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.

Al Hayes