Advertising agencies in the 1960s were nothing like what you see on TV, according to the late American motoring journalist David E Davis Jr, who cut his teeth writing copy for car companies.
A real Mad Man recalls the bygone era of selling the dream
In 1957, I became the west coast advertising manager for Road & Track magazine, and began calling upon a wide scattering of California advertising agencies and their automotive clients. A year later I was promoted to east coast advertising manager and sent to New York to cover New York, Detroit, Chicago and Akron, Ohio, immersing myself in the daily cut-and-thrust of the advertising business in the biggest and most sophisticated advertising community in the world. I loved that business and those people - and they colour my life and career to this day.
In 1960, I somehow managed to succeed Barney Clark as the Corvette advertising copywriter at Campbell-Ewald: six black-and-white pages annually for car magazines and race programmes, and six four-colour pages for Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker. As the first-ever Corvette writer, Barney was fiercely determined to do great advertising for an audience of one man — the great Russian engineer, the father of the Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov. GM's PR people felt compelled to promulgate the fiction that Duntov was Belgian, because his Russian mother worked as an engineer in Brussels, and, during the Cold War, we were more comfortable with Belgians than we were with Russians.
Barney followed a modus operandi that got him past the buzz-killing "Blue Flame Six-Cylinder Engine And Power-Glide Transmission" era. He thought "Ferrari" as he wrote about those earliest cars, but typed "Corvette".
My job was easier. Corvettes had become much better cars by the time I arrived on the scene and I could simply go blasting through the winding roads around, say, Lime Rock, Connecticut, then sit down and, short of breath, write what had been in my heart as I negotiated those hills and curves.
The team responsible for Corvair advertising called on me. They wanted me to help them convince Chevrolet that their Corvair model was beginning to attract car enthusiasts, and that the advertising should reflect that shift.
The Chevrolet client considered the Corvair a substitute for a used Chevrolet Impala, and the company's rallying cry was "Corvair, for Economical Transportation". Within days we had come up with some high-energy Corvair ads under a new banner, "Corvair, the Family Sports Car".
I was not allowed to attend the client meeting because the then-chairman of Campbell-Ewald thought I was an idiot. I waited impatiently to learn the outcome. Finally, one of my bosses walked into my office. "How did it go?" I asked. He replied: "Do you know how they give a horse medicine? They put it in a tube and they shove the tube into the horse's mouth. Then they blow the pill down the horse's throat. Pffft! This time, the horse blew first."
Ten minutes later, the copy supervisor on Corvair appeared in my doorway wearing his topcoat and hat. "Where are you going?" I asked. "To the doctor," he replied. "Are you ill?" I asked. He said, "No. I'm fine. I've just decided to have my ethics cut off."
As the months went by, engineer Duntov began to warm to me. He had apparently decided that I was not there to sabotage his Corvette advertising, and invited me to his office at the GM Technical Center, where he showed me a Corvette coupé experimentally fitted with the decidedly un-sporty Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission. We took the car to the small test track behind Chevrolet Engineering and he began to lap the tight little oval, going faster each time around.
The parallel straightaways were so close together that the 180 degree turns at either end were extremely tight. With each lap we were beginning to encroach on Duntov's limit of adhesion, if not the car's. Then it happened. At the north end of the track, the Corvette washed out completely and we disappeared off the track and into the tall grass. Weeds, dirt and insects of several species came blowing in through the cool air vents, adhering to our sweaty faces and bare arms.
The car continued like some berserk farm implement for perhaps 25 yards, then came to a steamy stop. When things had quietened down, Duntov said, in his Boris Badenov accent, "best not to discuss with management". He subsequently lost his test-track driving privileges.
The Campbell-Ewald ad agency where I performed these labours was a Magic Mountain for me. Its reality was far superior to the make-believe of Mad Men. I worked with more than 100 writers, art directors and television producers who were the most interesting, unpredictable and impressive crowd of people I had ever encountered under one roof. I loved their conversations about the books they read, the films they watched, how they spent their weekends, whom they admired and who bored them.
They became a sort of template that helped me design and build my own life, and when I became the editor and publisher of Car and Driver magazine in New York, I often pretended to get them all into a room and imagine them dissecting my magazines and my own contributions to those magazines.
Elmore Leonard was my guide and mentor during my first tentative efforts as a copywriter. He was not the world-famous writer that he is today. He rose early every morning and wrote western novels, researched in the pages of Arizona Highways magazine. He taught me to read my copy aloud before turning it in, and to write like I talked. I found over the months that I was also beginning to talk like I wrote. It is true to this day.
Elmore was a highly regarded and much-loved star in the agency's creative department. His main assignment was Chevrolet truck testimonial advertising. Dealers would suggest fleet operators in their territories who were using Chevrolet trucks for difficult work in challenging circumstances, and Elmore would pay them a visit, talk to the truck drivers and create the ads and catalogues. This sometimes led to late evenings in the local Veteran of Foreign Wars Hall, where Elmore would attempt to draw the drivers out, encouraging them to wax colourful on their love for their Chevys. As the evenings wore on, descriptions often became unprintable. The slight, bespectacled writer from the ad agency would be regarded as the bringer of some great morning-after plague.
The difference between the advertising business then and now and between the one that was so rewarding for me and so unlike the one shown on Mad Men is vast and deep. In the '60s, most of the senior managers were well-educated with degrees from first-rate colleges and universities. Many were veterans of combat in the Second World War and Korea. A surprising number had served as officers. "Life or death" meant considerably more for them than a sudden call from an angry client. They were serious about the business, but they had that irrepressible American gift for wisecracking irony.
Finally, and most important, there were giants among their ranks in the era lampooned by Mad Men. These were men and, later, women, with such dynamism, such rich communications skills, such track records of sound judgement and reliable counsel, that their counterpart CEOs at client companies would drop everything when one of these executives called and said: "I've been thinking about the change in strategy that your guys are asking for, and I believe that you and I should sit down and talk about it, maybe this afternoon."
To name a few: Bill Bernbach; David Ogilvy; Paul Foley; Bob Levinson; Carl Ally; Martin Puris; Mary Wells; Marion Harper; Fairfax Cone; Leo Burnett; my own chairman, Thomas B Adams; and my personal favourite, Howard Gossage.
There aren't many women on my list, which is not the fault of the women. The ad business of that era, like the major industrial clients it served, was slow to appreciate the vast reservoir of talent that resided among female managers, writers, graphic designers and TV producers. Women brought coffee and fended off half-hearted passes and clumsy double entendres.
The senior executives of our agency were uncomfortable with the constantly changing landscape of the women's movement and the vague guidelines that society expected enlightened executives to follow. There were constant references in client presentations to "the guys and gals in the back room who did the great work you see here today". I would leave the meeting, trot down to our president's office and say, "Hugh, we have to get the chairman to stop referring to the women in this company as 'the gals in the back room'." He'd rub his chin and say, "that's a tough one. What are we supposed to call them?" My reply: "What if we just call them women?" His face would cloud up. "Oh jeez, we couldn't just call them 'women'. That really sounds demeaning."
I served David Ogilvy as a consultant on Mercedes-Benz and Howard Gossage on Land Rover, and though they were offbeat and iconoclastic, they would never have tolerated the feckless behaviour of the ad persons portrayed on Mad Men. I defy the staff of that fictional agency to come up with a concept as brilliant as Howard Gossage's campaign for Qantas Australian Airlines: "Name An Airliner And Win A Kangaroo!" Or the headline of the dénouement newspaper ad that announced the contest winner: "New York Child Wins Kangaroo, Her First."
When Ogilvy & Mather got the Mercedes-Benz account, David Ogilvy had added to his fame with a Rolls-Royce ad that said: "At Sixty Miles Per Hour The Loudest Sound Inside This New Rolls-Royce Is The Ticking Of The Clock." He went to Stuttgart to familiarise himself with this new and very important client and to ferret out any "tremendous trifles" that might lend themselves to great advertising copy. While riding with development chief Rudolf Uhlenhaut in a Mercedes-Benz 600, he asked what it was that made this Mercedes-Benz superior to the king of luxury cars, the Rolls-Royce.
Engineer Uhlenhaut thought for a moment, then spoke. "We have a wonderful new experimental train running between Munich and Ulm at a sustained speed of 125mph [200kph]. It is quite revolutionary. On the other hand, you and I are now travelling on the Autobahn at 125mph between Munich and Ulm, and if I should decide to make a short side trip to visit my mother, I can simply slow down at the next exit, take a couple of secondary roads for 30 minutes and I'll be there. What I just described would be impossible if we were travelling on the experimental train, and the Rolls-Royce won't go this fast."
Mr Ogilvy may or may not have seen the good sense in the great Uhlenhaut's practical illustration, but he did then hire car enthusiast, former Corvette copywriter and all-around Renaissance man Bruce McCall to write the Mercedes-Benz advertising, a task he performed brilliantly for most of 20 years.
Ogilvy and Gossage proved that people would read long copy if it was interesting and/or entertaining. Bill Bernbach and his disciples proved that deli-counter banter could sell almost anything, if artfully done. They created a national buzz based on advertising's ability to charm and amuse while selling products of every kind. Their pioneering work laid the foundation for what became known as the Creative Revolution. But the empty suits and accommodating babes of TV's Mad Men wouldn't have participated in that revolution. Their social lives didn't leave much energy for serious work and the clients thought they were all jerks anyway.
David E Davis Jr has edited and/or written for such publications as Car and Driver, Automobile, Motor Trend, Car and the online publication Winding Road; he died in March at the age of 80.