The third installment in our series of extracts from George Parker’s new book, ‘Confessions of a Mad Man.’ One of the few surviving ‘Mad Men,’ George Parker has lived through more than forty decadent years in the world’s second oldest profession. He’s seen it all and done it all. And a great deal of what he’s done would make the TV show, ‘Mad Men,’ look like Sesame Street. Unless Kermit is caught in flagrante with Miss Piggy on the PBS boardroom table. Ah, the good old days… Sex, drugs, rock & roll… It’s advertising as you always imagined it.
There’s always been a perception in the business world that advertising agencies have an unlimited license to print money. Back in the glory days of the sixties and seventies this was accepted because most agencies, in collusion with the avaricious marketing directors of their respective clients, were all playing the same game. Let’s do lunch, let’s go to Yankee Stadium, let’s go to the Mets, let’s play golf, let’s do the sales conference in Tahiti, let’s do Broadway, let’s get laid. Shit, let’s just blow money out of our arses. After all, it’s not ours; it belongs to people dumb enough to invest in our shell-game of a company, which in turn, has decided to blow massive amounts of money on a really big advertising program!
So, nobody gave a shit, because we were all playing the same — I can do it because I can get away with it — game. Which, even though pretty bad, was amateur hour compared to the escapades of the last few years by companies such as MCI, Enron, Tyco, Home Depot, AIG and others, with their “Super CEO’s.” The one’s who’ll maybe end up getting “bitched” in an extremely non-country-club-jail long after they were featured, and forgotten, on the cover of Forbes or Business Week as “Man/Innovator/Futurist/Wanker of the year.”
And, even though I wouldn’t want his high-priced lawyers all over my arse, I would suggest ex General Electric CEO, Jack Welsh, provides a prime example of current Twentieth Century Chief Executive greed. After all, here’s a guy who retired with millions in cash, stock options and pension benefits, who will provide nothing of any value to his former company for the rest of his life, yet as just one of the many perks GE is dumb enough to provide, he expects them to pick up the tab for thousands of dollars worth of fresh flowers every month in his company provided Fifth Avenue apartment, even though he’ll only stay in the place when he’s flown into town on a company jet to take advantage of the company provided tickets for every re-run on Broadway, the US open, the Met, the Knicks, the Kicks, and the latest Lady Ga Ga concert. The evil old wanker even gets a life time supply of “vitamin” pills. Probably the little blue ones, for crying out loud!
It hasn’t got to that stage in the agency business yet, but I have no doubt that it will. Only a few years ago, when freelancing for one of New York’s biggest agencies, I had to get some ads approved by a senior agency executive late one evening so they could be finished up for a presentation early the next day. This meant schlepping it round to his Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment. But, as he and his wife were having the place remodeled, he asked me to bring the work to their temporary digs at the Carlisle Hotel. This turned out to be a two bedroom suite (they had no kids, just a dog) which had to be in the region of $1,500 to $2,000 a night for the three week stay. The agency was picking up the tab. Which, if you think about it, means that the agency’s clients were picking up the tab. They just didn’t know they were.
You might presume that as most agencies are now part of multi-national conglomerates run by dull-witted bean counters all of whom would be just as happy selling pipe fittings, undertaker services or insurance policies, providing it generated sufficient profit, these somewhat dubious practices would be a thing of the past… Au contraire…
When I first got into the business, back in the Mad Man days of the sixties, virtually every agency was still a private company, so management didn’t have to be bothered with such bothersome distractions as shareholders or Wall Street busybodies. This meant you could spend a significant portion of the client’s budget on lunch at The Four Seasons, afternoon cocktails at the Ground Floor, and dinner at the Rainbow Room, all with relative impunity. You always flew first class, got driven around in limos, and wouldn’t be caught dead staying in anything less than a five-star hotel. Yet strangely enough, the quality of the resulting advertising often seemed to justify this shameless extravagance. And because everyone else in the business was doing it, no one seemed to care very much.
Now, because of the pressure dictated by trying to meet their quarterly numbers, agencies which find themselves trapped within the slimy tentacles of such conglomerates as Omnicom, WPP, Publicis or IPG are forced to crank out mundane, often terrible work, and unlike senior management (who will always find ways to live high on the hog) the unfortunate peons who actually do the work, can’t even enjoy themselves while they’re doing it! Unlike the situation a few years ago when Michael Furlong, my Art Director Partner and I enjoyed a rather memorable almost five hundred dollar lunch at Smith and Willensky’s Steak House on Third Avenue. And why the hell not? At the time we were working on the American Express account and considered it an essential piece of research in order to come up with ideas for the client’s latest “fine dining” campaign! Unfortunately, as three quarters of the tab was for insanely fine wine and well aged cognac, not to mention torpedo sized illegal Cohibas in those wonderful, fuck it, you can smoke anywhere days, we didn’t remember too much about it.
The current state of the ad industry can best be summed up in the reputed words of a senior executive at the New York office of one of WPP’s agencies. When asked how he rated the quality of the work currently being produced by his agency, he replied, “Fuck the work, it’s all about the money!” Damn right sir, you have to get your priorities in order.
More of this degenerate, but highly enjoyable profligacy, next week. Right now, as the sun is almost over the yardarm, it’s time for cocktails and foisgras at Smith & Willensky’s.