AMC cable TV drama Mad Men— a critics' favorite that recently opened its third season to its largest audience ever — depicts a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, casual-sex-in-the-office lifestyle for top ad agency executives in the 1960s. How much of this is made-for-TV embellishment — and how much is real?
USA TODAY marketing reporter Bruce Horovitz took that question to Jerry Della Femina, the veteran ad exec widely regarded as one of Madison Avenue's biggest personalities, most creative thinkers and an over-the-top publicity-seeker. At 73, Della Femina is still a force in the ad biz. He got into it some 57 years ago, starting at age 16 in a Manhattan ad agency mailroom. Currently, he's chairman, CEO and executive creative director at New York agency Della Femina/Rothschild/Jeary and Partners. He's also a successful restaurant owner and a best-selling author. Trade magazine Advertising Age ranks him among the "100 most influential advertising people of the 20th century."
In a no-holds-barred interview, Della Femina, known for his trademark shaved head and aviator glasses, sets the record straight: All the drinking, smoking and sex depicted on Mad Men may be an understatement.
Q: Did ad agency executives really drink that often — and that much — in the 1960s?
A: If anything, it's underplayed. There was a tremendous amount of drinking. Three-martini lunches were the norm.
Q: At your agency, too?
A: My (former) agency, Della Femina Travisano & Partners, had five top people. We'd go to the Italian Pavilion (now Michael's in Manhattan), and as we walked through the door, the bartender would see us and start shaking the martinis. As we were being seated at the table, he'd put them down. Everyone had one, and without even asking, the second would arrive. Then, while we were still looking at the menu, the third would arrive.
Q: This was lunch?
A: This was lunch. Then we'd order food and a bottle of wine. Then, when lunch was over, invariably at dessert time, someone would ask for a double scotch and drink it, and then we'd go back to work.
Q: How could you possibly work after that?
A: The only thing that saved us was that the clients and agencies that we were going back to drank as much as we did. One time, while pitching the Geritol account, my brain was so fried that I asked for far more money than I should have. I realized my mistake and told them — but they were still ready to give it to me.
Q: But the show makes it look like everyone kept a bottle or two in their desk drawer. And it wasn't Geritol.
A: Bottles in desk drawers were not the exception but the rule. I had an open bar at the agency in which I kept 10 to 15 bottles of booze. Anyone at the agency could walk in and get it. Invariably, one or two guys would come in at 9 a.m., pour a shot and slug it down. It was a business of drinking. The way we lived really would make the characters in Mad Men all look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. We drank and screwed around.
Q: And now?
A: Nobody drinks or screws around like that anymore. It all stopped (by the mid 1980s) when the financial guys took over. Maybe the agency chairman can still drink, but not the soldiers. Today it's about people looking at the bottom line. It's changed as a business. Mad Men is celebrating a time that no longer exists.
Q: Did agency executives really smoke that much?