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.
Although the greater part of my career has been spent in the US, there was a period of about twelve years, back in the early seventies and eighties when we moved back to Britain, primarily because Maureen and I wanted our kids to be educated there… Hey, don’t get me wrong, I find nothing wrong with the average New York city public school if you want your offspring to become totally proficient in shit you couldn’t begin to imagine if you were a resident of Dogface, North Dakota. So, without further ado, we packed up the kids, dogs, cats and drug paraphernalia, and hit the road… Just kidding about the drug paraphernalia! Back in Her Majesty’s Realm, apart from being “The Agency Fireman” (see Chapter Three,) and drinking my way through “The most expensive TV shoot in history,” (see Chapter Four) I spent the vast majority of those years freelancing at a variety of agencies until I inevitably wore out my welcome for various, unsurprising reasons. Funnily enough, not one of them had anything to do with the numerous times I would return to the office, a little bit the worse for wear after a three hour, well lubricated lunch. After all, back in the British ad scene of those days, everyone was usually in that condition by mid-afternoon, if not mid-morning. No, it was probably because there was so much work around, and with my credit-worthy, American experience, I was able to be somewhat picky when it came to where I wanted to work, and what kind of accounts I wanted to work on. Not to mention how quickly I could lose patience with the uber pompous, full of shit, Oxbridge educated suits I had to put up with. Now, thirty years later, no matter how many years of experience you’ve had, or indeed how impressive your track record is, it means nothing. Now it’s all about how quickly can you do three “killer” campaigns? And, can you show me how it executes over every kind of media you can possibly imagine, including social, viral, STD’s and fucking Groupon coupons. Oh, and did I also mention, I want it all this shit done for the price of a Whopper. And, obviously, I want it comped up to presentation standard first thing in the morning, ‘cos I’m meeting the client for breakfast at the Ritz Carlton. To be honest, there’s always been a certain element of this never ending bullshit in the ad biz; it’s just that as the years have gone by, it has become increasingly ramped up to Warp Factor Five.
And what’s compounding the problem? There are so many people out there who’ve been laid off from the BDA’s, and are sadly beginning to realize they may never get back in, that a great many are more than ready to work under these conditions. Or, to give it its latest job title… Say hello to “Crowdsourcing!”
Anyway, that’s too depressing, so let’s get back to the “swinging seventies.” When I rejoined the British Ad Scene, it was run by a combination of “Hooray Harry’s” and “Cockney Gits.” Which until the British advertising revolution of that time, were the two classes of people who normally wouldn’t have been found dead in each other’s company. The “Hooray Harry’s” were educated at Eton or Harrow, served a couple of years in the Household Cavalry, obviously as officers, and would normally have picked up a cushy job at a major bank in the City that dad just happened to be on the board of. Whereas the Cockney Gits would have inherited dad’s fruit and veg barrow on the Old Kent Road, or be chalking up the odds for Uncle Ted, the bookie, down at Southall greyhound track. Either way, never the twain was destined to meet.
All that changed when “Swinging London” hit the fan. All of a sudden, it was “gear” to be a snot nosed Scouser, or, “fuckin’ wicked” to be an East End lout. Even stranger, a kind of symbiotic relationship grew up between the two tribes. Not that the survivors would ever own up to it, but a great deal of the Beatles early success was due to the efforts of their public school and Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, educated manager, Brian Epstein. Just as The Rolling Stones got a massive leg up from Andrew Loog Oldham, a graduate of Wellingborough School, one of the oldest and most expensive public schools in Britain, who took over their management in 1963, and created their “bad boy” image as a successful counterpoint to the cuddly Beatles. (Even though, before they became the “Fab Four,” thanks to Ed Sullivan, the four “Scousers” had spent their early years in Hamburg doing every drug imaginable while fucking their infantile brains out!) Fashion was also going through a radical transformation, thanks to Mary Quant and others, to the point where Carnaby Street, which had been little more than a scruffy back alley in Soho, became the fashion center of the world, besieged by Mid-Western American tourists anxious to pick up a pair of purple velvet hot pants and florescent orange Biba boots they could take home and wear in the privacy of their bedroom.
But perhaps the biggest influencers of the new culture and style, who had a significant impact on British advertising in the sixties, were the new breed of photographers. With, three in particular. Terence Donovan, a truck driver’s son from the Mile End Road. David Bailey, an East Ender from Leytonstone, and Brian Duffy, another East Ender. Nicknamed “The Terrible Three,” they completely changed the style and look of photography at the time. As Cecil Beaton, a well know society photographer of an earlier era said… “I admire Donovan’s fashion photographs as strong and stark. I am particularly fascinated by the way he manages to make his young models look as if they are wearing soiled underwear”. High praise indeed!
They also destroyed the common perception of what a photographer should look and act like, or as Duffy put it. “Before 1960, a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual.” He forgot to add “and Cockney.” All of this was rubbing off on people in the film business – Antonioni’s 1996 film Blow-Up, staring a young David Hemmings doing lots of dope and banging the brains out of all his models, was loosely based on Bailey’s well reported goings on.
But, back to the point of all this. The effect it had on Britain’s advertising scene.
Just as in America, until the early sixties, most of the people working in advertising agencies could have been just as gainfully employed working in a bank or a tax office. Meaning that you checked your imagination and creativity at the door when you arrived each day, then proceeded to grind out whatever piece of crap you were working on, and as soon as your eight hours, or so were up, you buggered off. The Cockney Gits changed all that. And, I hasten to add, quite a few of us Northern lads, who had migrated down to “The Smoke,” also had a hand in this radical transformation. Because, all of a sudden, if you were working in the creative department of an advertising agency, it didn’t matter, where you were born, what school you attended, what kind of accent you had, or even if you ate your peas on a knife.
Without question, the best, and most publicized, example of this dramatic shift in the British agency business was the meteoric rise of the Saatchi Empire through the seventies and eighties. But what has largely been forgotten is that they were preceded by an agency which took great delight in breaking every rule and tradition that had governed the way advertising agencies had conducted their business in Britain for over a hundred years. Formed in 1964, Kingsley, Manton & Palmer (KMP) was revolutionary. The three founders were all existing directors of large agencies – Brian Palmer was head of TV at Young & Rubicam, when I was a snot nosed junior Art Director. He convinced me I was wasting my time drawing pictures of toothpaste tubes and should become a copywriter, because in those days, writers had more influence, and made a lot more money – What I really liked about the KMP guys was that they had the courage of their convictions. Unlike others, including the Saatchi’s, they set up shop without a single account. In those days, every agency belonged to the IPA, a trade group similar to the 4A’s, which strictly forbade members to solicit clients; prospective clients were expected to approach the agency first, as this was obviously the “gentlemanly” thing to do. KMP said, fuck that, and went out and pitched everything. They also said the commission system was dumb, and they would operate strictly on a fee basis. Interestingly enough, they also pre-dated the current vogue of having everyone work in one giant space. However, they knocked that on the head after a year or so, as everyone could hear everyone else on the phone making plans for after hours boozing, drug dealing and shagging, and the latter often with people they shouldn’t have been shagging. Anyway, KMP did well and produced some great work. They even opened an office in New York, primarily to service the Cunard account, which with the demise of the great ocean going liner business (shortly after my Queen Mary adventure) eventually withered away, leading to the closure of their New World outpost.
Many other agencies grew and prospered through the seventies and eighties, with Ronnie Kirkwood, David Abbot, Frank Lowe and others being some of the colorful characters leading the charge, but perhaps the most colorful of all was Peter Marsh, founder of Alan, Brady & Marsh. A onetime actor from Hull, who for some unexplained reason ended up in the ad biz, Marsh was famous for his outrageous new business presentations. It is rumored that at on one occasion, when things were not going well, he jumped up on the boardroom table and did a tap dance routine whist his partner accompanied him on the piano. He got the account. But to be honest most of ABM’s work, didn’t live up to creativity of the presentations.
So, it’s 1974, and there I am back in swinging London, leveraging my US experience to pull off such outrageous stunts as The Agency Fireman (Chapter Three) and The World’s Most Expensive TV Shoot (Chapter Four) but, after the collapse of Dorland’s, I decided to “put myself about” and go freelance. This enabled me to generate the maximum amount of cash with the minimum amount of responsibility. It also enabled me to beat the shit out of my AmEx card while working on several European based accounts.
More on that, plus lascivious helpings of sex, drugs, rock & roll in Part the Deux!