Samm Coombs got it right.
I had my first art director’s job in a crummy little Palo Alto agency in 1954, and it took me until 1958 to get a job in a good one. From that time on, I had the privilege of working for really good agencies until I started my own in 1977 — ten years with Meltzer, Aron & Lemen and five with the agency that Samm founded, Wilton, Coombs & Colnett.
Although Mad Men gets most of it wrong, there was two aspects of madness in the system that I’ve fought against. The first, the one that everybody talks remembers, was how the whole business world didn’t seem to understand that women were just as smart as men, and often smarter.
The second was specific to our industry : the prevailing sentiment that art directors were clueless idiots. We were called “artists,” regarded as overpaid specifiers of type and buyers of photographs who really wanted to be painters and whose creative contributions were limited to “cancha cut the copy” and “cancha make the headline shorter.” Luckily for me, MA&L was smarter than that, and I was sheltered from the attitude.
Then I spent 1969 to 1972 with Lennen & Newell, the biggest agency I ever worked with. It came closer to Mad Men’s “historical accuracy” than any other place I ever saw. I didn’t really understand how the industry looked at art directors until I got to L&N. Although by then, art director-copywriter collaboration was the industry norm, we had a creative director from another era. When he saw “artists” and copywriters talking to each other, it was clear to him that they were plotting to undermine his authority. He kept them separated as much as he could.
He pigeonholed each member of the then 14-person creative department : the drudge copywriter, the far-out copywriter, the over-the-hill art director, the freak art director and so forth. Every creative assignment came to his desk only, and he’d assign it to the correct role-playing copywriter regardless of whether or not that writer had any previous experience with the client. The writer’s job was to bring him ten or twenty headlines. He’d circle one, then give it back to the writer to write the copy. Once he was satisfied with the copy, he’d hand the piece of paper to the selected art director to decorate. His goal was to create ads with “stopper headlines” and “grabber visuals.”
The capper for me was being forced to create a hellishly glowing photograph of a devil’s head to go with the headline “Hot Damn.” He thought it was a great ad. Shortly after Martin Russell and I got there (I’d worked with Martin at MAL, and we came to L&N together — the pay was a lot better), Martin gave the head of the office a he-goes-or-I-go ultimatum. He went, Martin stayed and we took over the creative department.
The trouble with an agency like that is that its culture trains its ae’s and its clients in the same kind of dumb thinking. Later, while we were cleaning up the creative department’s output, I had to do ads for one client “like the Container Corporation ads.” If you remember them, they were greatly admired overdesigned exercises in flatulent corporate ego that said nothing at all about the company or its product. I grumbled to the ae, who’d also come over from MA&L and had little patience for that sort of foolishness. He said resignedly, “We can spend their money as foolishly as any other agency.”
My three years in purgatory ended when Martin and I went to Wilton, Coombs & Colnett. Cliff Wilton was the kind of art director I wanted to be : one who understood all aspects of communication and realized that art direction and copywriting were pretty much the same job : making ads. It was clear to Cliff that, as the final person in the creative chain, the art director had life and death power over an ad’s effectiveness, and that you couldn’t really be a good art director unless you were a pretty good copywriter and vice versa. At WCC — talk about a night-and-day difference — we had three art directors, and all three wrote and produced RADIO for our clients.
From my last days at Meltzer, I’ve been a missionary for the art director-as-writer mindset. My own little contribution to change was teaching creative portfolio workshops for 20 years. My goal was to send creative people into the system who didn’t care whether they were art directors or copywriters in the hope that they’d further subvert the old system. No more Mad Men.
That’s not the way is was
Having worked in seven agencies from the mid 50s to the late 80s as a copywriter, creative director and President, I find the advertising business as depicted in Mad Men wholly foreign to my experience. For example, I never ever saw a single bottle of hooch on premises (we did our drinking off-site). Come the 60s writers and art directors wouldn’t be caught dead in a tie much less a suit (unless visiting a client). Except for Executive Art Directors, Creative Directors and the odd Copy Group Head, creatives were housed in unimposing cubicles. Whoever praised Mad Men for it’s historical accuracy” never visited the thirty or forty agencies I was familiar with. It was/is a fun business, but not that much fun !