“I had an open bar at the agency in which I kept 10 to 15 bottles of booze…I smoked three to four packs a day. Everybody smoked at all times in all meetings…There was a tremendous amount of sex. I don’t know of a single marriage that survived that time.”
Jerry Della Femina
Called the original “Madman of Madison Avenue” who began his career as a copywriter in 1961*
USA Today article Does ‘Mad Men’ Exaggerate? Nope (2009)
My father, Charles W. Smith, was born on April Fools’ Day 1931. He would have been 81 today, but after a career in advertising he didn’t make it past age 64.
Last week, I blazed through watching the entire first season of the Emmy-winning show Mad Men—a mere five years after its TV debut. It didn’t take long for me to realize why I connected with the show. At age 30, my father walked away from being a pilot in the Air Force to start a new career in advertising. Not in New York City, but a scaled down version in the new frontier of Central Florida in the pre-Disney days of 1961.
He began his new career as a copywriter at McClellan and Associates, before moving on to other agencies and positions.
While they didn’t have the high profile accounts featured in Mad Men, that didn’t mean they smoked or drank any less. While I never saw my father out of control drunk, I rarely saw him without a drink in his hand. When I asked my mom about Mad Men she said, “I lived that life.” My father would entertain clients at the Villa Nova Restaurant or Freddy’s Steak House in the Orlando area and often didn’t come home for dinner—and sometimes didn’t come home until 2 or 3 AM. My mom and dad got divorced in 1968 before it came in vogue in the United States.
Divorce, alcoholism, sexism and affairs—and all that jazz— weren’t limited to the big boys in New York City advertising. (And I’m sure it wasn’t limited to just the advertising business.)
My father eventually left Orlando in early 70s to start his own advertising agency in Tampa called simply Smith Advertising. He had long left behind industrial Northeast Ohio where his father worked for more than 30 years at Youngstown Steel & Tube. A world he acknowledged only in passing. (Ironically, at the same time my father was growing up in the Youngstown area there was a young girl named Mary Wells from there who would go on to be president of Wells, Rich & Greene—one of the major New York advertising agencies in the 1960s.)
So it’s with great interest that I watch Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Mad Men navigate the world of his past, his family, his career, and the culture of the times. All in the warmly lit and highly stylized world of the 1960s—”The Golden Era of Advertising.” Of course, Central Florida of the ’60s was far from the glamour surrounding Madison Avenue in New York City. Making my father not really one of the lowly Mad Men represented on the TV show, but simply an ad man.
But how I’d love to sit with my dad at the classic old school Bern’s Steak House in Tampa and spend the evening hearing him recount driving around in the Florida heat in his unairconditioned Volkswagen Karmann Ghia trying to drum up business. Learn more about how he was named in 1976 as Advertising Professional of the Year by the Tampa Advertising Federation— an award I only learned about after he died in ’95. If your father’s still alive, watch the music video below and then give him a call. There is power, grace and magic in stories.
P.S. If you watch Mad Men and/or work in advertising you have to check out this week’s Newsweek magazine (March 26 & April 2, 2012) with the cover Mad Men Goes Back to the Office. It not only features Mad Men, but an overview of advertising, as well as many retro-designed 60s ads of current products.
* That Newsweek Mad Men issue referred to George Lois, also born in 1931, as ‘The Original Mad Man.’ He has a website that recaps his work on the “I Want My MTV” campaign and his year long MoMA exhibit of his Esquire covers.
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