I understand why the chattering classes are excited about the new Mad Men season, but find it difficult to share their enthusiasm. The clothes, the cocktails, the smokes, the cynicism, the moral compromises, I get all that, but it’s slow-moving, rather obvious and, being telly, very soapy. It’s also designed to make you love their world, and therein lies the problem; I don’t. In its own way, Mad Magazine was more incisive because it was staffed by hard-headed ex-copywriters.
I think it’s because I’ve been there and it’s not pretty. I worked in advertising for seven years, as a copywriter for JWT, Saatchis, Masius and Ted Bates. In the seventies these agencies were all still trading on their sixties cool image, but were far from cool. I’d been raised on ad agency films like ‘Every Home Should Have One’ and ‘I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Is Name’, and books like Jerry de la Femina’s ‘From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbour’, but now they were less attractive places to work.
I refused to work on British Associated Tobacco, but that was just the start of the questionable morality of agencies that asked me to persuade mothers to stop giving their children home-made food and buy them crisps instead. Then there were – and still are – the ‘weasels’, the cheat-phrases that hide ugly truths in advertising. I eventually felt so compromised that I quit the industry, and was glad I did. From the outside much of it looked revolting, and worse still, most of the best ideas were stolen from more creative, less well-paid people. (They do throw up the odd gem, though: see below).
Of course there are good people working in the field, but I still have trouble with an industry built on the surface charms of acquisition. Here’s a short passage from the upcoming (I hope) sequel to ‘Paperboy’, ‘Film Freak’…
‘Our creative department did not have ergonomic furniture, bean bags and a stripped-pine boardroom. It looked like a Welsh post office. The staff were sweet and drippy, and couldn’t have schemed their way out of a moistened paper bag. We had a tea lady who came around with an urn and a limited selection of Peak Frean biscuits, and an ex-army liftman with one arm.
In the afternoons, things were so quiet that we played Cowgum cricket, a game which required you to manufacture a ball from layers of rubbery clear paste and rolls of toilet paper. Some of us slept. Others went to an illegal afternoon drinking club run by a vicious old gin-bag who was always going on about how much she’d enjoyed the war because she liked a man’s man.
The work was low end and stultifying; trade ads for tyre companies, catalogues for sanitary engineers, a flyer for fishing bait (basically, an ad for worms), leaflets for insurance firms, charity ads. One day I was asked to write a recruitment brochure for a convent, and travelled to the end of the Northern Line for a meeting with a bunch of very sweet nuns. I asked the Mother Superior what she had in mind for the front cover. After thinking carefully for a while, she held up her hands to help me visualize the concept and told me ‘I thought we’d have a cross.’