In the wake of the hit tv series Mad Men, Glenda Cooper discovers what life was really like for women in sex-obsessed advertising agencies
Deception is back. So is adultery, jealousy, ambition and secrecy. All dressed up in a shantung sheath dress and killer heels. Yes, after a 17-month hiatus and much feverish anticipation, the fifth series of Mad Men, the show that brought a Sixties advertising agency to life, starts next week. No doubt there’ll be a fresh round of cheating husbands, sex-bomb secretaries and marathon martini sessions. ‘‘I can work like this,’’ purrs Peggy Olson, the ambitious female copywriter, while wearing nothing but a bra and petticoat. ‘‘Let’s get liberated.’’
It is compelling television, with lavish attention to detail, sharp scripts and cultural resonance. And it has been rewarded with cult status: Mad Men themed parties are held where the series is filmed, the show has been the subject of intense discussion in academic papers and there are even Mad Men cookbooks.
If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask what mattered more: your self-respect or your career.
But despite the exquisite detail, the question remains: were advertising agencies in the Sixties really fuelled on such a stream of whisky and Drambuie? Was there really as much bed-hopping as serial seducer Don Draper seems to get away with? Of course there was, says a woman dubbed the real-life Peggy Olson. In fact, she says, the reality was much worse than anything we see on television.
In her fascinating new memoir Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue, Jane Maas lifts the lid on what it was like to be a woman working in advertising in the Sixties. Like Peggy, Maas was one of the few women to experience professional success. She started off as a secretary before becoming a copywriter at the prestigious Ogilvy & Mather agency, and eventually became one of the top names in the business, working on the legendary ‘‘I Love New York’’ campaign. She ran her own agency and later became president of the New York office of the advertising behemoth Earle Palmer Brown. In her book she dishes the dirt on the wild world of advertising, when men were men and women were secretaries.
It was an age of rampant sex - and rampant sexism. At Sterling Cooper, Mad Men’s fictional agency, Don Draper constantly cheated on his wife Betty. Maas reports that at a real-life agency run by Jerry Della Femina (the ad executive said by some to be the inspiration for Mad Men) there was something dubbed an annual ‘‘sex contest’’ - a blind vote to name a person at the agency that staff would most like to go to bed with. The winner would receive a weekend at the luxurious Plaza Hotel; second prize was a night at the Plaza; and third prize was a night on the couch in the boss’s office.
Meanwhile, at the agency Young & Rubicam, bosses regularly disappeared between 12pm and 2pm to the Hotel Lexington, two blocks away, for extra-curricular activity; while one of the female secretaries recalled losing her virginity to a Hungarian executive who worked on the Jell-O account, only to realise later that he was working his way through the entire typing pool.
The only advertising agency that didn’t appear to be awash with affairs was J Walter Thompson - because most of the offices there didn’t have doors. This was supposedly by order of the boss’s wife, who had been a copywriter herself and therefore knew just what went on in the ad world.
Maas hints at a darker side to the free-for-all. The term ‘‘sexual harassment’’ hadn’t been invented. For most women, a male boss was in control of their job - and their salary. ‘‘If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask what mattered more: your self-respect or your career,’’ she writes. She was pestered for sex in an aggressive fashion for two years by a creative director - to such an extent that she ended up having to see a psychiatrist.
Yet she concedes that some women did turn this sexually charged atmosphere to their advantage. The easiest way to be promoted from secretary to copywriter was for your boss to make it happen. ‘‘And the fastest way to make that happen was to make it with your boss,’’ she drily comments.
And if there was no such thing as sexual harassment, there was no such thing as equality, either. Maas got out of jury service by simply ticking the box asking to excuse her ‘‘because I am a woman’’. Women copywriters were given ad campaigns for soap or lavatory cleaner, while their male colleagues got Mercedes-Benz or American Express. In Mad Men, Don Draper slates Peggy Olson for daring to ask for a raise; Maas recalls that when a woman at Ogilvy complained to her boss that she was making much less than one of her male peers, he replied: ‘‘But he’s a man with a wife and kids to support.’’
Even the fabulous Sixties fashion - from Betty Draper’s gloves and pearls to Joan’s signature red dress - constricted women. Maas describes as ‘‘torture’’ the pointed bras that turned breasts into ‘‘javelins’’, with tight bra straps rubbing the skin raw; stocking seams that needed to be straightened continually; and the high heels that were obligatory not just at work, but walking to and from the office, and at home while doing the housework.
Hats worn in the office were not a fashion statement but, says Maas, ‘‘a status symbol’’ - dividing the copywriters from the secretaries who went bareheaded. Thus they were never taken off - even while working or eating. ‘‘Peggy wears a hat coming to and from the office, but I haven’t noticed that she keeps it on at her desk,’’ says Maas. ‘‘It’s one of the rare bits of costuming that Mad Men gets wrong.’’
Perhaps the only place where Maas concedes that fiction might trump reality is the alcohol consumption - on the basis that no one in real life drank in the morning. By lunchtime, however, everyone did. And while most would be back in the office at 2pm, it was equally common to head to a bar at 5pm and begin again - martinis, Rusty Nails (Scotch and Drambuie), and Stingers (white creme de menthe and brandy) being particular favourites.
For those who didn’t have time to step out of the building, the executive dining room at Ogilvy & Mather had every alcoholic drink available. The first time Maas ate there, she reached for a Perrier. The president of the agency urged her to have a Scotch instead. ‘‘It’s cheaper,’’ he explained.
There was distinct kudos in being a hard drinker: one of the legendary tipplers at Ogilvy was a television producer called Vince who would rapidly drink four or five martinis on the rocks. Even the most macho agency men were impressed. However, picking up Vince’s martini one day and taking a sip, Maas discovered it was only water. ‘‘Don’t give me away,’’ he pleaded with her.
If heavy drinking was a regular part of life, so was smoking - in a way that is unthinkable now. However shocking it was to see the male gynaecologist - who Peggy Olson visits to get her contraceptive pills - puffing away in the examining room, it’s not that far from Maas’s own experience. As soon as she gave birth to her first daughter, Maas lit up in her hospital bed, one arm cradling her newborn infant, the other a cigarette.
Maas was unusual in that she made a success of life as a working mother (doing so thanks to a capable housekeeper and the attitude that she put her ‘‘job first; husband second; children third‘‘). But as in Mad Men, working mothers in real life were thin on the ground. Most agencies made women leave by their fifth month of pregnancy; there was no maternity leave. No wonder one woman concealed her pregnancy by wearing giant Hawaiian muumuu dresses. An enterprising lawyer at Ogilvy managed to give birth over the long Thanksgiving weekend and go back to work without missing a day.
Yet despite these difficulties, it is clear from her book that Maas looks back on her time at Ogilvy with affection. It may have been a time when a woman wasn’t allowed to buy a man lunch, but she believes that working women today are no happier than she was. They may even have it harder - with longer hours and more pressure to perform. In contrast, what she remembers now is neither the sexism nor the restrictions, but the fun - the passion for work, the camaraderie, the adrenalin of working on a successful campaign. Or as Maas puts it herself: ‘‘Mad women. Mad men. Mad days. I had a wonderful time.’’
- The Telegraph, London