Monday, April 14, 2014

I was a Mad Man

A&E's monster hit series Mad Men has reached 1969 -- shortly before I became an award-wining Mad Ave. copywriter. I don't remember any orgies or the constant boozing, but other parts seem very real to me, particularly and sadly Peggy's new boss Lew, who accepts mediocrity and does not appreciate quality.

I got into the advertising business by accident.
In 1971 and 1972 I was audio-video editor at Rolling Stone magazine, and wrote reviews of lots of products. When I wrote good reviews, it was common for the manufacturers to ask permission to quote me in their ads. This was good for the manufacturers, good for Rolling Stone and extremely good for my ego.
 I almost always agreed, but I insisted on the right to review the ads before publication to make sure I was being quoted cor­rectly and not made to seem like a complete asshole.
At one point I said something nice about a BSR turntable, and I got a call from someone at Kane Light Gladney, the turn­table manufacturer’s advertising agency. He explained that they had done an ad with a quote from my review, and would buy me lunch if I’d come by and take a look at the ad. Their office was near mine, a free lunch was hard to turn down, so I agreed.
I met a couple of their guys at a restaurant, and then the three of us walked to their office where a bunch of “rough” ad layouts were tacked to the walls in a conference room. I took a quick look and saw that, while the quotations were accurate, the ads absolutely sucked and I did not want my name to be asso­ciated with them.
With permission I yanked a couple of layouts off the wall and sat down at the conference table and, within minutes, I was an unpaid copywriter. It was easy, I enjoyed it and my hosts were impressed. They asked if I could come in on the fol­lowing Saturday to do some writing for pay.
The Saturday freelancing went on for about a month and then the agency boss Gerry Light asked me a powerful question: “How would you like us to triple you salary?”
He didn’t realize it, but at the time I was only freelancing at Rolling Stone and making $75 for each column I wrote twice a month, so I didn’t actually have a salary to triple.
The proposed advertising salary was MUCH more than I had been making, and I had a new wife and I could keep doing the freelancing at Rolling Stone -- so I quickly accepted their offer.
It was a strange change in environment, with a whole new set of policies and politics to get used to.
When I started work, there was a plaque on my new door that identified me as “Mr. Marcus.” It was removed a few days later, and the next week a new plaque was attached to the door that said merely “Michael Marcus.”
I found out later that the office manager got into a bit of trouble with one of the partners for labeling me a “Mr.” before I had been on the job for a year.
Office politics suck.
My business card had an impressive title, “Associate Cre­ative Director.” After a few months I learned that the agen­cy’s one other copywriter had the same title. There was no Su­preme Creative Director above the two of us. Perhaps our titles were intended to keep our egos in check or to give us something to strive for.
I guess we were expected to associate with each other.
Although my work was creative and not administrative I also sometimes got to serve as the “account guy.”
Mainly this meant that I got taken out to gaudy and expen­sive restaurants to hear sales pitches from extremely boring me­dia salesmen that the agency partners or the real account executives wanted to avoid dealing with.
I was often in an awkward position, creatively.
My straitlaced bosses were frequently too timid to show our clients what I felt was my best work. They were constantly telling me to “tone it down,” but I had an edgy style and was in my early 20s, writing for my contemporaries as I had done when I was at Rolling Stone. We had several showdowns where I said, “You hired me because you like the way I write, so either show my work, or fire me.” They almost always caved in.
Sometimes I’d come up with far-out ad concepts, and hold secret meetings with our clients and sell them on my ideas. If the clients liked my stuff, my bosses had little choice but to go along.
There were other times I went to another kind of secret meetings.
In addition to our work turning out ads, press releases and sales promotion gimmicks, we also arranged dates for some of our clients, often with magazine models.

Jack, boss of one of our client companies, had a long-running affair with a Penthouse Pet, and sometimes when he was in town to be with her, I went along as the “beard.” If any peo­ple saw the three of us, and they knew that Jack was married, they’d assume that I was with the Pet who had the cleavage deep enough to get lost in for several days.
I suppose I might have been flattered, but it was really a waste of my time and my only pay was food with an incredibly boring conversation. After dinner in a hotel dining room the three of us would go upstairs in an elevator but I’d make a quick U-turn and come back down to the lobby and then go home.
I learned a lot about the ad agency business at Kane Light Gladney, but it was not always a pleasant educational experience. There was a lot of conflict, and they seemed to see me as a threat as well as an asset and their threat assessments had major lapses in logic. 

I had a freelance client that made a unique head­phone design called the Hear­Muff— “the first head­phones you wouldn’t kick out of bed.” It was never very successful and I never made much money from my work. I did the work mostly for fun, and at the end I got paid in HearMuffs. I still have a few.
The KLG partners tried to stop my HearMuff freelancing based on the absurd argument that two of the agency’s hi-fi clients — AR and BSR — might decide to make stereo head­phones in the future and my work could become a conflict of interest.
What these blind assholes somehow missed was that both AR and BSR already made record turntables, a definite conflict of interest that didn’t seem to bother either company. And I wrote the ads for both companies.
 Then the partners started referring to me as a “profit center” and urged me to work faster. In April, my boss told me that I had accomplished so much, that there was no need for any more ads to be done until September, and I was out.
There’s absolutely no job security in advertising and an important rule that I was taught very early by several veterans was that “The day to start looking for a job is the day that you get a job.”
Fortunately I had good contacts from my days at High Fidelity Trade News and Rolling Stone and I very quickly got a job as a copywriter at Muller Jordan Herrick. I then helped them to take the Columbia recording tape account away from the people at Kane Light Gladney, who had taught me the ad business very well.
Revenge is sweet. Very sweet.
Muller Jordan Herrick wasn’t a perfect place to work, but it was much bigger and better than KLG.
Our office was at 666 Fifth Avenue, in the Tishman Building, opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The floor below us was larger than our floor and on nice days we’d open our big windows and move out our chairs, phones, tables and type­writers and use the roof of the lower floor as an outdoor office, dining room and tanning salon.
In 1975 I won a big-deal award from the Advertising Club of New York while at Muller Jordan Herrick. We had mostly good clients with interesting products that I enjoyed writing about and only one absolute idiot client.
That was United Jersey Banks, where marketing was controlled by castrated dullards in the legal department. (If anyone from that miserable bank is reading this, FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! I still hate your guts.)
One time I had the brain-numbing assignment to write a boring ad about savings account interest rates.
The head guy on the bank’s team, a government intim­idated ball-less shyster, insisted that I write “a minimum deposit of at least $500 or more.” I tried explaining to this testosterone-depleted wuss that all this was repetitive and redundant and superfluous and unnecessary, and that we did not need to say all three!
The pathetic castrato would not give in and neither would I. I told him to write his own fucking ad and I left the room. My only regret was that I didn’t shut the light off and slam the door and leave the asshole sitting in the dark, crying and caressing his empty nut sack.
It would have been worth getting fired for.
My office had a weird phone with two number-seven but­tons on it, but no eight, and a very nice couch, inherited from the previous inhabitant.
I liked to close my door at noon time for a siesta, but my boss Andy Weiss hated closed doors and he had a nasty habit of opening the door and interrupting my naps.
For some unknown reason, Andy didn’t mind if I took an hour to eat, but he didn’t like the idea of me taking five minutes to eat and 55 minutes to sleep, even if it recharged my creative battery.
After a while, my couch mysteriously disappeared and I had to sleep sitting up for 55 minutes.

This tale is from my book,
Stories I'd Tell My Children (But Maybe Not Until They're Adults), available as a hardcover, paperback and ebook.