Aug. 31, 2009 -- 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?
A: I smoked three to four packs a day. Everybody smoked at all times in all meetings. Once, when I was sitting in a meeting for the Contac account, I had a (lit) cigarette in my hand and another in the ashtray. When I put down the cigarette to do a chalk talk, I tried to light the piece of chalk.
Q: Was some of that smoking to kiss up to tobacco company clients?
A: We had two R.J. Reynolds brands (Winston Super Kings and Carter Hall pipe tobacco). The R.J. Reynolds guys would get off the elevator on our floor where we had two of those tall ashtrays filled with sand. The RJR guys would claw through the sand to see if there were butts from any other brands. These were executives. They wanted to know what our people were smoking.
Q: Did those clients smoke?
A: One time I went to visit RJR in Winston-Salem (N.C.). They hosted a big party at some country club, and they had a giant dance floor with everyone milling about. I walked up to the balcony and looked down and noticed that everyone was holding a cigarette — all the clients and all of their wives. But something wasn't right. I noticed that none of the cigarettes were lit. They were simply holding them. They believed the statistics.
Q: Do you still smoke?
A: I haven't touched a cigarette in 20 years. I have heavy allergies and developed asthma. The doctor said if I touched another cigarette, I'd die.
Q: Did agency execs really dress so snappily in the 1960s?
A: Yes, people dressed. We went to Brooks Brothers to get our uniforms. We certainly dressed better than any other business. Since we weren't bankers, doctors or lawyers, we could wear suits that were high fashion. The amount of money we had to spend on clothes, well, this was the kind of money we thought we'd never have. All for writing a headline or some body copy or doing a nice layout. It was more money than we could possibly spend. A lot of people were afraid it would go away. And it was that fear that led people to drink, smoke and screw around.
Q: As long as you're alluding to it, what about all the office sex depicted on the show?
A: There was a tremendous amount of sex. I don't know of a single marriage that survived that time. My first marriage ended after 24 years.
Society had changed. Suddenly, it wasn't just the WASP establishment living the good life. Suddenly, there were ethnics and kids — who once hoped they could earn $12,000 per year — earning fortunes.
All of this money shocked us people in the middle of it. We lived a Hollywood life. Did I grow up thinking I'd ever be paged at the Beverly Hills Hotel? Did I ever think I'd make so much money writing ads? No. It was a lot of people in a great celebration.
But no one wanted to go home. It was too good. There was too much booze, too many cigarettes and too many women. People found themselves in this wonderful gold rush. Mad Men only touches on how wild it was. It was beyond whatever I thought could happen to my life.
Q: Can you give one example of this "tremendous amount of sex" at your former agency?
A: We used to have an agency "sex" contest near the end of every year. … We'd go to a no-name Mexican restaurant, … and we'd drink giant margaritas all day. It was an idea I had when I realized our people were spending too much time talking and thinking about sex, and not working it.
We'd take a blind vote to name the person at the agency you'd most want to go to bed with. We also took a vote on the person of the same sex you'd like to go to bed with. We did this for 15 years. I'd get to announce the winners each year. The first prize was a weekend at The Plaza hotel for the winning couple. Second prize was one night at The Plaza. The third prize was a night on Ron Travisano's office couch. People took this very seriously. Of course, the clients didn't know about it. One year, we had to rip down signs about the contest when a client unexpectedly showed up at the agency.
Q: Was this contest for real — or for fun?
A: Only one couple took advantage of it.
Q: Were you, perhaps, half of that winning couple?
A: I did win one year. It was a great honor. My wife even asked me why I got home so late from the party. But, no, I didn't take advantage of winning.
ASK THE AD TEAM
Q: I would really like to know the age and gender of the person who used Donovan's Catch the Wind in a recent Mass Mutual ad. It's such a fabulous song. And what is Donovan doing now?
— Lilly Markons, Windham, Conn.
A:The track in the ad is Donovan's original version of Catch the Wind, out in 1965. It plays as the ad shows a father giving up a big job and corner office for a start-up business and home office.
Mass Mutual selected the song for the ad, by agency Mullen, because it "captured the appropriate message and feel of a father making difficult decisions in order to spend more time at home with his daughter," says Karen Lavariere-Sanchez, a Mass Mutual spokeswoman.
Catch the Wind was the title song on Donovan's break-out album, and the folk singer-songwriter from Scotland followed with 11 consecutive Top 40 hits, including Mellow Yellow, SunshineSuperman and Wear Your Love Like Heaven.
Donovan Leitch will be named a BMI Icon at the annual London Awards on Oct. 6 and continues to perform. You can find out about appearances and news at www.donovan.ie.