On Sunday, January 28, 1969, the readers of the New York Times Magazine met, most of them for the first time, a young man who was already a legend in certain circles around midtown Manhattan. "Lolling in a chair was the new creative supervisor of Ted Bates & Co. advertising agency, one Jerry Della Femina, 30 years old, a $50,000-a-year marvel out of Brooklyn, hired to bring a bit of sparkle to the Bates image." The writer, Charles Sopkin, described a brainstorming session for a new client, a "Japanese electronics company" called Panasonic. It was Della Femina's first day on the job and he was surrounded by account executives, art directors and copywriters awaiting his direction. Finally he cleared his throat. "I've got it! How about this for a headline: 'From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor.'"
The wunderkind's irreverence caused predictable consternation among his new straight-laced colleagues. There was "stupefied silence" and "one account executive dropped his pipe." And amongst the readers of the Times no doubt other pipes were dropped as well. With the Japanese attack barely twenty five years old and WWII vets heading many households, the wisecrack must have shocked as many as it amused.
But one way or another, the message was delivered: there was a new kid in town. And that's just how Jerry Della Femina wanted it.
Out of that Times profile sprung a book with the same title of the proposed ad campaign, which, of course, never ran. From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising War was published the following year. Four decades later, cited as a key source of inspiration for the series Mad Men, it's being rereleased timed to the start of the show's fourth season.
In the staid world of advertising, Jerry Della Femina was something new: the self-created personality. The ad world had always had its share of vivid characters. David Ogilvy, one of the two fathers of the 1960s "creative revolution," was known for wearing a full-length black cape with scarlet lining to work and donning a kilt for formal affairs, but Ogilvy was from Scotland, and ran his own agency. More typical was Bill Bernbach, Ogilvy's American counterpart: soft spoken, conservative in dress and manner. Overall, the advertising business was dominated by the genteel issue of the American establishment like Della Femina's one-time boss, the remote and legendary Ted Bates, a product of Philips Andover and Yale (Class of '24).
Jerry Della Femina, on the other hand, was a nobody, an tough kid from an Italian family who grew up on Avenue U in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. He muscled his way into his first job by sending weeks of samples signed only with his initials before presenting himself triumphantly at the agency's door, announcing, "I'm J.D.F." He immediately went to work creating not just ads but his own image. "Even at the tender age of 26," reported his future amanuensis Sopkin, "he understood with the startling clarity of a child from the street that the advertising industry is made up of gossips. He also perceived that many people in advertising lead lives of quiet desperation and that any deviation from the norm of behavior would be bound to attract attention." He kept it up as he jumped from job to job, building a reputation for attention-getting headlines to go with the attention-seeking personality. He wrote "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" for a women's product called Pretty Feet; the Charlie Brown-as-embarrassed-pitcher-themed "Your Fly is Open" for Talon Zippers; and, memorably, a trade ad for McGraw-Hill with the banner "Before Hitler Could Kill Six Million Jews, He Had to Burn Six Million Books."
By the time Della Femina published From Those Wonderful Folks, he was the hottest guy in the hottest business in town, running his own start-up agency and obviously loving it. Charles Sopkin had picked Della Femina for the original Times profile because he was the only potential subject who didn't care if he was quoted by name. So the book is naturally All Jerry, All the Time: it reads as if he were locked in a room with a box of blank audio tapes and a case of Chivas and told to come out only when the first was full and the second was empty. Sopkin edited the tape-recorded results (lightly, it seems) into 13 chapters worth of stream-of-consciousness observations on the advertising business circa 1970 which is as fun to read today as it was then. Despite the endless references to extinct agencies and long-forgotten accounts, Della Femina's literary voice — a cross between Holden Caufield and P.T. Barnum — is fresh, compelling, and entertaining.
Today we're invited to read Della Femina's memoir as a "key text for Mad Men," to quote the blurb from GQ prominently displayed on the book's newly redesigned cover. The most obvious connection between Della Femina's sixties and the sixties of Mad Men is the most titillating one: the uninhibited attitude towards sex and booze. "The whole place was filled with young guys who suddenly discovered that somebody was going to pay them a lot of money for the rest of their lives for doing this thing called advertising," Della Femina says of his first job, "and all of us got caught up in the insanity of it and went crazy. A whole group of people slowly went out of their skulls."
There are strip poker games. ("Nothing serious, just for a few laughs"). Copywriters drag their desks to stairwells to get a better view into the windows of adjacent apartment buildings. (Accused of belonging to an "organized gang of Peeping Toms," one of Della Femina's colleagues protests that he never belonged to anything organized.) And at the end of the day, "we haul out the booze, get a bucket of ice, and whoever wants a drink takes one." (In a recent interview on NPR, Della Femina recounted a typical lunch from those days: "As we were looking at our menu, the second martini — and then before the food arrived, the third martini would arrive. At that point then we would have two bottles of wine to go with our food. And then invariably someone would say, you know, I don't think I'm going to have desert, I think I'll have a double scotch instead.")
But actually, all these wild hijinks, amusing as they are, are secondary to the real story that Della Femina wants to tell: a deadly serious tale of class warfare, with him and his cohorts taking down a moribund WASP-y institution from within, bringing, in Sopkin's words, "chaos out of order." Della Femina begins his book with these words: "Most people think advertising is Tony Randall. In fact, they think this business is made up of 90,000 Tony Randalls. Guys all very suave, all very Tony Randall. They've been fed the idea of Hollywood that an advertising man is a slick, sharp guy. The people know zip about advertising." Today, it's hard to imagine anyone suaver, slicker or sharper in advertising than creative director Don Draper, Mad Men's profoundly repressed central character. Della Femina's goal is to debunk this slick image. He is the anti-Don Draper.
As a creative director — and as a pitchman — Don Draper, ironically enough, appears to have been modeled on Rosser Reeves, who was the right-hand man to none other than Della Femina's nemesis, Ted Bates. In From Those Wonderful Folks, Bates's agency represents all that Della Femina finds contemptible about the establishment advertising world, with its craven, glad-handing account executives and mind-numbing, insulting, repetitive commercials. Della Femina instead identifies with the new wave of copywriters and art directors who are bringing fresh air to Madison Avenue: Jews, Italians and Greeks from the outer boroughs with real blood in their veins and dynamite in their portfolios.
The best parts of his book, and the parts that will ring the most true to creative people working today, are his accounts of the ad making process and his battles with timid agency superiors and fearful clients to get the work accepted. In the television world of Man Men, this creative new wave has barely yet made an impact. The main role of Smitty and Kurt, a young copy and art team hired by Draper from Doyle Dane Bernbach ("I sense the hand of Julian Koenig," says Draper while reviewing their portfolio) had been to introduce the office to marijuana. And poor Sal Romano, the dapper Italian-American art director who was Sterling Cooper's one concession to ethnicity, crashed and burned last season when his long-closeted homosexuality was exposed.
The biggest creative success story in progress on Mad Men — and perhaps the series's true protagonist — is secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olsen. You won't find her source material in Jerry Della Femina's book but in a more recent memoir, A Big Life (in Advertising) by Mary Wells Lawrence. Like Peggy, "Bunny" Wells started as a rare female in a male-nominated business. She ended up becoming the youngest person ever to join the Copywriters Hall of Fame and was by 1969 reportedly the highest-paid person in advertising. Like Della Femina, she cultivated her image as carefully as any high-profile advertising campaign.
It is the critical role of this cult of personality that is the real lesson of From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. It's of no little significance that Della Femina describes his book as "dispatches from the advertising war" in his subtitle. He — and Mary Wells, and George Lois, and the other standard bearers of the Creative Revolution — imagined themselves in daily battle with the products of northeastern boarding schools and the Ivy League. Outrage was their weapon, and chutzpah (or, in Della Femina's case, fegataccio) provided their armor. As cultural critic Thomas Frank was to observe much later in his fascinating book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, "If Della Femina was the zeitgeist barometer he clearly believed himself to be, by the end of the 1960s, the American adman was not a touchy defender of consumer excess but a jaded scoffer contemptuous of the institutions of consumer society, scornful of the imbecile products by which it worked, and corrosively skeptical of the ways in which the establishment agencies foisted them on the public."
True. But what Frank misses — and, I reluctantly admit, what the creators of Mad Men have been largely missing in the show's first three seasons — is the sense of exuberance and joy, perhaps reckless, perhaps misguided, that infuses every page of Della Femina's book. In 1970, he was confident that talent and guts would be sufficient to overthrow the establishment order, or at least to provide himself with a perch within it. And his confidence was well placed: today he leads an enviable life as a publisher and restauranteur, with a newly relevant forty-year-old book to his credit.
In that light, the end of the New York Times article that started it all ends with an especially arresting prediction. "The WASP's blew it," declares Della Femina. "They sat around and said, 'This is it, and we don't have to work for it.' My group will eventually blow it, too. We'll sit around in our funny clothes, and we'll get old and fat and start sliding. And then the next revolution is going to take place. The hot writer is going to be Pedro Jimenez, and the hot art director is going to be George Washington Smith. What a crazy scene that's going to be!" Reading this today, it took me a second to realize he was talking about agency creative departments dominated by Hispanics and African-Americans.
The new season of Mad Men — with its main characters starting up a new agency of their own — may bring us a few of those crazy scenes. As for the larger cultural revolution predicted by Della Femina, it's four decades later and we're still waiting.
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