Michael N. Marcus discusses writing, editing, design, publishing, marketing, language, culture, politics, food and other things. This blog started in 2008, was on hiatus for the summer and fall of 2017, and restarted in December. Michael took time away from blogging for much of 2019 to write a book.
We publish on Monday,
Wednesday and Friday in most weeks.
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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.
got into the advertising business by accident.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
was a strange change in environment, with a whole new set of policies and
politics to get used to.
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.”
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.
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
guess we were expected to associate with each other.
my work was creative and not administrative I also sometimes got to serve as
the “account guy.”
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.
was often in an awkward position, creatively.
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.
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.
were other times I went to another kind of secret meetings.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
is sweet. Very sweet.
Jordan Herrick wasn’t a perfect place to work, but it was much bigger and better
office was at 666 Fifth Avenue, in the TishmanBuilding, 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
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.
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.)
time I had the brain-numbing assignment to write a boring ad about savings
account interest rates.
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!
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.
would have been worth getting fired for.
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.
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.
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