Queen's University

Was it REALLY like that?

An alumni veteran of more than 50 years in the Canadian advertising industry, casts a critical eye on the phenomenally popular AMC television series Mad Men.

I began working at Young & Rubicam in Toronto in 1946, two years after I graduated from Queen’s. I was 24 when I was hired as a copywriter in the agency’s Toronto office. I made a career in the industry until 1990, when I tapered off into consulting before retiring for good in 2000. My formative years in advertising were during the same ones in which the popular AMC TV series Mad Men is set, the ’50s & ’60s. And I sometimes traveled to New York and the Madison Avenue head offices of Young & Rubicam and later Ogilvy & Mather, two of the agencies the series is supposedly modeled after.

Mad Men castDon Draper (Jon Hamm), third from right, and the principal cast of the hit AMC series Mad Men. Is Draper the image of ad man John Straiton, Arts’44?


People ask me, “Was it really like that ... all that drinking, smoking, and sex?”

Yes, much of it was. What the series misses is the cheerful atmosphere, the horsing-around, and the variety of the creative people. (My daughter says the Don Draper character reminds her of me. That kind of turned me against the series in the beginning.)

The creators of Mad Men have gone to great pains to recreate the look and feel of the 1960s. Much has been made of the series’ accurate recreation of the ’60s look, clothing fashions, hair styles, and office décor. The show’s writers certainly got the salary figures right; a young copywriter earned about $70 a week. (I was making $35 a week when I got married in 1947.)

The critical accolades for the show are mostly deserved, though there do seem to be more white shirts and ties on the show than I remember in our offices. And the Mad Men cast seem pretty “grown up” and serious when I compare them to the ad men I knew.

To refresh my memory as I wrote this piece, I reviewed some segments on DVD. I’m pretty much housebound in Oakville these days, and judging by the reaction of the caregivers who watched with me, others agree the show is gripping and entertaining. However, one of my young caregivers, new to this country, was outraged by the amount of smoking in Mad Men. “They shouldn’t be allowed to show this on television to Canadian children,” she said.
Did people really smoke that much? Yes. I was a “moderate” two-packs-a-day man.

Did the people I worked for and with drink as much as Don Draper and his associates? If so, I wasn’t aware of it, but then I was just “a kid from Kapuskasing.” I do know that I drank so much at times that friends sometimes had to caution me to go easy. I recall going to two-martini lunches where the glasses were like bird baths, and I remember martinis being served at a backstage “business visit” at the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show, which ran on CBS.

I recently had a visit from a ­J. Walter Thompson research man and a retired agency president of whom are both ardent fans of Mad Men. Their main comment about the show when I asked them was, “With all that booze, how did they get any work done?”

As for the sex on Mad Men ... I had little opportunity to observe that first-hand, but I do know the show gets it right in the love scenes. Women wore garter belts. And a female friend ­observed that brassieres really were pointier then than they are now.

Similarly, most ad agencies of the ’60s weren’t big. They’d largely grown up from a single person (always male) or a partnership such as Batten, Barton, Durstin & Osborn, a.k.a. BBDO – whose name Jack Benny said sounded like a barrel rolling down stairs.

There’s little suggestion in the series of the amazing men who built the big agencies – legendary characters such as ­Raymond Rubicam. He was a creative genius who wrote some iconic ads and also created an agency that was a model for the industry. Then there was the legendary (m)ad man David Ogilvy, who advised his clients, “The consumer is not a moron. She’s your wife!” Still another of the industry legends was Leo Burnet whose Chicago-based agency gave us Tony the Tiger and the Jolly Green Giant.

As a result of buyouts, mergers, and globalization, many of today’s big ad agencies have operations that are as wide-ranging as the multinational corporations that are their clients. The advertising industry definitely has changed. B

Did the people I worked for and with drink as much as Don Draper and his associates? If so, I wasn’t aware of it ...

Queen's Alumni Review, 2012 Issue #3Queen's Alumni Review
2012 Issue #3
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