the Vanderbilt lobby of the PanAm Building back in the day.

I left J. Walter Thompson to get a substantial jump in salary. Ted Bates and Company, also now somewhere in a conglomerate, had just moved from its original site at 666 Fifth Avenue to 1515 Broadway between 44th and 45th Streets on the West Side. The address was then named the W.T. Grant building and it was constructed on the site of the old Astor Hotel. Many a lunchtime at Nathan's Famous down the road a bit, or Grant's on 42nd Street wolfing down a dozen clams on the half shell with a nice glass of beer. Or, the Governor Cafeteria farther down Broadway in the Garment District. When I left Ted Bates my farewell lunch was at the Governor. (When I left DDB we celebrated[?] at the Brussels where I enjoyed lobster ravioli with shaved fresh truffle. I didn't have a goodbye fete from JWT, but the headhunter who engineered my switch for more do-ray-me took me to a four martini lunch to celebrate.)

Ted Bates was were I really learned the advertising business. Strategy ruled. It is the famous home of the USP, Unique Selling Proposition. The claim was the thing. There was such an emphasis on scientifically valid claims we even had our own science department. Even with clients we sat in and discussed research design and consulted with their own clinical researcher on interpreting the data for advertising claim purposes.

Once when the bakers of Wonder Bread, the ITT Continental Baking Company in Rye, New York, wanted to market a high fiber bread, we watched as the recipe that included wood cellulose (the fiber ingredient that backed the claim) would burst into flames when it went into the toaster. Or, a sourdough bread that got its tang from the addition of vinegar. Actually, that one did better in consumer taste tests than real old fashioned sourdough made with fermented starter. Go figure.

The agency had gotten into trouble with the FTC showing Colgate Rapid Shave taking the grit off sandpaper. This was on our part I'm sure more about the visual than a claim of being able to remove sand from sandpaper. The legal outcome was that after each commercial featuring a shaving scene the agency producer had to sign a document attesting to the fact that the shaver only went over the demonstrated shaved area only once. In another situation a junior executive was called on the carpet for disclosing to a reporter that there was only 1/4 ounce of butter in the top cut of the whole loaf of Home Pride Butter Top bread. You see the issue, don't you. We made a big fuss over the taste. The small amount actual butter was just gave us legitimacy to make the claim. Then again, when we realized that the closing of Wonder Bread commercials used a foam rubber insert to have the bread showing up on screen springing back nicely for the camera, we went back to the studio to redo with an actual loaf of bread. CYA.  

From the foregoing you should get the clear idea the game was to generate a superior selling claim. As far as that goes, fine enough. However, whether in fact there was any real benefit or need, that was secondary to the goal of getting something hard hitting that passed legal (Oh yes, "Hard Hitting" was tossed out a lot too). I was a clean cut, honest looking Midwest kid, and I was usually the designated one to take advertising ideas to the in-house legal department.

We were in the business of selling goods and services. Completely neutral, as professionals should be as I was told, to any considerations of social impact, ecology, or conscience; and, perhaps with a rather fungible sense of ethics and morality. If it sold, it was good. 

Nowadays that ethic is way more out of the closet than when I was in the Biz. Of course we weren't so short term to not consider something called "Repeat Purchase". It's one thing to get someone to try a product or service; but, the question is, will they come back for another. Then another, and eventually become a regular customer. So, we weren't just out to fool folks. But, a large part of the advertising message is based on the underlying, if unstated, supposition that consumers in general can reliably be expected to be fools. Look at all that drug advertising on television with an arms length of disclaimers for sometimes terribly harrowing possible side effects. The voice-over blithely and sweetly chirps the list of possible horrors then happily suggests you ask your doctor if is this is right for you. Insert a "Hey, asshole!" at the beginning of that line and you have the complete message, fully stated.

Obviously, what I have shared here is just a smattering. I could write a book. For whom to read? That keeps me from going there. Net, net (oh, that's one of the pieces of jargon too) I enjoyed my time in Advertising. Maybe with equal amounts of dread. Job security is something you are constantly working on, and the pressure to to have your standards, integrity, and even ethics coopted can be intense. Especially when you're strapped into a mortgage, car payments, and a family to raise.

At one point in all that, I just had a moment of clarity and honesty with myself. I did not really want to be doing this. This Advertising business thing. Not long after, the universe did its thing and I was out. I had already become keenly interested in holistic health and healing. My own Rolfing experience was life transforming. Within a few years after leaving Madison Avenue, I trained successfully and became a Certified Rolfer. I enjoy immensely working in a worthy field which is both artistically challenging and sharing in terms of true human values. Teaching people of all kinds how to live well and stay healthy. Going on 34 years.

And now, just like everyone else, I enjoy the commercials. And the discussions about how good they are. But, come on! "Coke ads life"? Most advertising, like I said before, would read better if it the spots were prefixed with, "Hey, Asshole!"

I actually now do work in a field that truly adds life. Now, just to get the word out. I'm an Ad Biggie, after all. It's in my blood.

Click here to read a Top Secret, recently de-classified account of my exploits in counter espionage in advertising.

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