Op-Ed: What ‘Mad Men’ Fails to Capture About the Golden Age of New York Advertising

| February 28, 2012 4:00 AM video

The hugely successful television series, “Mad Men,” which is about to enter its fifth season on March 25, depicts advertising in the late 1950s and ‘60s as a business dominated by white, Protestant, chauvinistic males who spent much of their time on their knees. They were well-educated, and offered full service to their clients: elaborate meals, tickets to Broadway plays and sporting events and carnal diversions.

One early “Mad Men” episode best describes the era. The management of the Sterling Cooper agency was scrambling to find a Jew in the agency. Someone asks, “Do we have one?” Another replies something to the effect of, “No. But there’s an Italian art director in the back room.”

I can relate to that. I’m not Jewish, but I was born in Detroit during the Great Depression to Italian immigrant parents. After spending my entire education studying to be a serious artist, I found temporary work in what I thought was a mindless business in which I had zero interest: advertising. I was hired to work in the mat room of Campbell-Ewald in Detroit, cutting mat boards and laying out print ad mock-ups for $55 a week. The job turned out to hold more interest than I originally imagined; it was the beginning of my long career as an art director in advertising.

Although I got my start in Detroit, I always believed New York was Mecca. The opportunity to move there came on May 18, 1959, when I took a job in Campbell-Ewald’s Madision Avenue office.

Amil Gargano, photographed in his office in 1959, shortly after leaving Detroit to work in Campbell-Ewald’s Madision Avenue office. Photo courtesy of Amil Gargano.

And while the characters on “Mad Men,” like Don Draper, adhere to a hard-drinking lifestyle, that’s the polar opposite of the way I lived my life during that time. (Of course, I know many a real “Mad Man” whose conduct would make Don Draper appear celestial.)

I worked a 60-hour week on average for my entire career, and considerably more in pitching new business. I didn’t drink on the job, or lie to my employees or clients. I believed in setting examples rather than lecturing people. In our entire history we were adamant in never accepting a cigarette account with huge profit margins, even though we were asked to solicit the accounts of large tobacco manufacturers. And to conclude this bit of piety, I’ve been happily married to the same woman for 48 years.

But claiming virtue is a bore. Boozing and womanizing were commonplace for some, but not for all of the advertising men I knew. The real truth that “Mad Men” fails to portray is that for many of us in the industry, our work was what mattered above all. Myself and my long-time partners, Carl Ally and Jim Durfee, were on a mission to drastically alter the nature of advertising from the trivial, superficial and mindlessness of those times to something powerfully persuasive and intelligent to consumers.

I was a creative director, the job held by the fictional Don Draper. Carl Ally was the agency front man, but he was more Don Draper than Don Draper, in every way. Carl was brilliant, inspiring, erudite, blunt, and confrontational; a wildly manic individual who was congenitally horny. Married five times, it wasn’t safe for the cleaning women to bend over when Carl worked late at night. One thing we had in common, including Draper, was that we all served in the Korean War.

In 1962, we launched a radical new form of advertising for Volvo. For the first time, we referred to our competition by name, and demonstrated the superior performance of our car. In our first commercial, we showed a Volvo out-accelerating three domestic cars in a drag race, each with more horsepower: the Chevrolet Corvair, the Ford Falcon and the Chrysler Valiant.

The first week the commercial ran, a call came to Carl from an angry Ford executive. “How dare you compare your car to ours? I’ve got strong objections to this kind of advertising,” he blurted. “And I’d like to know what you think should be done about this ugly situation, Mr. Ally?”

Carl paused for a brief moment, then said, “Make your car go faster,” and hung up.

WATCH VIDEO: 

“The Fast Talking Man” television commercial created by Ally & Gargano in 1981, was among the most memorable commercials created for Federal Express. It was recently included in Brian Williams’ interview with FedEx founder and CEO Frederick Smith.

I spent seven years writing a recently published book on this subject, which includes 46 extraordinary case studies of how our advertising campaigns launched daring new companies and rejuvenated large, well established corporations. Among them is Federal Express, whose founder and CEO has openly admitted, that “had it not been for Ally & Gargano, Federal Express would probably not exist today.” When an advertising agency can take responsibility for the success of an international company with annual revenues of $39 billion, then it far exceeds the peccadilloes of “Mad Men.”

Yes, I believe “Mad Men” is a moderately accurate depiction of life for many people in advertising at that time. But the show has yet to seize on the tremendous changes that electrified advertising by the men and women who were, indeed, the polar opposite of Matthew Weiner’s creation.

Amil Gargano in 2011. Photo courtesy of Amil Gargano.

Amil Gargano is the co-founder of Carl Ally Advertising, Inc. and its successor agency, Ally & Gargano, along with Carl Ally. The pair became known for their ad campaigns for companies like Volvo, Hertz, Federal Express, Vespa and IBM. He will appear alongside Andrew Cracknell, the author of “The Real Mad Men: The Renegades of Madison Avenue and the Golden Age of Advertising,” at an event on March 1 sponsored by the Gotham Center for New York City History.

  • Julie

    “Mad Men” is a fictional series, so it should not be held to the standards of a documentary.

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