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.
Unlike the New York, Mad Man sixties, when agency perks included smoking, drinking and screwing your brains out, at Winkler McManus, not only was the entire staff blessed with full-body massages, we could also pick from a menu of hypnosis, astrology readings, crystal therapy, aromatherapy, unguent therapy, cosmic karma therapy, and just about every other therapy you could think of with the exception of the smoking, drinking and screwing kind. Without a doubt, “Iggy” was a proponent of the karmic life style. Unfortunately she was also a paranoid, schizophrenic. I’ll never forget when during one of our increasingly regular contretemps she asked me what it was I thought we were doing at the agency. Quick as a flash I answered “Making ads.” Her steely blue eyes turned to evil slits. “Wrong”, she hissed. “Our job is managing the process”.
I thought she was nuts. But, over the years, I’ve come to realize she was, in fact, dead right. Because that’s what virtually every ad agency does, “manage the process”. Ninety nine percent of the people in an agency don’t give a rat’s ass about the quality of the work. You don’t believe me? Look at the end result. It’s like making sausages. You put shit in at one end and take shit out the other. I’ve just watched a TV ad for Pepsin AC. A guy in a restaurant is stuffing his face with pizza. At a table opposite is a babe, also stuffing her face. She gets a bad case of heartburn. The hero reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tube of Pepsin. Holding it so the label fills the screen, he advances on the babe and offers it to her. She gives him a smile and takes the Pepsin. Heartburn exits, love blooms! Apart from the fact that no woman is crazy enough to take what could be poison from a perfect stranger, for Christ’s sake, it’s just a STUPID fucking idea, and whoever created it should be ashamed. But, I guess they’re just managing the process.
When I joined “Iggy” her biggest client was 3 Com, a company founded by Bob Metcalfe, who’d had the good fortune to have invented the Ethernet networking protocol. Soon, 3Com became one of the world’s leading IT companies, and Bob became a very rich man, who eventually took his millions and went back to his native Boston to play tennis and eat clams.
Then, one afternoon, “Iggy” announced that she had to let me go. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. I’d been there six months, and we were both obviously pissing each other off. I was curious however, to hear the reason for my dismissal. “3Com hates you!” she announced. I was stunned, knowing it wasn’t true. In the short time I’d been on the account, I’d struck up an excellent relationship, and they’d been complementary about the work. “Iggy,” I announced “You’re fucking crazy.” Collecting Bob, we retired to our favorite bar in order to down copious amounts of booze and conduct a post mortem. Bob said she thought I was getting too close to the client, and being uber-paranoid, perhaps I was making plans to run off with the account. Which is exactly what happened. Except, the initiative, didn’t come from me, it came from 3 Com.
Next morning, I was sat at home nursing a rather severe hangover, when I got a call from Roger Higgins, the Marketing Director of 3Com. Now, Roger was a fellow Brit who shared my appreciation of the finer, more expensive, things in life, so we’d become quite friendly over a series of “fuck it, someone else will end up paying for this shit, so let’s get another bottle” lunches, and numerous after work cocktails. “What the hell happened” Roger asked. Knowing the way “Iggy’s” twisted mind worked, I asked him what he’d heard from her. Apparently, she had informed the client I had resigned and stormed out of the office without giving any reason. She suggesting that my actions were no doubt brought on by my excessive intake of alcohol matched by my equally massive intake of “Cartagena Coffee!”
This is quite funny, when you consider I’ve never tried to disguise my shortcomings, particularly when they’re outmatched by the excesses of the hypocrites accusing me. Over the years, I’ve seen more high-quality “blow” disappearing up the nostrils of Madison Avenue’s movers and shakers than Hollywood used to shoot the final scene of “Scarface.” I’ve also seen more drunken, middle aged ad execs, hitting on defenseless young females at Christmas parties than in any other business. Anyway, yes, I have been known to enjoy the benefits of the grape, sometimes to excess, but only in off duty hours. I have never fallen down on the job, while on the job… Brewers Droop might be another matter, one not worthy of discussion at this time. As for the joys of Peruvian Marching Powder, in common with many on Madison Avenue in the eighties, I occasionally indulged, but rarely, as I preferred alcohol… Still do!
So, Roger invites me to lunch and over a couple of bottles of Napa Valley’s finest, he asks me what I want to do, as they would not keep the account with “Iggy” if I wasn’t around. Seizing the opportunity, I suggested they let me handle the business for a while, until they found a suitable agency. He agreed, and we worked out the details on a cocktail napkin.
Looking back, that lunch was a crucial part of my long and checkered history in the ad biz. Because it was the day, I threw off the shackles of permanent employment and went independent. While living in the West, I freelanced on everything from Intel, to Apple, to Microsoft to Dell, and many others that no longer exist. But eventually, I was lured back to the sybaritic delights of Madison Avenue.
For four years I had freelanced on Dell at Chiat, San Francisco, which became Goldberg, Moser, O’Neil, when the principals bought themselves back from Jay Chiat, who Fred Goldberg hated with a passion, referring to him as “The Bozo!” In fact on the day the buy-out was completed, the GMO office flew flags sporting a clown face with a red slash through it, and the words… “No more Bozos!” Anyway, I did a ton of work kicking the shit out of Compaq. The ads would have side by side visuals of the competing machines with tongue in cheek headlines such as, “The Lap of Luxury – The Lap of Lunacy!” – “Ow –Wow!” – “Road Warrior – Road Worrier!” The ads moved a shitload of product back in the days when Dell only sold direct. If you wanted a Dell, you had to buy it from Dell. The ads featured a 1-800 number and if the phone didn’t ring, they didn’t sell computers and the agency received a severe bollocking. This is why most BDA’s avoid direct marketing like the plague.
One day, driving home to the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the glorious California Redwoods, with the only inconvenience being the odd drug baron and axe murderer neighbor, my wife called me on my humungous cell phone (This was in the days when they were the size of a brick and batteries lasted ten minutes) to tell me that some guy had called me from Ogilvy, New York and wanted me to call him back immediately. I pulled off the road and did just that.
Turned out it was Graham Philips, Chairman of Ogilvy, NY, and he wondered if I could fly to New York for a freelance gig. Oh sure, I assured him, but I needed a bit more information. “Ah,” he said, “I am not at liberty to go into the details at this stage, but your experience on Dell would be invaluable. Call me tomorrow.” Then he hung up. Mmmmm, what the fuck was that all about, I wondered. When I got home I called a mate at Ogilvy. He informed me that the Compaq account was going into review. Now Compaq was a big deal for Ogilvy, they’d had it since it was founded by two Texas Instruments guys who sketched out their first design on a placemat while enjoying a fine Texas gourmet meal at a Houston “House of Pies.” As the company grew, they decided they needed an ad agency, so they looked in the Houston Yellow Pages and called the first one they saw, which was the local office of Ogilvy! And, that’s a true fucking story… Since then the account had grown into a multi-million dollar piece of business. But, as is typical of BDA’s; they took it for granted. As Compaq grew, no one in New York bothered to keep an eye on things. It was left to the local guys to run everything, who reassured the Madison Avenue slickers everything in Houston was fine.
Then, out of the blue, Compaq dropped a bombshell by announcing they had hired an agency search consultant to start a review. Hence, the call to me. Apparently, my ads for Dell had made an impression on Ogilvy’s Compaq team. On my next call to Graham, I said I knew about the situation, and then proceeded to tell him that I didn’t think I could do it as it would be a direct conflict with my work on Dell. He asked me what it would take for me to change my mind. We agreed to talk the next day, when I would give him my decision.
The next day, I said I would do it, but, as it would prohibit me from working on Dell in the future, I would only do it for triple my daily rate.
“And what is that?
I grasped the nettle.
“$750 a day,” I answered, “Which would make it $2,250!”
This was the eighties, when $750 was a fair day rate. It went up through the nineties and the turn of the millennium. It’s now dropping like a stone, and Freelancersarestanding on street corners carrying signs that read… “Will write/art direct/digitize/code for food stamps!”
There was a silence at the other end of the phone. I gritted my teeth and thought… Oh Well… It was worth a try, but that’s definitely fucked it.
“That sounds very reasonable,” he said!
Holy shit I thought… Why the fuck didn’t I ask for five times my day rate?
And, so began a period when money was flowing like water into the Parker coffers. I was commuting between San Francisco and Houston. Then, after a couple of weeks, I had a call from New York asking me to be there for a meeting Monday morning. I asked how long I would be needed; just a couple of hours the PA said, so you can fly in Sunday and out on Monday. When I showed up, the room was packed with people from Ogilvy offices, worldwide. It was explained that the account would now be handled out of New York, and we would be servicing the account in the time remaining before the pitch. The creative would be headed by Bill Hamilton – The best CD I’ve ever worked with – And I would be based in New York as a member of the team. “When do you want me to start?” I asked. Right now, I was informed. When I explained that I had little more that what I was wearing, and no other essentials, Bill said, “Buy whatever the fuck you need,” Then I explained that I had left my car on the short term car park at SFO. “Well, fucking leave it there,” replied Bill. Which I did. The car park bill came to $1600. Obviously Ogilvy paid for everything, including, my new wardrobe, the luxury suite, non-stop room service, hot and cold running hookers (Just kidding Maureen,) and the constant replenishment of the mini-bar. I made more money in three months than I made in the rest of the year.
Needless to say, after plowing millions of dollars into the pitch, and seriously neglecting their existing clients, Ogilvy lost the account.
But hey… That’s what BDA’s do when managing the process!