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.