What Real ‘MadMen’ Did, and Didn’t do

By Kenneth Roman and John Emmerling

David Ogilvy wasn’t Dan Draper. In a new poll, ad agency alumni spill the beans about the old days.

David Ogilvy wasn’t Dan Draper. In a new poll, ad agency alumni spill the beans about the old days.

The advertising business is popping up in our living rooms a lot lately, most notably in the cable TV series “Mad Men,” now going into its fourth season. At the start of its first episode in 2007, this title appeared on the screen.

MAD MEN – a term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it.

The program is a well-crafted dramatic series set in a fictional advertising agency of the period, portraying a free-wheeling industry in which men smoked and drank – in the office, and bedded their secretaries with abandon.

Watching it, one might be tempted to ask how closely the show hews to reality.

We have a clue from a recent poll of 101 alumni of Young & Rubicam, one of the leading advertising agencies then and now. The informal survey, conducted by Emmerling Communications, reinforces many of these stereotypes – except the term “Mad Men,” which it reveals did not exist at the time. But it did confirm that advertising men, like most people, smoked – 58 percent of the sample, in fact. And that they drank at lunch – 68 percent had at least one, 39 percent had two or more, and a remarkable five percent somehow navigated with four drinks.

But the most revealing findings relate to the treatment – or mistreatment – of women. The overwhelmingly male survey group agreed that there was a hiring bias toward good-looking women – as secretaries or receptionists. Women in professional roles were rare birds. Forty-five percent of respondents agreed that women were subjected to male chauvinism, sexual innuendo and off-color jokes; another 27 percent acknowledged this, but put it down to “a few bad apples.”

Finally, sex. The survey question: “Were you aware of sexual activity that took place in the office? (This does not include ‘nooners’ at a friend’s apartment.)” Fifty-five percent gave it a resounding DEFINITELY YES! Plus 18 percent who said they certainly heard “strong rumors”.

By those superficial measures, the show is on the money. On the substantive nature of the business, it is wildly off-target. That dissonance is best personified by David Ogilvy, the most celebrated advertising man of his day, who has been described as “The Original Mad Man.”

In most respects, large and small, Ogilvy defied the show’s prototype. Unlike the gray-suited executives of “Mad Men,” he was a theatrical character. When he first came to Madison Avenue, he sometimes flaunted a black scarlet-lined cape. He was driven around in a Rolls-Royce and arrived at black-tie events in a kilt – before most people had seen either one. As he remarked, “If you can’t advertise yourself, how can you hope to advertise for your client?”

He was calculatedly outrageous in behavior and highly quotable on deeply held beliefs like honesty in advertising and respect for the consumer. Among his favorite aphorisms – “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife. You wouldn’t lie to your wife. Don’t lie to mine.” Don Draper and his colleagues, on the other hand, show little respect for the underlying purpose of their work – to serve the interests of their clients. Ogilvy never let his staff forget that. One oft-quoted refrain, to remind his people not to be profligate with client money, was that the production cost of a TV commercial was about the same price as a pretty swell house.

In building Ogilvy & Mather into a global enterprise, he was a champion of professional standards, including the concept of brands, the discipline of direct marketing, and the use of research in developing advertising. There is no evidence on “Mad Men” that anybody ever adheres to professional standards of any kind. Not for Ogilvy the winging of a campaign in a client meeting, as Don Draper does in the show with the Lucky Strike “It’s Toasted” campaign.

In a relatively short period of time, he created several of the most influential campaigns in advertising history, among them “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” with his aristocratic black eye-patch; the red-bearded Commander Whitehead bringing Schweppes tonic to the U.S., and the most memorable car headline of all time: “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock. He called these his Big Ideas.

The Mad Men drink and smoke – a lot. Although he smoked pipes and cigars, chain-smoking cigarettes was not Ogilvy’s style. He drank moderately, except when he had to pour himself on a plane – he was terrified of flying. He never joined his colleagues’ imbibing at neighboring watering holes; in fact, he registered disgust toward such behavior. One evening, somebody came looking for Ogilvy’s secretary. “She’s probably across the street at Ratazzi’s, fornicating with copywriters,” said he.

Ogilvy was attracted to beautiful women and was married three times, but was discreet in his private life. His real love was advertising, and at that he was a workaholic with little time for the sort of extracurricular affairs dramatized on the show. The characters in “Mad Men” seem able to drift away from the office to bars and hotel rooms any time they feel like it. Ogilvy was almost the opposite, leaving social events and even the theatre to return to the office.

Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. A former creative director at Ogilvy & Mather who met his copywriter wife there stopped watching “Mad Men” because it bore so little resemblance to the business he was in at that time. His wife had a divergent view: “You didn’t have your behind pinched right and left every time you walked through the art department.”

—Mr. Roman, a former chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, is the author of “The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising.”