Confessions Of A Mad Man: The Agency Fireman
In his tell-all memoir, author George Parker holds forth about what it's really like to work in the steamy ad world, as popularized by AMC's Mad Men. All it's cracked up to be? Read to find out.
The latest 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.
I arrived back in England in 1972 after ten years in New York. In those days, anyone with that amount of American advertising experience could write their own ticket in London. However, being a schmuck, I allowed myself to be wooed by Geers Gross. At the time I was led to believe it was the “hottest” agency in England. It was only after I joined them as Creative Director I found out, that in reality; Geers Gross was a giant scam.
Bob Geers and Bob Gross, two expatriate Americans, spent a couple of years sucking on the tit of the London office of Benton & Bowles. Then decided to open an ad agency and show the Brits how things were done on Madison Avenue. Being American, everyone assumed they were Ad Geniuses. The truth was, they knew next-to-nothing about advertising. Or, as we Brits with our unmatched command of “The Queens English” put it: “They didn’t know their arse from their fucking elbow.”
In those days British commercial TV was in its infancy. So anyone with half a brain and a transatlantic accent could pretend to be the master of the TV commercial. So, when it came to TV, if you could talk the talk, you could walk the walk. It was assumed you were hot shit.
This is how the Two Bobs pulled off their scam. Most UK clients assumed they were TV experts, whereas, in reality they’d never done television prior to moving to the UK. So, virtually every spot that came out of their money factory was an animated cartoon. The beauty of this was they could simply hand over a script to an animation house and let them get on with it. Being fresh from New York, and full of piss and vinegar, I decided I was going to change this state of affairs by creating lots of live action commercials.
Unfortunately, the Bobs not only felt threatened by my attitude, they also saw me as a danger to their money making machine, the one dictating regular monthly trips to Zurich with suitcases of well-laundered cash for deposit in their respective Swiss bank accounts. Needless to say, in three short, acrimonious months, The Bobs and I decided to go our different ways.
Luckily, previously, I’d had quite a few offers from agencies anxious to capitalize on my “Madison Avenue” expertise. One of the better deals was from the CD of Dorland’s, a famous, but long since disappeared shop. I contacted him, explaining I was now a free agent and he repeated his original offer, so a week later I showed up at Dorland’s. You can imagine my shock when I asked for the creative director, only to be informed he’d been fired the previous Friday!
If I had been the usual taciturn English chap, I would have accepted the inevitable, taken a quick drag on my fag, and excited stage left for a pint in the Frog and Nightgown. Instead, I demanded to see John Maltman, the MD of Dorland’s. His secretary appeared and haughtily enquired why I wanted to see him. I explained that I was somewhat surprised to discover that the guy who had hired me was no longer on the premises. I insisted on seeing Mr. Maltman. She excused herself, and within a couple of minutes returned to announce that Mr. Maltman would see me. I was then ushered into his inner sanctum.
In the ad biz, it’s a given that the offices of senior management will have a certain “over-the-top” style. But back then, Maltman’s office was straight out of an English Stately Home series on Masterpiece Theater. Imagine the fourteenth Duke of Bloginthorpe’s Country Seat. This impeccable example of good taste had Rembrandts on the wall, Misen china on the tea trolley, chilled Bollinger, and 28-year-old Laphroaig in the liquor cabinet, which without a doubt, would be served in Baccarat crystal over Ramlösa ice cubes.
Maltman was the archetypal, upper-class, public school, ex-guards, Oxford-Cambridge “chap,” who had arrived into the ad business by default, rather than gravitating into a semi-legitimate career in “The City.” He looked at me as if I had emerged from under a rock.
I immediately read that he had no idea why I was there. But, as I later discovered, because he was a very decent human being, he was extremely courteous and asked me if I would like tea or coffee or anything. And would I mind explaining why I was there?
I told him about the CD’s offer of employment at Dorland’s.
“Ah,” said Mr. Maltman, “and what exactly where you about to be employed as?”
This was one of those rare moments when I was sober, drug-free, and generally not too fucked-up to realize that this was my opportunity to make a major killing. That veritable grab-bag stuffed with everything you’d always lusted after! I had learned enough in the Madison Avenue trenches to realize I must instantly seize this sucker by the short and curlies.
“Mr. Maltman,” I said, peering over the rim of my skeletally thin Misen tea cup, “Jack brought me from the U.S.A. to be Dorland’s “Agency Fireman.”
Maltman, looking somewhat bemused, responded, “And, what exactly, is that?”
“Well,” I replied, “Whenever an account is in trouble, I and my hand-picked team step in and save the account with outstanding ball-busting creative work.”
There was a pregnant pause as I almost wet myself whilst trying to avoid biting my tongue off. Oh well, I thought, even if I’ve really fucked it this time, it was worth a try, and I did get to drink out of the Misen.
“Mmmmm,” he said as he sipped his Earl Grey, “That sounds like a jolly good idea.”
Oh . . . Wow . . . Can you believe this? I thought. But, here comes the best bit . . .
“So,” and what kind of financial arrangement had you arrived at with Jack?”
I had just came off the empty fag packet strewn streets of seventies London, demanded to see the MD of one of England’s biggest agencies, claimed I was hired by the CD, then proceeded to sell him a spur-of-of-the-moment, “Agency Fireman” piece of bullshit, and now he was asking me what the “financial arrangement” was. A giant light bulb clicked on in my head, while a voice reverberated at the back of my scull: This is the time to cash in.
Grasping the nettle, I replied, “The arrangement I had was that I would assemble a team of hand-picked people. Pay them what I consider to be a fair rate, work outside the normal agency hierarchy structure, answer only to you, travel first class, and only stay in five-star hotels.” (I don’t think I actually said the last bit, but I was certainly thinking it). I also named an obscene yearly salary.
I gritted my teeth and waited for his scathing response.
“Splendid,” he said. “When can you start?”
And so began my three memorable years of debauchery, licentiousness and general mayhem as Dorland’s “Agency Firemen.”