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.
Picking up from where I left you in the “Swinging London” of the seventies, one of my early experiences was with the Ricard account. This was a peculiarly French type of booze classified as a Pastis. Which was the legal, anise flavored, version of Absinthe, a severely lethal drink made from wormwood that was banned after it made nineteenth century Parisian artists go apeshit, blind, fuck their brains out with various Mademoiselles de la Nuit, and in the case of Toulouse Lautrec, shrink your legs to the size of bowling pins. Very high proof stuff, which, hooray – hooray, has recently become legal again.
The Ricard Company was founded in the late 1920s, by Paul Ricard who concocted the drink in a chemist’s lab and went on to market it as a Provencal tradition, whose secret recipe he got from the last dying words of an old blind shepherd living in the Alpes Maritime. This was, of course, total bullshit. Proving that along with Nero, he was one of the first Mad Men. To this day, if you visit France, every bar will be full of yellow and blue Ricard water jugs. In fact, one of his proudest achievements was to have two Ricard jugs smuggled into the grotto at Lourdes! He was also a great believer in stunts that would today be referred to as “Guerrilla Marketing.” When he bought the Elephant Tea Company, he rented a bunch of circus elephants and had them walk up and down the Champs Elyse, while the semi naked girls riding them threw tea bags to the pedestrians. But, my favorite story of the great man was when during World War II while living in the Camargue and distilling a petrol-substitute for the resistance, he would tear around the countryside on horse-back, shouting: “J’emmerde le Marechal Petain et son gouvernement” (“I shit on Marshal Petain and his government.”) My kinda guy!
After working on the account for a couple of years, I finally got to meet him. Normally, meetings were held in Paris, but on this particular occasion, we were invited to visit with him at his island… Yes, he owned a fucking island, Bendor, on the Cote d’Azur. A barren chunk of rock Ricard bought in 1950; it was turned into a luxurious housing and working complex, along with a museum that houses a “complete encyclopedia” of booze, Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux. That’s right; everything that can get you fucked up make you go blind, and shrink your legs to the size of bowling pins, is enshrined at Bendor.
We arrived by boat in the early evening, and there, standing on the quay, in magnificent solitude, was the great man himself. He was wearing a long black cloak with a crimson silk lining, and his right hand was tucked inside his vest, all he needed was the tri-corner hat, and yes, he would have been a dead ringer for Napoleon. We spent two days in various meetings and getting totally arseholed on non-stop Ricard. But the high spot was when Ricard showed us a movie he had made about the island a few years ago. It starred the great French actor/comedian, Fernandel, along with dozens of luscious ladies in postage stamp sized bikinis. The best bit was when Ricard is showing his guests around the art studio where company posters are produced by a bunch of in-house artists, all of who wore smocks and oversized berets. One of them steps back to allow Ricard to check out his design. The great man pauses, studies it for a minute, then takes one of the artist’s brushes and adds a minute spot of paint to the canvas. The artist’s eyes flash with endless admiration and he blows a kiss towards what has now obviously become a masterpiece. Honestly, you can’t make this shit up… And never forget what I have said repeatedly about in-house agencies… You don’t fuck with the guy who signs your pay check. Anyway, I worked on the account for nearly two years, and produced a grand total of two ads. Both of which sucked. But, I drank enough free booze to sink the Titanic.
Going from one extreme to the other, geographically, I worked on the Modo Paper Company out of Stockholm, Sweden. It now belongs to a Finnish conglomerate, which is funny, ‘cos the Swedes hate the Finns almost as much as they despise the Norwegians. And all three of them think the Danes are a bunch of wankers. Just joking guys… The last thing I want to do is piss off a bunch of Vikings. At least they’d have a job getting the longboats up to Idaho. Anyway, as usual, I digress. One of the great things about visits to Stockholm was the booze, food and the women. On one of my first trips, I was taken to the Café Opera, a beautiful art deco bar in the Stockholm Opera House, which is a hangout for all the local ad people. Every woman in the place is a beautiful blonde, seven foot tall and enough to give you reverse fantasies about Lisbeth Salander (work that one out!) I was standing at the bar, talking to the two agency guys who had taken me there, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning, I was face to face with the archetypal seven foot tall blonde, previously mentioned. She said… “Hello, I would like to buy you a drink.” I was obviously impressed, but turning to the two guys, I laughed and suggested this was some stunt they had arranged with the seven foot blonde to take the piss out of their English guest… “Oh no,” they replied. “In Sweden, if a girl likes you, she will buy you a drink. Then, if she really likes you, she will take you home.”
She really liked me.
As part of my involvement with this account, it was necessary for me to make an obligatory “factory” visit. Most people on the creative side of the biz hate having to do this, personally, I think it can be useful and maybe even provide you with that nugget of information that allows you to create advertising that demonstrates a discernable difference from the competition. There would have been no Dr. Ludwig Von Dochterman in the campaign for Arrow Cordials if I hadn’t made a visit to their abysmal Detroit factory.
The factories for Modo were obviously paper mills. These are the size of ten football fields and run 24/7/365, making giant rolls of newsprint weighing several tons each, and because the mills have to be situated close to the forests, most of them are in the far north of Sweden. Some comedian in the Stockholm office decided that I should visit the mill in a place called Ornskoldsvik, which is as far north as you can go in Sweden before you turn into a fucking polar bear, and best of all, I should make the trip in January. I stepped off the plane on a late January night, well; it was actually two in the afternoon, but because Ornskoldsvik is so far North, the sun doesn’t come up for about four months in the winter. And it was cold, I mean it was so cold, I felt as if I had been stabbed in the eyes with an icicle, and because I have a beard, my breath immediately froze on my gnarly facial hair, turning me into some kind of SiFi Ice Man dude. But, even worse was the horrendous smell that almost made me throw up through my gnarly Ice Man Dude mask, because as all you smart-arsed chemistry majors probably know, one of the major by-products of pulp making is hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs. The funny thing is that everyone in Ornskoldsvik looked at me like I was crazy when I complained about the smell. Probably ‘cos they were fucked up most of the time on a very potent libation by the name of Beska Droppar. But more on that in a minute.
For the four days we were in Ornskoldsvik – I was accompanied by two agency suits, whose sole responsibility was to make sure I didn’t shame the agency via drink, drugs, or shagging anyone who might be related to the Modo management team – And yes, all the women were seven foot blondes, who wanted to take you home. On the second night, the suits and I were to have a very formal dinner at the “Founder’s House,” which was the actual home of the guy who had started the company back in the early nineteenth century. This was a big deal, and was not normally afforded to the average visitor. Something like twenty people sat down at a huge table in the formal dining room. The wait staff outnumbered us by two to one. As we sat, a waitress filled a glass in front of each diner with a yellow liquid that I assumed was aquavit. A reasonable “Heart Starter” for the evening.
The head of the company then proceeded to make a toast to the English visitors; everyone said skål and tossed the aperitif back, which immediately caused me to think I had been hit over the head with a fucking brick. This stuff tasted like diesel fuel, not that I’ve ever been desperate enough to try drinking diesel fuel. Quick as a flash, the waitress reappeared and filled everyone’s glass with the same magic elixir. The guy on the left of the head guy proposed a toast to the English visitors and tossed back the booze. The waitress reappeared and filled up the glasses again. Then the next guy gave a speech and we all tossed the evil stuff back. It was beginning to dawn on me that this ancient Viking ritual involved everyone at the table taking a turn to make a toast to the honored guests… And I was about the twentieth person in line. I knew that by the time it got to me, I would be incoherent. But, guess what? That was OK, ‘cos everyone else was completely fucked up before it even got to me.
Stay tuned for even more European debauchery next week.