‘Mad Men’: explosive new revelations! 2010

The US TV series Mad Men, set in a fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s, reignited interest in advertising from the younger generation. Sent to New York in 1958 to work for J. Walter Thompson, Jeremy must surely know a thing or two about those scandalous years? This piece offers a glimpse into his personal experience of those exciting years: “In the course of my first two weeks, my most exciting social experience was to join a television producer on the 5.42 from Grand Central to upstate New York where I was greeted warmly by his wife and helped put the twins to bed."

'Mad Men': explosive new revelations! 

I've always enjoyed patronising younger people, but for a decade or two, younger people and I got rather out of touch. There was little about me to interest them. I wasn't bitter about it and I certainly wasn't going to demean myself by forcing myself upon them. Then came Mad Men

This is what Jerry Della Femina has written about the first episodes of Mad Men: ‘Audiences were shocked by all the sex and alcohol and outrageous behaviour on screen. But let me tell you, the reality was so much worse.' 

No wonder younger people suddenly wanted to buy me drinks. They knew I must have been around at the time and they knew I must have spent some of that time in New York. If the reality had been so much worse than the excesses depicted, then I must at the very least have witnessed it – and maybe even (how shall I put this?) participated

Jerry was explicit. ‘We were wild. We made the antics 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. Everyone smoked … everyone drank Martinis … and everyone screwed around. Thousands of people took part in the Agency Sex Contest. One very shy girl in Accounting got into the spirit of the contest, Xeroxed her breasts and hung pictures of them on the walls. 

'Was it sophomoric? You bet. Was it politically incorrect? You bet. Will you be seeing it in future shows of Mad Men? You bet.' 

Today, when younger people cluster round, plying me with drink and lubriciously lusting for lewd detail, I play it cool. I look knowing. I raise my eyes to my eyebrows and make little puffing noises to suggest unmentionable excess. 

And feel just a little bit ashamed of myself. 

So now, in an exclusive for Market Leader, here are my first-hand memories of advertising agency life in New York, New York, during those infamous, scandalous Mad Men years. 

I was sent to New York in 1958. My first inkling that I wasn't about to be plunged into a seething pit of moral laxity came from my department head. His briefing, in full, was as follows: ‘Get your hair cut and don't wear suede shoes.’ It seemed that long hair would have been seen as evidence of anti-Americanism and suede shoes of unmanly sexual preferences. 

The J. Walter Thompson offices were in the Greybar Building on Lexington Avenue. The building led directly into Grand Central Station. Every morning, agency personnel arrived from their comfortable suburbs at exactly 8.30am and every evening left with equal punctuality at 5.30pm. As far as I can remember, no advertisements were on display and there was certainly no staff bar. 

The remarkable Stanley Resor had bought J. Walter Thompson from James Walter Thompson in 1916 and 42 years later was still Chairman. He was a man of high intelligence and almost tangible integrity. A few years later, he attended a demure JWT London dinner-dance. On his return to New York, Mr Resor reported that he had found the occasion quite enjoyable – although featuring ‘rather too much drinking and licentious dancing'. 

Under the leadership of Stanley Resor – and of his wife, Helen, a talented copywriter -J. Walter Thompson's aims were unswervingly unambiguous: to advance the cause of their clients’ businesses. To this end, the agency pioneered the use of market research and was perpetually obsessed with curiosity about how advertising worked. 

Mr Resor himself was neither a copywriter nor an account man. ‘The Journal of Marketing  said: ‘He went into packaging, pricing, distribution and consumption. He sought reasons why people bought or did not buy’. Today he'd be a spectacularly successful head of planning. 

No one thought it anything but justified when Fortune magazine described J. Walter Thompson as the University of Advertising. There was no Don Draper because there was no Creative Director because there was no Creative Department. There was an Art Department and an Editorial Department. On professional grounds, the agency declined to take part in speculative presentations and on ethical grounds accepted neither liquor nor tobacco accounts. Women copywriters sat in their own designated area and wore hats. 

In the course of my first two weeks, my most exciting social experience was to join a television producer on the 5.42 from Grand Central to upstate New York where I was greeted warmly by his wife and helped put the twins to bed. 

J. Walter Thompson was a thoughtful, professional, principled and hugely successful advertising agency. But I can quite understand why the producers of Mad Men chose not to base their series on it.