Scotch For Dessert: An Ad Man's Spirited Memoir

Jerry Della Femina i i

hide captionJerry Della Femina started working in advertising in the 1950s and was named one of the 100 most influential advertising people of the century by Advertising Age.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Jerry Della Femina

Jerry Della Femina started working in advertising in the 1950s and was named one of the 100 most influential advertising people of the century by Advertising Age.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

The fourth season of Mad Men begins this weekend on AMC, and by now viewers will be familiar with the world it portrays: an ad man's playground in which your martini glass is always full, your cigarette is always lit and the fun never ends — especially at the office.

One of the documents that inspired the creation of Mad Men is a cultish, colorful 1970 memoir that was reissued in July. Memorably titled From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, after a rejected slogan for Panasonic, the book is ad man Jerry Della Femina's scabrous and uncensored expose of the Madison Avenue madhouse.

"Advertising was fun," Della Femina tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I wrote that it was the most fun you could have with your clothes on — and we'll never see it again."

Della Femina says it's almost impossible to imagine the antics of his heyday occurring in the modern workplace.

"In those days, [at] a typical lunch the bartender would be shaking the martinis as we walked in ... and then, as we were looking at our menu, the second martini would [be served]. And then, before the food arrived, the third martini would arrive. At that point then we would have two bottles of wine to go with our food. And then invariably someone — it was never me — but someone would say, 'I don't think I'm going to have desert, I think I'll have a double scotch instead.' And then we went off to work."

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor
By Jerry Della Femina
Paperback, 288 pages
Simon & Schuster
List price: $14

Read An Excerpt

Laughing, Della Femina notes that today having a martini with lunch would probably end with him taking a ride in an ambulance.

Surprisingly, Della Femina says that shows like Mad Men actually play down the debauchery he witnessed as an ad man in the '60s. He illustrates his point with the story of a particularly suggestive office pastime.

"From when we started the agency in 1967, we had an agency sex contest," Della Femina says. "They would literally get a telephone list [and] they would vote for the person they most wanted to go to bed with." The winners of the poll would then be announced at a "wild, wild, wild" staff party at a Mexican restaurant.

Now you might think this already sounds like perfect fodder for a season finale, but the story doesn't stop there.

"There was an older executive who I think possibly might have imbibed his first taste of cannabis and he had a lot to drink," Della Femina says. "At one point his head went right into his dish, and sitting next to him was this woman who was our research director, and she said, 'It's okay, it's okay, he's fine — the guacamole broke his fall!'"

Today Della Femina is candid about the questionable nature of such goings-on.

"Obviously it was not politically correct, but everyone took part in it and we were just enjoying doing what we were doing," he says. "We thought the fun would never end."

And yet, despite the rampant misogyny of such activities, Della Femina says he was very progressive in his views towards women in the workplace.

"I always had more women working for me than men," he says. "Women changed this business; they softened it; they made it better."

The increased creative role of women in the office isn't the only change Della Femina noticed over the years. These days, he says, "It's a different world. It's all about images, art direction. Words really don't count that much."

But it was words that won Della Femina the coveted Advertising Writers Club award for best newspaper ad in 1968. Working for the publishing house McGraw-Hill, he came up with the slogan, "Before Hitler could kill six million Jews, he had to burn six million books." Della Femina looks back on the campaign with pride, saying it was "by far" the best ad he ever wrote.

Honest about what attracted him to the advertising business, Della Femina says it wasn't the creative thrill of coming up with memorable jingles — it was the money. He recalls the first time he was offered a job at an advertising agency and his boss gave him a $5,200 salary to start.

"I walked out [of his office] and I went down the elevator of 185 Madison Avenue and I got to the ground floor and I let out this scream. I can still hear the scream. Fifty-two hundred dollars was the most any Della Femina in the history of the Della Feminas had ever been paid — and this was a token salary," he says. "I had found my business."

Excerpt: 'From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor'

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor
By Jerry Della Femina
Paperback, 288 pages
Simon & Schuster
List price: $14

I came into the advertising business in 1952 at the age of sixteen, as a delivery boy for a stuffy, old-line advertising agency named Ruthruff and Ryan, which could have served as the setting for the Mad Men television series without moving a desk. Needless to say, it was a difficult business to break into, especially for a teenager with a limited education.

In 1956, I took my portfolio of sample creative work to J. Walter Thompson, the world's largest advertising agency. They had a position open for a junior writer of sales promotion on the Ford Truck account. At that time Ford was J. Walter Thompson's largest account.

The copy chief on the account looked at my work and said, 'This is very good, but I can't suggest you for the job.'

'Why?' I asked.

His answer was delivered with a nervous smile. 'Because this is Ford and they don't want your kind working on their business.'

It took me years to figure out what 'your kind' meant.

Advertising agencies in those days were broken down among ethnic lines. The Mad Men flourished in large Protestant ad agencies like J. Walter Thompson and N.W. Ayer, BBDO and Ted Bates. These agencies monopolised all the large advertising accounts (cars, food, cigarettes, soft drinks, beer). The other, smaller accounts (dress manufacturers, shoes, underwear, small retail stores) were regulated to tiny, 'Jewish' ad agencies. By 1950 only one agency whose founders were Jewish had managed to win packaged goods, cigarette, liquor and car accounts. They did so by naming their agency after the color of the walls in their office, and by not using their Jewish names on their masthead — thus Grey Advertising was born.

Then, in the mid-1950s, a 'Jewish' advertising agency broke through the ethnic barrier. Doyle Dane Bernbach's campaign for advertisers like Volkswagen ('Think Small', 'Lemon') and Levy's Bread ('You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's') changed the advertising business. Doyle Dane Bernbach made distinctive advertising that had 'attitude' and respected the consumer's intelligence. They sold products with ads that had humor, bold language and layouts with sharp, clean and stylish design. It opened the door for a totally new kind of Mad Man.

By 1961, when I got my first copywriting job, 'my kind' were suddenly in demand. The creative revolution had begun. Advertising had turned into a business dominated by young, funny, Jewish copywriters and tough, sometimes violent, Greek and Italian art directors.

The original Mad Men did not give up without a fight.

I once attended an advertising conference held at the Greenbrier Hotel in 1968. The dean of the original Mad Men, the great David Ogilvy, was the keynote speaker. The subject of his speech was the new creative revolution in advertising. Ogilvy knew his audience was mostly made up of desperate men who were trapped in agencies that were losing accounts to young, upstart, ethnic agencies. Ogilvy lashed out, and declared, 'I say the lunatics have taken over the asylum!'

The audience rose and gave that fighting line a standing ovation. I stood up and was clapping as loudly as the next man when I suddenly thought to myself, What are you clapping about — he's talking about you.

***

It was a wonderful asylum. We were wild. We made the antics depicted on every episode of Mad Men look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Our little agency was permanently filled with the sweet smell of burning cannabis. Life was easy was back in the days before human resource departments controlled business and someone decided we all should be politically correct. Everyone smoked (I had a four-pack-a-day habit). Everyone drank martinis (I had many a three-martini lunch), and everyone screwed around.

In the business world of the 1950s and early 60s, sex was a forbidden subject — everyone did it and no one talked about it. But by 1965 the sexual revolution was on, and the advertising business went wild. I encouraged it at my agency because nothing got creative people to come in early and leave late better than the prospect of sexual adventure.

In 1967, when I opened my ad agency, Jerry Della Femina and Partners, a group of us started an Agency Sex Contest. For more than twenty-five years, one week at the end of every year was devoted to Animal House-like antics. This was, until today, the best-kept secret in advertising. Thousands of people took part in the Agency Sex Contest.

The contest had everyone in the agency voting anonymously on paper ballots for the three people they most wanted to go to bed with. They were also asked to vote on the person of the same sex they would consider going to bed with. And, of course, there was the menage a trois category, in which they selected the two other people they wanted to go to bed with. Sometimes as many as 300 votes were cast.

For one week the walls of the agency were covered with posters made by people who were campaigning for themselves. One very shy girl in Accounting got into the spirit of the contest, Xeroxed her breasts and hung pictures of them on the walls. Another young account executive had as her slogan: VOTE FOR AMANDA [not her real name]. LIKE BLOOMINGDALE'S, I'M OPEN AFTER 9 EVERY NIGHT.

One very attractive female executive had a sexy picture of herself that she sneaked into the agency's men's room, and put up on the wall that a man would be facing. The caption under her provocative photo read, CAN I HELP YOU WITH THAT? This almost caused a disaster when a rather priggish client called and said he was on his way to visit the agency. In the hour before he arrived, we feverishly took down every campaign ad. Then, in the course of the meeting, the man excused himself to go to the men's room. After a few minutes I let out a scream. We had forgotten to take the campaign posters off men's bathroom wall. The client returned ashen-faced. He never said a word about the signs but he kept shaking his head. I would walk out of the meeting every five minutes just to giggle and then come back looking like the proper head of a major advertising agency.

Voting was on the up and up. One year I had our accounting firm tally up the ballots. You never saw so many accountants looking so amused and animated in your life.

First prize for the winning couple (even if they hadn't voted for each other) was a weekend at the Plaza Hotel, paid for by my agency. Second prize was a night at the Plaza. Third prize was a night uninterrupted on the couch in my office. Winners of the menage a trois got dinner for three at the Four Seasons Restaurant. Winners of the gay and lesbian part of the contest won a $100 gift certificate to The Pleasure Chest — a store in Greenwich Village that sold sex toys.

The results were announced at a party where as many as 300 of us would lock ourselves in a giant Mexican restaurant. At one party, I was concerned that the entire agency had imbibed too much cannabis and too many margaritas, and that the party was getting dangerously out of hand. When one older executive passed out, his head went into the plate of food in front of him. The woman next to him shouted, 'He's OK, the guacamole broke his fall.' A pretty, young, Asian woman, whom I'd never heard say a single word, jumped up on a table and started stripping and dancing with wild abandon, and accidentally kicked one of my art directors in the head. I rushed to the restaurant's manager and asked him to tell his waiters to cut down on the drinks. He smiled at me and said, 'Senor, it's too late. My waiters are all stoned and they are in the middle of the party.'

Was it sophomoric? You bet.

Was it politically incorrect? You bet.

Will you be seeing it in future shows of Mad Men? You bet.

Excerpted from From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor by Jerry Della Femina. Copyright 2010 by Jerry Della Femina. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.

Books Featured In This Story

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

Front-Line Dispatches from the Advertising War

by Jerry Della Femina and Charles Sopkin

Paperback, 270 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor
  • Front-Line Dispatches from the Advertising War
  • Jerry Della Femina and Charles Sopkin

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