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Friday, October 21, 2016

We open on an expensive company Christmas party at a swank Manhattan restaurant. From wall to wall: booze, food, and boisterous people. The president of the company strolls up, surveys the crowd, and says with a smile: “You can smell the sex!”

This wasn’t said by Roger Sterling of Sterling Cooper in 1962. It was said by my boss, the president of a well-known media company, in 2000. I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond — what did sex smell like to him, anyway? — and I don’t recall what comeback I settled on. His remark was typical of an era and a mindset that has lasted in the ad and media businesses longer than you might think — extending even to today.

It’s the Mad Men era, the Mad Men mindset, that is captured with obsessive accuracy in the TV series concluding on Sunday night.

I never worked at an ad agency, and I’ll be 59 years old next month, so during the time in which the show is set I was only smoking chocolate cigarettes and my drink of choice was soda. But I have sold advertising for media companies — including a major ad industry trade magazine, one of the biggest popular magazine publishers, and currently at The National Memo — since 1983. Especially during my early years I knew the Dons and Rogers and Petes and Peggys, and their next-generation heirs. They drank, they smoked, they screwed. It was Scott Fitzgerald’s (and Mad Men showrunner Matt Weiner’s) “great gaudy spree.”

Next scene: an advertising trade magazine company meeting at Lake George, circa 1993. The company’s only top female executive has announced she is leaving after a surprisingly short stint. One of the magazine’s founders, an éminence grise of great WASP vintage, says in his plummy basso: “You know, back at Time and Life in the 50s, we didn’t have so many gals around [emphasis his].” Those of us under 40 cringe.

A few years later, when I was leading a sales team, the same magazine founder said of one of my Jewish employees, “You know, Rob is very Bronx!” I knew what that meant, of course. I’m Jewish and from the Bronx, but I had gone to Harvard, so I was sort of all right. In fact, the éminence grise even gave me a neck massage once.

In the 80s and 90s, the three-martini lunch was still the norm, and the martini count could escalate so much that the lunch lasted through dinner. One of my employers put on an all-day 100th-anniversary bacchanal that took over the Park Avenue Armory and included a vice president riding in on an elephant. A real elephant. I began drinking at 9:30 that morning and stopped… who knows when?

Another time, I was in our L.A. office. A top editor from New York saw me, yelled “What the f*ck are you doin’ here?” and then for the next eight hours he and a Hollywood trade paper reporter gave me the drinking sybarite’s tour of Hollywood. (Movie fans: That editor was the guy who served as the basis for the credit card expense account story in American Beauty. Screenwriter Alan Ball worked for us.)

As late as the early 80s women at work were still called “toots,” “dear,” and “sweetie.” (I soon stopped doing that, except among close female friends who are in on the irony.) Extramarital affairs were common and generally, if quietly, known about. Yes, men were a**holes then. They still can be. Back then I knew a few McCann-Erickson men who were. I’m sure everyone there is lovely now.

I liked the drinking and camaraderie, and was complicit in the attitude that ad and media guys (I still slip and say “guys”) were the most fun people in the world, and that nothing could ever stop the spree. Well, a couple of recessions did, and so did the digital revolution.

Like Don Draper, some of us got divorced, were humbled in employment, and even stopped drinking (for a time). And as the business got younger thanks to digital, we got older, and places in it were harder to find. Eventually, even most of the mad men became sane.

But I know that out there in American media and advertising, women still have it tough, booze still flows in mighty rivers, cigarettes are once again fashionable, and for the young the new spree, their spree, seems as if it will never end. The madness, like the landmark series that captured it, will always be out there.

The final episode of Mad Men airs May 17 at 10 p.m. Eastern Time on AMC. Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Harold Itzkowitz is VP of advertising for The National Memo.

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  • CPAinNewYork

    I did a short audit of an advertising agency once and quickly discovered that the account manager was covering overages in spending on one product by transferring underspending from another product.

    The jerk actually tried to convince me that it was perfectly ethical to do that. I reported his practice to my company and moved on. My impression of ad agency people was that they were a bunch of sleazy individuals who were convinced that everyone else was as shallow as they were.

    • Paul Bass

      Pigs are flying!

      Hi CPA, though I rarely agree with you, (being a “lib”), I have to say two thumbs up, you hit the nail on the head!

  • MichelleRose3

    I cannot watch the show, the sleaze factor is so high, it makes me feel greasy. Even the characters who should be slightly sympathetic become, in some way, as sleazy and twisted as the rest. I understand that the intent is to show the absolute void at the heart of the ad business (and by extension, the void at America’s center), but I have no desire to see that futility and emptiness dressed up in bright, primary colors. Yes, America was just like that. Yes, America continues to be just like that. No, there are no heroes and there are no good people in the ad business.

    We knew that already.

  • Miki Davis

    I’m 78 years old and I have worked for ad agencies, radio and TV since 1957, and
    I can attest to the fact that “Mad Men” is pretty authentic. In fact, when I lived in Miami in the late
    1950s, I worked on a TV shooting set on film location for Screen Gems (producers
    of the famous Naked City TV series) and was offered a job in their New York
    offices. I turned them down as I really
    had no urge to go ‘swim with the great white sharks’ in New York. I was too familiar with the Mad Men and Mad
    Avenue as we referred to Madison Avenue in those days, and I preferred to stay
    in smaller, more human agencies in small towns.
    However, even those were fraught with the same sort of madness. The only job I was ever fired from was an
    agency in Miami just because I wouldn’t sleep with the boss.