TV audiences are mad about Mad Men, a show about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1960. The second season on the AMC cable network begins July 27, and you can buy designer fashions, calendars, cigarette lighters, and the like based on the show’s repugnant characters, who drink and smoke to excess, philander, and are racist and sexist to boot. One critic thinks Mad Men, written by a producer of The Sopranos, goes too far characterizing the 1960s New York City ad business as full of “hard-drinking, womanizing, amoral slime buckets.”
Full disclosure: I was in the advertising business in 1960, but in Chicago, not New York, and after four years went into the financial press. My older brother spent much of his career in Chicago ad agencies. Our parents and spouses never said we were amoral slime buckets, at least to our faces. But when I see my brother, the conversation often drifts to some amoral slime bucket he knew in the advertising profession.
In that spirit, I asked some veteran San Diegans about the local ad business in the 1960s. Were booze, tobacco, adultery, sexism, and treachery ubiquitous, as they supposedly were in New York at the time?
San Diego “was New York on a miniature scale,” says Dick Brooks, who now teaches upper-level marketing at San Diego State University. Brooks was president of the largest local ad agency, then named Phillips-Ramsey, from 1980 to 1995. “I had just come out of grad work with a master’s in marketing in 1965. I had gone to work as a media planner-buyer. On my first day, I went to lunch with two media reps and the guy who was the media director at Phillips-Ramsey. I left that lunch so drunk that I had to sit in my office.” One of the top officials of the agency “came back at 2:00 p.m., looked at me, and said, ‘Close your door. Don’t say anything to anybody, and go home at 5:00 p.m.’ ”
Dave Nuffer worked in public relations at Cubic Corporation in the mid-1960s. Phillips-Ramsey was his agency, and in 1969 he went to work for the firm. “Everybody got drunk at lunch,” recalls Nuffer. “You went to Lubach’s [a now-defunct eatery on Harbor Drive, featuring yummy steak sandwiches and hamburgers] and had two martinis. Then you would go back and sober up and get your work done from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. The womanizing was true, but amoral slime buckets? I don’t think so.”
Roger Conlee worked as a reporter in San Diego for the Evening Tribune from 1960 to 1966, then for the Chicago Daily News for three years before returning to San Diego to work for Phillips-Ramsey. “There was quite a bit of drinking in San Diego, but not as much as in Chicago,” says Conlee, who observed the agency scene in both cities. “The favorite places were Lubach’s and the Grant Grill, along with Mister A’s. There was not a lot of womanizing that I observed. There was some for sure, but it was not as notorious as in Chicago and New York. Some guys were hustling PSA [Pacific Southwest Airlines] stewardesses, when there was a PSA.” The legendary airline has long since disappeared.
“When I was made president of the agency, I was the first guy to have a Christmas party,” recalls Brooks. “Before, so many in the office were hooked up with others that we couldn’t have a Christmas party with spouses in attendance.” All in all, “The lifestyle was pretty wacky. If you did today the things you did then, a woman would sue you or you would be thrown in jail on a DUI.”
The history of San Diego advertising is intimately tied in with the history of the business community. Phillips-Ramsey was launched in 1928. By 1960, however, the leading ad agency was Barnes Chase. It was controlled by C. Arnholt Smith, the businessman/banker who ran the town in tandem with bookmaker John Alessio. This gave Barnes Chase some juicy accounts: Smith’s bank, U.S. National; the tuna company that was part of his conglomerate, Westgate-California; and Alessio’s Caliente gambling operation in Tijuana. Barnes Chase was run by a slick-talking, flashy-dressing adman named Norman Foster, who was a great public speaker and entertainer.
In second place in 1960 was Phillips-Ramsey. Its accounts in the decade included San Diego Gas & Electric, the former First National Bank, and the Convention & Visitors Bureau. As time went on, it picked up WD-40, the zoo, and Travelodge, then based in San Diego. “In the 1970s and 1980s we outstripped everybody by far,” says Page Jones, who became chief executive in 1972. The agency picked up industrial accounts such as Ryan Aeronautical, Rohr, Hewlett-Packard, and parts of General Dynamics. Then it picked up developers in San Diego and Orange counties and opened offices in Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Another agency in the picture in the 1960s was Knoth & Meads, formed in 1959 by two marketing executives from radio and television. “We were going to have an agency based on broadcast, but our clients took us into other areas,” says Dick Meads, now retired. The agency had the recruitment operations of General Dynamics and had Pearson Ford more than 30 years. C. Arnholt Smith wanted to buy the agency, says Meads. “Norm Foster suggested we not do it.”
By the early 1970s, Smith’s empire was coming asunder. The bank was seized, and the conglomerate went under. Alessio went to prison; later, Smith was sentenced to confinement too. Barnes Champ, the former Barnes Chase, was charged by a federal organized crime strike force with laundering Smith’s political campaign contributions. In 1970, Jack Buchanan, who had been an executive vice president of Barnes Chase, launched an agency that wound up with accounts such as Mister A’s restaurant, the watering hole owned by John Alessio, and the Hotel del Coronado, formerly owned by Alessio and bought in 1963 by Larry Lawrence and an associate. Knoth & Meads hired Norm Foster, but Meads says it wasn’t out of gratitude for keeping the agency out of Smith’s hands.
Both Page Jones and Dick Meads are a bit more reticent about ad industry vices in the old days. “Everybody had a martini at lunch in those days,” says Jones. “It was the nature of the business. We started at 7:30 in the morning with client relations and closed at 5:30 or 6:00 at night. We put in hard days.”
Says Meads, “Some people had martinis. Dick [Knoth] and I would stop in for a couple of beers. We certainly dressed better in those days. Today, our guys dress like they are going to a picnic.” What about office romances? “I’m sure it went on, but I didn’t know about it.”
One San Diego company, Jack in the Box (the parent was then called Foodmaker), got to know the characters that Mad Men is supposedly based on. Bob Battenfield, now semi-retired with his own agency, was Foodmaker’s director of advertising in the 1970s. One New York ad agency it had was Doyle Dane Bernbach, famous for very creative ads, such as the ones it put together for Volkswagen. “They would come once a week, take us to a long lunch, but it was more of a wine group,” says Battenfield. Later, the fast-food chain hired Wells, Rich, Greene, the agency headed by the fabled Mary Wells Lawrence, the highest-paid executive on Madison Avenue at the time. “She was quite a character, wore purple and green, colorful high heels — stood out from other corporate people.” When Jack execs went to New York for an ad shoot, “They put us up in the Plaza overlooking Central Park. One time the departing party was headed by Henry Kissinger. We had fancy lunches, fancy dinners.”
In 1988, the Interpublic Group of Companies, a large umbrella of ad agencies, bought Phillips-Ramsey through its McCann-Erickson subsidiary. By that time, Phillips-Ramsey had $52 million in billings and was the largest local agency by a good deal. The agency then brought Knoth & Meads into the fold. Later Gary Meads, son of Dick Meads, and Tony Durket bought the agency from the New York parent company — latter-day Mad Men — and it is now locally owned and called MeadsDurket.