Nicholasville resident experienced 'Mad Men' era of advertising business

Contributing writerApril 6, 2014 

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In 1962, Richard Smith had a job on Madison Avenue where he hammered out advertising copy for well-known brands like Pan Am Airlines, Ford Motor Company, RCA and L & M cigarettes.

Truth be told, the hammering was done by secretaries. Like his male colleagues at the J. Walter Thompson Company, Smith dutifully turned over his longhand scrawl to a waiting female typist.

Corporate custom dictated that Smith donned suit and tie, and the women, skirts and heels. The agency kept up productivity by providing a good hot meal for $3 in the company cafeteria.

You could say the place was like Grand Central Station and you wouldn't be far off. The famed advertising agency was the keystone tenant of the 30-story Graybar building which sits above the busy New York terminal.

Richard and a college friend shared a rent-controlled apartment on the east side.

"The apartment was on 77th between Avenue C and Avenue D, just downwind from the giant coal-fired Con Ed Plant," Smith said. "It was so dusty, you could actually see the dust coming in under the window."

Such was life for a so-called Mad Man in the 1960s at J. Walter Thompson, the dominant force in global advertising at the time.

From comedy revue to monkey house

A year earlier, Smith had joined the Army Reserve and was working on a masters in sociology at University of Wisconsin with no particular career path in mind.

"While I was at Wisconsin, I was concentrating on having a good time," Smith said. "I got into Haresfoot, an all-male dramatic comedy revue like Triangle Club at Princeton. We'd do shows and travel around the upper Midwest. That's where I got a start as a scriptwriter, working out a new show every week."

"For one show I wrote a tribute to the Rathskeller, the beer bar in the student union," Smith said. "It began — 'If you're tired of concentration, work and discipline, lose yourself in apathy and drown yourself in gin' — and on and on. The director, John Fritz, called me aside and asked if I'd ever thought of doing this for a living. I thought, 'Getting paid for having fun?' I could do that."

Also while at University of Wisconsin, Smith briefly worked as a lab assistant under psychologist Harry Harlow, who was famous for his experiments with rhesus monkeys.

"They're the most loathsome creatures with every disgusting habit you can imagine," Smith said. "Between working with the monkeys and writing for Haresfoot, I had a good background for working in advertising."

About the same time, Smith picked up a paperback copy of Madison Avenue, USA.

"The book was written by Martin Mayer," Smith said. "He wrote about what really goes on in the advertising business in general, and about J. Walter Thompson in particular. I was beginning to imagine myself as an advertising writer."

Madison Avenue calls

Smith wrote an application letter to J. Walter Thompson Advertising, as well as Foote Cone & Belding and Leo Burnett in Chicago.

"I wasn't sure about working in New York, and thought I would have preferred Chicago," Smith said.

"J. Walter Thompson asked me to write a 1,500 word story of my life, which is quite difficult at that length," Smith said. "I also was asked to take three print ads from a major magazine like Time of Life and do another ad in the same series. I remember doing one ad for Boeing and one for Miller Beer."

Smith was one of 11 people hired out of 8,000 candidates interviewed. But before he could begin his life in New York, his Army Reserve unit was called into six months of active duty at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. J. Walter Thompson promised to hold Smith's job.

"It was a more patriotic time. Companies were proud to have servicemen working for them," Smith said.

Nonetheless, Smith kept his letter of acceptance from J. Walter Thompson folded inside his helmet during his time at Fort Leonard Wood.

"When I got to New York, I had no idea about working in an office," Smith said. "I almost got fired that first week. I had to be told to quit wandering around socializing, and get in my seat and stay there."

Smith quickly found his place among the ad men.

"I discovered I would have ideas," Smith said. "There would be a dozen writers in a meeting, and they'd say does anybody have an idea how we can sell L & M cigarettes on TV. I found myself raising my hand. It was easy for me to write commercials, because I had been a cartoonist in college, and could imagine how it would look on television."

"On the Pam Am account, I was doing things like 'Fly from New York to Buenos Aires, the Paris of South America,'" Smith said. "Of course the real Paris in France was three hours closer by air, but we didn't mention that."

As seen on TV

What are Smith's impressions of characters Don Draper, Pete Campbell and Peggy Olsen, and the AMC television series Mad Men that dramatizes the 1960s Madison Avenue advertising scene?

"Honestly, I don't recognize those TV characters," Smith said. "From my experience everybody wasn't sleeping with everybody else. It's too complicated to become emotionally involved or sexually involved with someone in your own company. The saying was, 'You never cook your bread and your meat in the same pot.'"

"Most of the people I worked with were Ivy Leaguers, from places like Amherst and Cornell," Smith said. "They were highly intelligent, not sleazy and manipulative. They didn't swear in front of women and in many cases didn't swear at all. My colleagues were, what one might say, well brought up."

Some aspects of Mad Men did resonate with Smith, such as Roger Sterling's appreciation for works of art. Sterling is a founding partner at the fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency in Mad Men.

"In the boardroom at J. Walter Thompson, there was a nice pottery thing by Picasso," Smith said. "Norm Strauss, the chairman of the board was an art collector. In his office there was a Rembrandt etching and under a glass top coffee table, a Guttenberg Bible — the only one in private ownership."

Smith also got a kick out of the show's reverence for the IBM Selectric typewriter. "Those were the be-all and end-all," Smith said. "But you could buy a good used car for what one of those cost at the time."

Smith could identify with the feelings of ambivalence toward cigarette advertising. "We didn't have to smoke, but if we did smoke in front of the client, we had to smoke the client's brand."

After three years in New York, Smith grew disenchanted with the pressures of the advertising grind and big city life. After a brief stint with the Benton & Bowles Advertising Agency's Montreal office, he returned to academia, eventually earning a doctorate in education from University of Maine. He came to the Bluegrass in 1971 for a one-year appointment as an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Education.

As it was ending, Smith heard about a fledgling public television enterprise.

"KET was just getting started," Smith said. "With my background it was a natural thing. I was hired as the KET scriptwriter, a job I had for 27 years."

Today Smith, 77 is retired and lives in Nicholasville with his wife, Fredrica.

"When I started on Madison Avenue, I thought I would be spending my whole life there," Smith said. "But the reality is that when you come in in the morning you don't take off your coat until you read your mail. You may have been fired."

Jeff McDanald is a freelance writer.

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