Nonfiction November Week 3: Stranger Than Fiction

This week is hosted by Christopher @ Plucked from the Stacks.

My immediate thought on reading the prompts for this week was to take me to one of my favourite TV series ever – Mad Men!

If ever there was a profession where life imitates art it is the world of advertising in 1960s New York, and I’ve read two books by people who were there!

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor by Jerry Della Femina

Subtitled ‘Front-line Dispatches from the Advertising War’, this book was first published in 1970, and republished in 2020 after the initial success of Mad Men! Nothing’s been changed, just a paragraph of introduction added to remind us that the book was written in 1969 and that over 99% of it is true. JDF worked his way up in the ad industry from post-boy through creative copywriter to agency partner – he’s been there, done that.

Certain scenes and themes in the book which viewers of the TV series will recognise were there: – the accounts guys who move agencies with companies in their pockets (which will lead to their demise at their new agencies); the stoners in the creative department; the never-ending battles between accounts and creative, and the expense-account lifestyle.

Sadly though, this book was a let-down for me on several fronts. Firstly, all the agency names – ad-men are as bad as lawyers for calling themselves after all their partners, creating cumbersome mouthfuls that with few exceptions are not international monickers that we’ve ever heard of. The result is that the names rather got in the way a lot of the time. More importantly though, the structure of the book was rambling, repetitive and full of digressions, jumping all over the place and frankly I got rather bored.

But it wasn’t all bad by a long shot. There’s a nice scene where JDF describes  when a copywriter and art director click and are on fire with ideas. One thing that comes home though is that advertising is a fickle business – everyone’s jobs are on the line every day, particularly those in accounts. It almost makes you feel just a tad of sympathy for oily, pushy Pete Campbell in Mad Men … NAH! Scrap that. This book was fascinating and maddening in equal measure.

Read my fuller review here.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

A rather better book is…

Mad Women by Jane Maas

Like JDF, Jane Maas was there and saw it all. She was one of the pioneer ‘Mad Women’ of Madison Avenue. She started as a copywriter in 1964 at Ogilvy and Mather after several years working in TV production on Name That Tune, rising through the ranks to be a creative director and president of another New York agency along the way.

In compiling her memoir, she has spoken to many of her colleagues to build up her picture of working for and with the real Mad Men, giving a fascinating portrait of the advertising industry of the 1960s and beyond, and especially what it was like for women, although she didn’t have to start off as a secretary like Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson. She was also one of the first working Moms – ranking her ‘job first, husband second, and children third’ realising that her job and husband might go away, but that ‘the children would hang in’.  

Maas tells us about the good and the bad campaigns, and the good and bad clients.  She recounts how it was common for rooms full of men to discuss the ins and outs of feminine hygiene products without asking their women staff of their opinions, except as an afterthought; and how it was usual for women copywriters to be put on accounts for household products, the men kept all the cars, booze, fags, etc for themselves.

Maas was one of the few that did break through the glass ceiling though.  She was not only one of the first women to wear trousers to work, she went on to be the director of the ad campaign that put New York back on the tourist map, I ♥ New York with its iconic logo designed by Milton Glazer in 1977.

She is also quite clear where she thinks Mad Men (and she is a fan) gets it slightly wrong.  In the hippest times of the 1960s, the agencies were colourful places – not the beige, glass and chrome we see on TV.  Most of all though, she stresses that they worked hard, they played hard, and most important of all, they had terrific fun doing this job that they loved so much – Don Draper and his colleagues don’t have enough of the latter.

This book was less rambling and much more entertaining than Della Femina’s, and confirmed most of what I’d always suspected happened in a woman’s lot in those glory days on Madison Avenue.  I’ve always been fascinated by the world of advertising, it’s long been one of my fantasy jobs from way before Mad Men, so I liked it a lot. 

Read my fuller review here.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link – Mad Women Bantam paperback, 218 pages.

8 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 3: Stranger Than Fiction

  1. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    I enjoyed that show too although found the last season or two disappointing. I interviewed for several jobs at these big NYC ad firms and maybe it was just as well that none of them hired me!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I loved the very ending of Mad Men though. To think you could have been a Don Draper type?! I used to dream of being in advertising back when I was at uni in the late 70s/ early 80s. Too lazy to do anything about it though!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you! I don’t think I’ve done the ‘Stranger than Fiction’ week of NF November before so it was fun. Those two titles just jumped out at me when I started going through old NF posts.

  2. thecontentreader says:

    Great choice. I loved the tv-series. I also read Jane Maas’ book and liked it. It was nice to get the view from the female side. To see how women struggled in those days. Although, I feel we sometimes still have to fight our way through.

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