Mad Women

What was it really like to be a woman at Ogilvy & Mather during the era celebrated in the television series Mad Men? You’ll get an insightful personal glimpse of the agency, David Ogilvy himself, and the experiences of a young copywriter in the newly released memoir Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond by Jane Maas (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, March 2012).

Is Mad Men an accurate depiction of agency life back then? Was there that much drinking, were women really treated that badly, and was sex so much a part of the agency culture? Maas says, yes—and no. The show gets a lot of things right, but also gets some things wrong, so she offers her account of what it was like, as a young woman with a degree from Bucknell, a Fulbright scholarship, and a master’s from Cornell, to work at male-dominated Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter starting in 1964.

Back then, the term “sexual harassment” hadn’t been invented yet. “Most women then working in advertising were either secretaries or copywriters, and 99 percent of us had male bosses,” says Maas. “The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your career advancement…your life. If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more: your self-respect or your life.” Office parties, location shoots, and going out for drinks after work were all threats to marital fidelity.

Maas recounts the wildest event Ogilvy used to sponsor: a cruise around Manhattan, to which everyone at the agency was invited. It was said no virgin ever returned a virgin from the ride. Ogilvy management finally weighed anchor on the annual event when the office manager got so drunk on one cruise that he fell overboard.

In those days, David Ogilvy had a rule that if two Ogilvy employees marry, one of them must leave, preferably the woman, “to stay home and raise babies.” But there was no policy against cohabitating. Women were considered mysterious, for who knew what effect their hormones would have from day to day? Pregnant women were especially intimidating: “they might give birth right there in the office. So the best thing to do was get rid of them as quickly as possible,” remembers Maas.

Women weren’t taken seriously as consumers or as professionals. Maas remembers that as a copywriter, she entered a conference room for a client meeting, and the CEO of American Express commented, “Did you forget your steno pad, dear? We can get you one.” She recalls one woman copywriter who was taken off her longstanding Drano account because the client was now promoting Industrial-Strength Drano—clearly not a product a woman was suited for!

So much has changed since those years: women no longer are expected to wear white gloves to work, or hats (de rigueur for copywriters but forbidden for secretaries), and the wearing of pants to work is no longer a scandal for women. Butt-filled ashtrays no longer grace conference room tables. How many of us today remember mimeographs or manual typewriters? Or offices without computers and copiers? And women no longer have to feel somehow ashamed of being a working mother.

Some aspects of agency life then persist: the late-night pitch preparation sessions, complete with soggy pizza; clients who can be unrelenting or surprisingly cooperative; the ongoing struggle to balance time and energy between family and career; and the passion and fun that arise from the teamwork of professionals as they strive to create something new and meaningful.

Jane Maas rose to become a creative director and agency officer at Ogilvy, and became president of a New York agency. She was named an Advertising Woman of the Year, and is best known for directing the “I Love New York” campaign.

Give Mad Women a read, for a humorous and insightful look at our agency’s past, and for reasons to rejoice in being in the advertising world of today.


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