An Original Mad Man Reflects on the Real 'Mad Men' and the Show

by Crispin Kott

14 October 2010

Gary Kott, Mad Man at Ogilvy & Mather 

"Advertising was pretty bland through the '50s"

“Advertising was pretty bland through the ‘50s,” he said. “It was all things to all people, big, luxury convenience, girls in crinolines, jingles, taglines. There were two giants of advertising thought, and I worked for one of them, David Ogilvy. And then there was this new agency called Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach. That’s probably who they were talking about as catering to the Jews. David Ogilvy landed the Rolls-Royce account and wrote these stunning ads, they were poetry. Later, they got the Mercedes account. But Doyle was a small agency, and they got this account called Volkswagen. You’ve got to remember in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the idea was big luxury American cars. And here was this frickin’ car from Germany, of all places, called a Beetle that looked like something you’d put in your pocket. And on top of it, it was the dream child of Adolf Hitler. How can you sell that in America after the war? Giant luxury cars, beautiful women driving down the street, handsome men, ‘See the USA,’ Dinah Shore, blah, blah, blah. Doyle, Dane and Bernbach said, ‘Let’s go the opposite.’ And they came out with an ad, and the headline said: Think Small. Think Small to Americans, and this little teeny picture of this little Bug, and that one ad revolutionized advertising. When I saw ads like that, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ That started the new school of advertising, this minimalist, sharp, clever thoughtful campaign.”

Other campaigns by the firm were just as revolutionary.

“The idea was to boast that you were number one. So Doyle, Dane, Bernbach gets Avis. Hertz was the number one car rental of all time, and if you were not number one, you sure didn’t want to advertise it. So, Doyle comes out with this headline that says: Avis – We’re Number Two, But We Try Harder. So bizarre, and Americans loved that.

“And then they got the Alka Seltzer account, and how do you do anything with such a cruddy product. And they started this campaign: Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz, Oh What a Relief it Is. And that led to commercials like, ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.’

“When I saw ads like that, I thought forget about the old school of advertising, that’s what I want to do. So here, not only was I with the long hair, the leather jacket, but I wanted to do advertising that these agencies had never done before. And they sort of let me do it. They fought me all the way, though.”

The show wasn’t a total hit with my father, especially when it came to the quality of the advertising.

“This is the problem, probably, with the show so far,” he said. “The idea is great, but the advertising sucks. If this guy is a creative genius and that’s the kind of advertising he’s approving, this guy would be out by 1973. If this is the best he could do, and these are his advertising instincts in 1960, my guess is he’d own a bed & breakfast in Vermont by 1973. I saw a lot of these guys go down quick. To me, it’s like saying, you’ve set up a show about the greatest football player that ever lived, and then you see him throw the ball and he can’t even grip it.”

The episode featured art director Sal Romano showing a print sketch of a man in a hammock with the word ‘Relax’ as the headline, and later Draper enthralling the board of Lucky Strike by pulling “It’s toasted” out of thin air. Neither of these impressed my father.

“When you think of, ‘It’s toasted’ saving the day, compare that to ‘Just Do It’ for Nike,” he said. “Enough said. That’s saving the day. It’s the weak part of the show, the actual advertising, because it’s hard.”

He acknowledged that because if his professional experience, that sort of thing might bother him more than the average viewer.

“I wrote a doctor show (The Cosby Show), and I just threw in some medical jargon,” he said. “I’m sure some doctors watching were like, ‘Hey, the patient’s gonna frickin’ die!’ Cliff Huxtable was a doctor, and Clair was a lawyer, and I’m sure lawyers were going, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ But that is a really bad ad agency. And I’m sure America doesn’t care, just as if I was watching a show about Nascar, whatever they tell me is fine, I’m not going to know the difference. But right now, that ad agency is going to have to get better because I’d have a hard time watching it. A show about advertising, you would hope that they got sharper, because none of these people would survive so far. It’s the worst ad agency I’ve ever seen, and they’ve got to get to work.”


My father and me in the ‘70s

That last point was also something of an issue for my father, a man who worked absurdly long hours in advertising, and then continued the practice while writing and producing television. As the younger staff members of Sterling Cooper begin to file out just after 5:00 in the afternoon, my father was stunned.

“Time to go at 5:15? You saw the way I worked. 5:15, you’d say half day,” he said. “At Y&R, we all worked weekends. The saying was ‘If you don’t show up Saturday, don’t bother to show up Sunday.’ We’d be there hour after hour after hour hammering out ideas locked in our offices. So years later, Ogilvy takes me back, and they were going to make me a Vice President and Creative Director out in L.A. So the first day they introduced me to my group, the art directors and the copywriters. And at about ten after five, a couple of them knocked on my door, stuck their heads in and said, ‘We’re really glad you’re here, can’t wait to work for you, see you tomorrow.’ And they got on the elevator. And I started laughing and laughing. Someone came in and said, ‘What’s so funny?’ I said, ‘These guys have such a great sense of humor,’ and I kept looking at the elevator doors waiting for them to open. And they never opened up. Five minutes later, three more people from the group walked in and said, ‘Gotta go, I’ve got a volleyball game today.’ And the whole group was gone by twenty after five. I sat there stunned. It was at that moment where I knew it wasn’t going to work out for me. Going home at five o’clock at night? I’d never heard of that. Five o’clock was when it got quiet and you could do good work. That’s the way it was, and I said, ‘I’m going to get out of here. I can’t work with people like this.’”

As a television show, my father found Mad Men more hit than miss, though the repetition began to wear on him a bit.

“The writing is so inconsistent,” he said. “They just keep hitting the same beat and the same beat and the same beat. This guy is good, I’m not knocking him. It’s really impressive that a guy would tackle an era he had nothing to do with. But I’m 30 minutes into the show, and they’ve articulated the same problems five times. In 30 minutes, you’ve covered cigarettes five times and talked about this girl’s legs seven times.”

While Account Services Executive Pete Campbell is presented as a threat to Draper, my father didn’t buy it, especially after the former’s disastrous “death wish” pitch to Lucky Strike.

“The evil character, the Darth Vader kid would just get blown out of the water,” he said. “The great thing about Steven Spielberg, when he did Jaws, he didn’t say, ‘Oh my god, there’s a shark and it’s eating all the people.’ He showed the fucking shark. And he just showed it for about 30 seconds, and it just fucked everybody up for the rest of their lives. You can’t say in a corporate office that there’s guy nipping at my heels, you’ve got to show they’re formidable. You can’t have a guy get up and give a speech saying we’re all going to die anyway. You’ve got to have this guy coming in with amazing shit, because that’s the fear. Advertising is like baseball. You’re having a bad season, and they bring in a rookie, and he starts hitting line drives off the fucking wall, your job is really in jeopardy. So you’d better start taking steroids. This guy has no competition yet in that agency. In the ad agencies, the competition is grand. There’s always people nipping at your heels, and I’d be nipping at his heels. And he’d feel it. I nipped at all these guys. I always had guys coming after my jobs constantly. And I’d say, ‘Okay, try to get it. You’re better than me, you deserve it.’ And you know what, they couldn’t find that person.”

My father said he understood that if the show was four seasons into its lifespan, the characters probably developed much further than the “stick figures” he saw in the pilot, and the advertising might even have improved. But after 45-plus minutes, it was all about Don Draper.

“What makes a TV show ultimately is the characters, and so far it’s just the pilot, but you’ve got one good character, Don Draper,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s very one-dimensional and repetitive.”

But that was only part of the picture, and my father said that when the writing was good, it was very good. He liked the premise, how careful Weiner and the producers were with conveying a period in time and with setting it in what was effectively the Wild West in the Big Apple.

“It’s very clever what this guy has done in setting it back in the early ‘60s when there were no rules to life. I mean, everybody smoked. They smoked in the office, they smoked on airplanes. And they drank.”

Though he said the drinking wasn’t nearly as over the top as it might have been in 1960, my father remembered the offices as being a bit more lenient in his era than they might be today. He remembered a fellow copywriter from his early days at Ogilvy & Mather.

“She got hired two weeks after me, and she would come in still drunk from the night before,” he said. “She would slam her door shut and say, ‘No calls!’ She’d black out on the couch, wake up at about 11 and I had to take her down for coffee. She was very funny.”

My father also enjoyed the show because it gave him an opportunity to talk about his past, both in advertising and in the eventual move to writing for television.

“These people all wanted to be vice presidents, but that was a sad day for me,” he said. “I was 30 years old, Vice President, and it depressed me. But what it also did was it gave me permission to leave the business. I was way younger than any of the other creative directors. I didn’t really want to supervise other people, and I didn’t care about corporate pie charts. I was not motivated to have the corner office, and there were guys in there who wanted that dream.”

Instead, his relocation to Los Angeles with Ogilvy & Mather gave him the opportunity to break into Hollywood.

“It was The White Shadow and Bruce Paltrow” he said. “Hollywood did not care about advertising people, and Marc Rubin had gotten the head writer job through Paltrow. They had a pickup for five shows, and Paltrow wrote one, Rubin wrote one, I think Paltrow wrote another and Paltrow’s friend Steven Bochco came in and wrote number four. They only had one script assignment left, and Paltrow said, ‘Who do you want to write it?’ And Mark said, ‘Gary Kott?’ Paltrow said, ‘Who’s Gary Kott?’ ‘He works in an ad agency,’ and Bruce Paltrow hits the roof. ‘I have my choice of any writer in Hollywood? What do I care about an ad guy?’”

We continued to talk about my father’s career long after “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” fell into the credits, digging through my own hazy memories of visits to ad agency offices and commercial shoots along the way. We also covered some of what happened over the next few seasons of Mad Men, with my father guessing more often than not how certain events in and out of the world of advertising might have been handled on the show. It made me wonder how other people in advertising both past and present see Mad Men, or how doctors see shows like ER or Grey’s Anatomy or even The Cosby Show. And then I got back into Mad Men itself, watching the season’s penultimate episode like pretty much everyone else I know. Everyone else but my father.

Mad Men season two cast

Mad Men season two cast

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