'Sex was in the air. You breathed it' - the TV series Mad Men
As 'Mad Men' draws to a close with its final series, Sam Delaney looks at the trailblazing women who shaped the dog-eat-dog world of Madison Avenue
Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30
In 1970, a hard-living New York adman, Jerry Della-Famina, published a wise-cracking drunken lunch of a memoir that would come to define an era on Madison Avenue and eventually inspire the TV series Mad Men.
The snappily titled From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor - Front Line Dispatches From the Advertising War thunders along in a blur of jaw-dropping anecdotes and snappy prose, as if written by Mad Men's Roger Sterling himself. One of his stories involves an art director called Jack, who tells his wife that he is leaving her for his girlfriend. She is distraught: "Why? Why?" she pleads. To which Jack replies: "Look, all the other guys at the agency have a girlfriend. Why can't I have one?"
Della-Famina reports that the furious spouse resolves to buy a gun and shoot all of the male executives in the agency as revenge for Madison Avenue's throng of wronged wives. "I am going to go up and get everybody!" she warns.
Della-Famina's tone is a mixture of indifference and amusement. Women are just hapless stooges in the adman's thrill-a-minute existence. As for their role in the workplace? Della-Famina sees them as essential for one reason only - answering the phone.
This was the prevailing climate that audiences were introduced to when Mad Men first hit our screens seven years ago. New girl Peggy was a lowly secretary having to navigate her way through leering colleagues and a condescending boss. Office manager Joan spent her time fending off the advances of her ex-lover, agency chief Sterling.
But as the show's final episodes approach, the setting is the early 70s. Peggy and Joan have survived and thrived on Madison Avenue, but at the expense of their personal lives - and sometimes their dignity, too. Peggy might be a creative chief but had an illegitimate child adopted in order to pursue her career; Joan is now an agency partner - a position she secured after agreeing to sleep with a major client.
Were things any different for the real-life Peggys and Joans? Apparently not. "I spoke to a number of ad executives from that era about the show and 70pc of them said I'd got it dead right," Mad Men's creator Matt Weiner told me when the show first aired. "But 100pc of the women said it reflected their experiences exactly."
Certainly, Joan and Peggy's progress reflects the increased opportunities enjoyed by women in the 60s. The catalyst was a creative revolution, led by Bill Bernbach - the figurehead and founder of the famous agency Doyle Dane Bernbach.
Tired of formulaic, hard-sell advertising, Bernbach led a charge against the tired traditions of the industry. Suddenly, it wasn't about who you were but the strength of your ideas. Bernbach eschewed the waspish men who had bestrode adland for so long in favour of Italian, Jewish and female creatives who brought a fresh voice to the ads.
One such creative was Phyllis Robinson, who had been an aspiring copywriter at behemoth agency Gray, when Bernbach embraced her as his protegee. When he started up DDB, she was one of the few creatives he took with him.
Suddenly, authenticity and bright ideas were key. Bernbach was turning advertising into a meritocracy and women were beginning to make the most of the opportunities.
Jane Maas was one of them: she had left her life as a full-time mother to work her way up through the ranks of Ogilvy and Mather in the 60s.
Within three years, she was a creative director and vice-president of the agency.
In her brilliant and revealing memoir of the time, Mad Women, Maas describes a world where female creatives were confined to beauty and household accounts. Clients were even worse: "There are no women in brand management at Clairol, whose products are made exclusively for women," she writes.
Her agency boss, legend David Ogilvy, is portrayed as a man uncomfortable with female employees. In his bestselling book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, he described his rule against nepotism. If two Ogilvy employees marry, he wrote, one must leave the agency - preferably the woman so that she can "stay at home and raise her babies".
And those who did continue to work after becoming pregnant were handled with caution. Former Ogilvy secretary Anne Wallach tells Maas that she was ordered by David Ogilvy not to attend client meetings after her baby bump started to show.
Young and Rubicam was the agency that Mad Men's Sterling Cooper is said to have been most closely based on. Apart from being one of the grandest and most prestigious ones in New York, it was also notorious for the amount of sex that took place in the office. "It was in the air," one former female employee confided to Mass in her book. "You breathed it."
Joan Lipton, an industry grande dame, worked at Y&R in the same era. "Of course people partook [in office sex]," she told Maas. "But you have to understand, I was married, had a three-year-old son and lived in Connecticut."
"Then you were aware of much sexual activity," Maas pressed. "Aware?" Lipton sniffed. "Heavens, I partook!"
Maas claims that most women were either secretaries or junior copywriters and 99pc of them had male bosses. "The boss was in control of your salary, your career advancement, your life. If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more, your self-respect or your career."
The road to liberation, equality and respect in the business was long and hard. But the creative revolution of the 60s allowed it to move faster than other industries.
In his otherwise male-dominated book, even Jerry Della-Famina refers to one woman as an industry legend. Mary Wells-Lawrence was another Bernbach protegee who went on to form her own agency, after male bosses refused to let her break through the glass ceiling.
She was celebrated for her work at Jack Tinker and Partners and felt emboldened to ask for the presidency in 1966. Her boss told her that handing her such a title would put clients off hiring the agency.
"He could see that I was feeling a red rage, and he said, 'You wouldn't want to ruin something you built', and at that point I just walked out the door," she said. "It wasn't as though I wanted to be Betty Friedan. I just wanted my own agency." And so she set one up shortly afterwards, hiring a hotel room for an office and enlisting her mother to answer the phones.
Wells Rich Greene went on to become one of the most powerful agencies of the decade. How did Wells-Lawrence succeed where other women still struggled? "I think women who spend the most productive years of their life nurturing children are unhappy," she told the New York Times in 2012.
In adland's golden age, bright ideas might have counted. But the women who thrived were the ones who managed to think and act like Mad Men.
The final series of 'Mad Men' continues at 10pm on Thursday, April 16 on Sky Atlantic