Mad Men and English Dogs

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Sayers, Salman Rushdie, Fay Weldon: there’s four, just for starters. All of them writers who started out in advertising. So I’m in good company. The difference is that they were copy-writers: the people who wrote the advertisements. I contemplated that avenue, but decided that – if I did writing as a paid job – I would be less inclined to do it as an unpaid hobby. So I went into the marketing and business side of advertising. I was a suit.  

If all recollections are imperfect, the recollections of ex-admen about events several decades in the past are wholly untrustworthy. ‘Here’s how it was in the good old days of advertising, the crazy carefree still nearly Mad Men days of the late Seventies and Eighties,’ drooled The Times recently, in an interview with former advertising CEO William Eccleshare. ‘Did the executives have martinis for lunch?’ ‘Yes, and for tea,’ said Eccleshare. ‘It was the best fun.’

Advertising is like the south of France. Future generations will say it has been ruined in their lifetimes. I think it has been ruined in my lifetime. My parents thought it had been ruined in their lifetime. My grandparents probably thought the same. At some mythical point in the past, the Riviera was not ruined. It was idyllic. So it is with advertising.

I first worked in the business in 1967, in my gap year. Then, the ‘good old days of advertising’ were the 1950s and early ’60s – the era of Mad Men, in fact. I was an 18 year-old minion and had no idea if that was true or not. No one offered me martinis, and I never saw anyone drinking them.

When I returned to advertising in 1971, after university and to a different agency, not a great deal seemed to have changed, other than that I was now a graduate trainee, which was a better class of minion. The ‘good old days of advertising’ had now shifted to the 1960s as a whole. In fact, everything that was good in life belonged to the 1960s. And the 1960s were now over.

And still no one offered me martinis, although we did go to the pub for lunch quite often. I became aware that several of the senior executives were frequently drunk. This was noticeable mainly in the afternoons, after lengthy lunches with clients. However, the clients were no more than an excuse for the drinking. When there were no clients for lunch, the drinking continued without them. The chief executive of the agency where I then worked took early retirement, soon after I’d left, and bought a pub in Sussex. A fatal mistake, as it turned out.

In 1976 I moved to another agency and then left the business altogether in 1983, in the middle of the period that seems now to be considered ‘the good old days of advertising’. At the time, it was seen as anodyne and puritanical, compared with what had gone before. When I left, I had still never drunk a martini, although I’ve made up for it since.

Admittedly, two of the senior partners started on tumblers of vodka and orange juice at about 11 in the morning, having turned up for work at 10:55. William Eccleshare’s interview claimed that ‘between 11:30 am and 3:30 pm every day the creative people were in Meeting Room X – the Coach and Horses.’ That was true up to a point at my agency, except that in this case it was the Nellie Dean. Some of them were also snorting cocaine, although I didn’t discover that until years later, innocent that I was.

But they were ‘the creative people’. They could do more or less what they liked. Who could blame them, poor things, when they were forced to sacrifice their genius to the sordid world of commerce? No wonder they took to drink and drugs.

I was a suit, though, and by the early ’80s suits didn’t drink nearly so much. By the end, I drank at lunchtimes only if I was with a client and only if the client wanted to drink. That didn’t happen very often. Nor was I an exception. I was not averse to a drink and the agency I worked for was by no means straight-laced. It was frequently anarchic. ‘Crazy’ would have described it very well, but ‘carefree’ wouldn’t. There were many good times, but it wasn’t ‘the good old days of advertising’.

Or maybe it was, compared with now. To judge from the end product, everything that was most original, most clever, most funny about British advertising has disappeared. And I suspect that this is, to a large extent, another side-effect of globalisation. There was always a battle, a ferocious battle, between the American and the British styles of advertising. The American style was direct, factual (up to a point) and hit you straight between the eyes. Do this; buy that. The British style was more oblique, more quirky, and a great deal more humorous. When I was in advertising, American products were advertised the American way, usually by American-owned agencies, but most of the products were still British and they were usually advertised the British way.

Now, I suspect that most companies with large advertising budgets are multi-nationals, although not necessarily American. (Or else they are retailers, who were always an exception to the norm.) They want campaigns that can run, more or less unaltered, in most countries in the world. This rules out most humour and all quirkiness, two of any country’s least exportable qualities.

No. These are not the ‘good old days of advertising’. Whenever they were. More reminiscences another time, perhaps. In the meantime, I think I’ll have another vodka martini.