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Published February 25 2012

Former Madison Avenue executive tells what advertising really was like in the ’60s

If you go

So you love “Mad Men?”

Jane Maas lived it.

Dubbed the “real-life Peggy Olson” by Ad Age magazine, Maas entered the sexist, martini-soaked, uber-creative world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s – an era now famously depicted on the hit AMC series, “Mad Men.” She worked her way up the ranks from copywriter to president of a New York ad agency, while also balancing roles as wife and mother of two.

Now she’s captured her experiences from those early years in a book, “Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond,” which hits bookstores Tuesday.

Maas, now almost 80 and as sharp as the creases on Don Draper’s slacks, will promote the book with an ambitious book tour that includes a Fargo stop April 10.

The tour coincides with the highly anticipated March 25 premiere of the fifth season of “Mad Men,” which certainly can’t hurt sales.

“That’s when the feeding frenzy will be,” Maas, forever the savvy marketer, told The Forum.

Maas still lives in New York City and still works as a marketing consultant to a number of Fortune 500 companies. And, yes, she watches the show.

Which begs the question: Do they get it right?

Well, sort of, Maas says. Yes, women really were treated like second-class citizens. Yes, there really were three-martini lunches. And, yes, there was a lot of sex in the office (possibly due to all those martinis).

But the show’s producers missed some important details, too. People smoked so heavily back then that most weren’t even aware they were doing it, Maas says. Yet the show’s young actors “apparently studied at the Bette Davis school of cigarette smoking,” Maas observes in her book. “They flare their nostrils and take immensely long drags.”

And then there’s the matter of hats. “When (women) were promoted from secretary to copy writer, you wore a hat in the office,” Maas says. “That was your badge that said, ‘I am a copy writer.’ You wore a hat firmly placed on your head all day long, right at your typewriter.”

Maybe Peggy Olson in a pert pillbox just didn’t make good TV.

A ‘slice-of-life’ expert

Like Olson, that “little copy writer who could,” Maas first worked as a secretary before joining the male-dominated ranks of advertising copy writers. But unlike Olson, Maas also was a mother of two.

Her path to advertising was an indirect one. One evening, Maas was walking along Broadway with a couple of unemployed actor friends. She was approached by a woman who asked if she’d like to be a contestant on the TV quiz show, “Name That Tune.” “I must have looked like the type who would jump up and down and squeal and kiss the emcee,” she says.

An aspiring actress herself, Maas leapt at the chance. She also won $150 – more than two weeks’ secretarial salary for her at the time.

The show’s producer noticed a “creative spark” in her and hired her to interview contestants. She would talk to them beforehand, then write “spontaneous dialogue” for their on-air banter with the emcee. For a farmer’s wife, for instance, Maas might write: “This is the most excitement we’ve had since our pig won second prize at the state fair.”

Then scandal hit. An outraged public learned popular shows like “The $64,000 Question” were rigged, and many of those shows were thrown off the air.

Maas didn’t mind. Her years of interviewing hundreds of contestants from across the country had taught her how Americans talked. This prepared her well for the “slice-of-life” ads that dominated Madison Avenue in the 1960s.

Brimming with confidence, Maas compiled a portfolio and interviewed at Ogilvy & Mather, a Manhattan agency that represented brands like Dove, American Express and Maxwell House. She was hired.

Where the boys are

From the beginning, Maas noticed a barrier between men and women in the workplace. The few women who made it to the copywriter ranks worked on accounts like hair-coloring, baby food, cleaning supplies and coffee. They were never allowed to work on financial, liquor or automotive products. “Men figured we didn’t really know how to drive,” Maas says.

Oddly enough, accounts on feminine hygiene products were handled by men. It didn’t seem to matter who wrote about Kotex, because it was so vague it didn’t say anything, Maas says.

Women found it difficult to break into this boys’ club. “If there was a sexist joke or a dirty joke, it wasn’t appropriate to act offended or to laugh,” she remembers. “You just had to stare at the wall. You couldn’t be one of the boys but you couldn’t be an offended little girl.”

For years, women were paid substantially less. She tells of another copywriter who marched into her boss’s office to complain that the male copywriter next to her was making twice as much money as she earned.

The boss replied: “But he’s a man. He has a wife and kids to support.”

“Oh yes, I didn’t think of that,” she said, before slinking back to her office. Her friend didn’t bring up the issue again.

Long before anyone had coined the term, sexual harassment was rampant. Maas herself was harassed by an Ogilvy creative director, who used to drunkenly bang on her hotel door during business trips while she huddled in bed, trying to ignore him. Once, he complained that there were too many distractions at the office so they needed to book a hotel suite. Well aware of what he had in mind, Maas showed up at the suite with an unexpected chaperone – the art director.

After two years of unwanted advances, Maas couldn’t take it anymore. She walked into the office of the firm’s founder, David Ogilvy, and told him she wanted to work with a different product team. Because no one talked about sexual harassment back then, she didn’t dare mention the real reason why she wanted to work with another creative director. “Quickly, I ran out of polite fibs and began to cry,” she writes.

David Ogilvy pretended not to notice – or to know the real reason why she needed a change. “Let me see what I can do,” he said. Three days later, she was assigned to a new group on a different floor.

“You weren’t supposed to complain about things like this,” she says. “You were just supposed to handle them.”

‘We didn’t have wine’

Not all sexual attention was unwanted. For many married male ad executives, whose wives were tucked away in the suburbs, it was common to have affairs with women at the office.

The Christmas parties were wild, booze-soaked events held at hotels, where illicit workplace lovers could easily slip away and get a room.

Another notorious event was the Ogilvy boat ride, a party cruise that circled Manhattan Island. A running joke was that no one ever returned from the boat ride as a virgin. The boat cruise grew wilder each year until the time when the office manager fell overboard. The employee was rescued, but the cruise was scuttled, says Maas, still laughing wildly at the memory.

Drinking was de rigueur. A three-martini lunch was standard, and one of Maas’ contemporaries said her officemates also capped off their martini trio with a Rusty Nail – a paint-peeling cocktail of Drambuie and scotch.

When Maas asked her friend how they were still able to work after such a boozy lunch, her friend replied: “The trick was we didn’t have wine.”

As common as alcohol was, it wasn’t quite as pervasive as “Mad Men’s” producers like to make it. “The most outrageous thing is drinking in the morning,” Maas says. “In all my years at Ogilvy in 1964 and on, I never, ever saw anyone come in and pour a drink at 10 or 11 in the morning.”

Have you come a long way, baby?

Thanks to the support of a long-time housekeeper and an understanding spouse, Maas thrived at work. In 1976, she left Ogilvy to become senior vice president at another successful agency, Wells Rich Greene. She was named president of yet another agency, Earle Palmer Brown in 1988.

Along the way, she directed the wildly popular “I Love New York” campaign and co-wrote an industry classic, “How to Advertise.”

Maas loved her work, but the struggle to balance career with family was never easy.

Back then, workplace moms were viewed with pity or suspicion. “Men felt vaguely sorry for working mothers; we must be married to real deadbeats,” Maas writes. “Women, especially other mothers, were usually shocked to learn we were letting other people raise our children.”

As more females entered the workforce, conditions shifted to accommodate them. Even so, Maas is sometimes surprised when she talks to young people and realizes how much things haven’t changed. While comparing notes between women who worked in the ’60s and women who work today, she found their words were eerily similar. “I’m pulled in so many different directions,” they told her. “I’m not doing anything as well as I should.”

Maas herself feels some guilt that she sometimes placed higher priorities on her work than her children. “I paid for it in the fact that my older daughter feels I neglected her,” she says today.

Her work often takes her to college campuses, where young women ask how they can master the work-home balance. “I think they have to understand that you can’t do it all, all the time,” she says. “You would have to be super-human, and that’s what early feminism preached to us: You can do it all. The hard reality is that you can’t.”

Despite some struggles, Maas found herself inextricably drawn to the advertising world. Because, when you got down to it, she says, advertising was great fun.

Maas’ book includes interviews with several colleagues who believe the show “Mad Men” fails to capture the creativity, youth and excitement of that era. Yes, everyone worked impossible hours – but they also loved what they were doing.

“Those opinions are shared by every sixties survivor I have spoken with,” Maas writes at the close of her book. “The television show doesn’t capture the most important creative aspect of all. We were having a wonderful time. We were in love with advertising.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525