The Magazine

Agency Life

The slightly scandalous memoir of a business pioneer.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By MYRNA BLYTH
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An appropriate accompaniment to this season’s return of Mad Men is Jane Maas’s entertaining and rueful memoir of what it was like to be an advertising woman in the 1960s and ’70s. Maas, a star copywriter who became a creative director and president of an agency, is best known for being the “mother” of the successful “I Love New York” campaign. And yes, Maas was indeed as pert and hardworking as Mad Men’s ambitious Peggy Olson, although she arrived at her Ogilvy & Mather copywriting job with a degree from Bucknell, where a good pal was Philip Roth, as well as a master’s degree from Cornell. Maas also, unlike the single Peggy, was married with an extremely supportive husband, rare for the time, two daughters, and a devoted live-in housekeeper who she acknowledges was as important to her career success as her own considerable talent and drive.

Photo of Mad Women book cover

Maas says that, nowadays, she is often asked if there really was that much smoking, drinking, and sex in the office as depicted on Mad Men. And the way she remembers it, there really was. A two-cigarettes-before-breakfast smoker, she recalls the overflowing ashtrays at every meeting and the 10 difficult years it took her to quit. There were also those typical “21” and Four Seasons lunches that started with martinis and ended with stingers. Her friend, the advertising legend Jerry Della Femina, explained that ad executives could drink that much because everyone (including clients) drank as much, so there was a level playing field. 

And as for sex, she relates a battery of anecdotes, including: the Ogilvy & Mather annual booze-filled boat ride from which it was said no virgin returned with her virginity intact; the Young & Rubicam Lothario who systematically worked his way through the typing pool; and the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample account man who used Al Goldstein’s Screw to find a willing “date” for his out-of-town client. And in comparing how much sex there was at each well-known agency, she writes, “There wasn’t much sex at JWT [J. Walter Thompson] because most of the offices didn’t have doors. This was supposedly by order of Mrs. Resor [the CEO’s wife] who had been a copywriter and knew what went on at agencies.”

But Maas’s main subject is what life was like for working women in those days when it was “a different century, a different world.” She writes: “Creative director and novelist Anne Tolstoi Wallach applied for a writer’s job at Time magazine in the late 1950s. She was told that only men worked as writers; women worked as researchers. ‘I didn’t feel that was discriminatory at all. That was the way things were.’ She decided to go into advertising instead.”

But advertising was only somewhat better. In meetings with new clients, Maas, even when she was a vice president, was sometimes mistaken for a secretary. Extremely capable women were paid less than men. “A woman copywriter at Ogilvy discovered she was making a lot less than a colleague,” Maas writes. “She complained to her boss, who reacted with surprise: ‘But he’s a man with a wife and kids to support.’ ‘I accepted the explanation as entirely plausible,’ she said, ‘and I didn’t ask again.’ ”

And when it came to sexual harassment—well, that was a problem a woman dealt with by herself without consulting HR or calling Gloria Allred. Maas once went to David Ogilvy when she was being relentlessly pursued by her boss, but only told the agency head she wanted to work for someone else “to broaden [her] horizons.” Ogilvy got the message and she was transferred, but the boss stayed in his executive position. Still, Maas notes that what might be termed sexual harassment could benefit women as well: “During one brief period while I was at Ogilvy, five of the top men at the agency were involved in extracurricular affairs, and left their wives.” Three of the “other” women worked at the agency, the fourth appeared in a commercial, and the fifth was a client. Four of the couples married and three marriages worked out.

“Not a bad percentage,” Maas comments.

It was also the time when “working mother” was considered an oxymoron, at least for most middle-class women. Being pregnant in the office caused embarrassment rather than excitement, and a new mother was expected to return to work only a couple of weeks after giving birth. Maas, who never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, admits she always loved working and felt lucky, even privileged, to have an interesting career. She writes in the book’s first pages, “My priorities [were] job first, husband second, children third.”

You may wonder how her now-grown daughters feel about this. One, Maas says, quietly resents the hours she put in; the other considers her mother a heroine.

Myrna Blyth, former editor in chief of Ladies’ Home Journal, is editor in chief of ThirdAge.com.