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‘Mad,’ but is it true?

A former ad executive gives the popular show a reality check

Peggy Olson embodies one of the themes of “Mad Men,’’ the struggle of women to be taken seriously. Peggy Olson embodies one of the themes of “Mad Men,’’ the struggle of women to be taken seriously. (Carin Baer)
By Myril Axelrod
Globe Correspondent / March 21, 2010

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I walked into my first job at an advertising agency in 1960, a woman beginning a 20-plus-year career in advertising. So I have been asked again and again about AMC’s “Mad Men’’: Is it true? Was it really like that? I’ve searched my memory and talked with former colleagues. Yes, some of it is true. But much in the series is grossly exaggerated to support the premise that working at an advertising agency is as near the bottom of the barrel, from a moral standpoint, as you can get.

With the show’s third season set to be released on DVD next Tuesday, I went back to watch earlier episodes, looking for aspects of life at the agency that I might recognize. I was looking for the empathy for the consumer. I was looking for the sense of purpose and pride I remember.

“Mad Men’’ is set at a time when crucial (and confusing) changes were occurring all over society. A new generation abandoned values that had been the accepted way of life. Their mantra was “freedom.’’ They eschewed restrictions, erased the word “respect’’ from their vocabulary, called their parents and other elders by their first names, demanded the right to “grade’’ their teachers (unthinkable before!), even advocated for changing religious services so they could be more relevant for them.

In the business arena, this was the generation that replaced traditional morning coffee with Pepsi (and almost put the coffee industry out of business), bought foreign cars, and went so wild with credit cards that they became known as the “instant gratification’’ generation. These baby boomers saw everything, including sex, in terms of freedom.

So in “Mad Men,’’ everybody is jumping into bed with everybody else. Office manager Joan Holloway, who has an affair with debonair senior partner Roger Sterling before marrying a doctor, slithers around in inappropriately sexy clothing and seems to see her primary role as orienting newcomers on sleeping their way to the top. It’s true, there was sleeping around among agency people. Secretaries took up affairs with their colleagues, with senior executives, and with clients. Business trips were often more than business trips. But it happened with considerably more subtlety than the series would suggest.

Sexual freedom at the ad agencies where I worked was also no greater than elsewhere at the time. One of the first people I met at my earliest agency had lived most of his life in Princeton, and he reassured me, “If you think this is bad, you ought to see what it’s like in academia.’’ Another colleague had come straight from graduate school, and she said there was so much sexual liberty there that life at the agency was a welcome relief.

How about the alcohol? More hyperbole. Sure, there were a lot of three-martini lunches. I remember my first few days at the agency: I had a day or two of three-martini lunches and decided they would be my last if I were ever to get my job done. After work, there was more drinking: Five o’clock at the bar downstairs was almost de rigueur, and many executives had a bottle for occasional sharing in a bottom drawer in their offices. But I don’t remember anyone, even the top guys, having open bars in their offices or marking each meeting with a round of drinks, the way they do in the show.

As for smoking, lighting up was practically a sign of coming of age in the 1960s. In “Mad Men,’’ the cigarette is also a needed buffer for uncomfortable situations. Yet as with the drinking, so much screen time is spent on lighting and smoking cigarettes, it appears to be designed to reinforce an image of badness: bad and unthinking for the smokers, and bad for everyone else. At my agencies, smoking was never such a big deal. I often didn’t even know who was a smoker and who wasn’t. It was just part of the times, and there was little of the preoccupation with its dangers that came later.

Perhaps one of the most disheartening things about the show is that there are no genuine friendships among the agency people. No one seems to like anyone else. That wasn’t my experience. Even now, 30 years later, I maintain close and meaningful relationships with the people I worked with. Three times a year I receive a 20- or 30-page mailing with letters from associates looking to keep in touch with one another.

On the other hand, one of the dominant themes in “Mad Men’’ is the struggle women had in the 1960s to be recognized for their talents, and even to be treated with appropriate respect as people. Peggy Olson is promoted from secretary to copywriter, but she is still given a hard time. Whether wives or secretaries or family friends, women were primarily perceived in stereotypical roles. I can confirm that this struggle was a real part of the ad agency scene, as it was (and still is) throughout the business world.

At one of the agencies where I worked, we had some of the most gifted women “creatives’’ in the industry. On the account side, we had a woman who was, bar none, the absolute best management person around. Yet no woman, even at this benevolent agency, had ever been rewarded with a vice presidency.

Eventually, the glass ceiling was broken, and women came into their own. I was one of those elevated to VP status in those early days, and I was lucky in that I did not experience gender discrimination at either of the agencies where I worked. My battles were elsewhere: As a specialist in qualitative research, I was committed to selling the importance of an emotional message to agency executives used to viewing everything in terms of numbers. My contributions in exploring and interpreting what our products meant in consumers’ lives helped me become an executive. My boss believed in what I had to sell. I was uniquely fortunate.

I and my associates are still proud of the work we did. But the show gives the impression that almost everyone in advertising’s ideas are top of the head rather then seriously developed and executed with sensitivity and dedication. We have trouble with that, remembering the work we did and the genuine contributions we feel we made.

I remember, for instance, the airline campaign that Don Draper envisions. It’s based on a real campaign we worked on, reminding people of the opportunities and special experiences they’ve had because they’ve been able to fly and share them with the people who matter to them. It was one of the most acclaimed campaigns of the time. I remember the work we did for the United Negro College Fund. The tag line “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste’’ is still an effective message (and better than the copywriters’ original version, “A Mind Is an Insane Thing to Waste’’). I remember “Bet You Can’t Eat Just One’’ for Frito-Lay, “The Garden of Earthly Delights’’ for Clairol Herbal Essence, “The Ultimate Driving Machine’’ for BMW. Thirty-plus years later, these are still part of today’s vernacular.

Overall, one of the most bothersome things for me in watching “Mad Men’’ is that I can find no one to like. I find some relationships intriguing, but there’s no one I want to identify with. Sometimes I warm to Don Draper, who reaches for a kind of soul-searching and whose instincts are often closest to my own. Don closely resembles the guy I most liked and admired at work, and with whom I worked the best. But it was also he who made the agreement to sell our highly respected agency (the only one still privately owned and run by our own officers) to a foreign conglomerate. The “sale’’ episode at the end of the second season was truly painful for me. It brought back very real and very sad memories for me and for others who were part of my agency life.

Perhaps future episodes will capture some of the warmer elements of agency life. But for now, the show leaves me disappointed. I know too much about what it doesn’t say.