Life in the 80s on Madison Avenue

(Or, How a Wide-Eyed Kid Crossed the Murky Puddle and Got to Know the Advertising Gods of the Day)

Late one evening in a conference room on an upper floor of Ogilvy & Mather’s old New York building on 47th and Madison, I bumped into David Ogilvy. Well, I didn’t actually bump into him. I turned around to see an elderly gentleman shuffling into the room and realized I was looking at perhaps the best-known advertising guru of the twentieth century. I had been preparing the room for a meeting of leading travel agents better known as the American Association of Travel Agents, or ASTA, which was to happen the following day.

Being in my early twenties, and having met HRH Prince Phillip a year or two earlier, (that’s another story for another day), I was quite unfazed.

He asked me what I was doing there so late. I explained in my best south-eastern English, tinged with a bit of what Americans would call a Cockney accent, that I was hanging posters and generally getting everything ready for the meeting the next day. He looked around the room and seemed to come to a decision, no doubt an educated decision given the millions of meetings he had attended during his career. “Yes,” he said. “You’ve done a good job. Very good.” He walked around the room, picked up one of the conference folders and flicked through it. “Well done, um, what is your name?” “Fiona,” I replied. “Ah, a good Scottish name,” he said, with a smile. “Yes, sir.” Except I wasn’t Scottish, but when David Ogilvy proclaims you have a good name, it would seem quite ill-mannered to disagree.

This little conversation lasted all of ten minutes, but I know advertising executives who would have given their right arm, and possibly an ear as well, to have that much time with the legendary creator of The Man in the Hathaway Shirt fame.

The meeting went well the following day. O&M had the TWA account back then, (before Carl Icahn killed the once popular airline for ever).

Our fearless leader at the time was Tim Elliott … my all-time favorite boss.  He had replaced Max Bisset, who had a famous sister.  Yes, I met Jacqueline Bisset too.

Tim had the good sense to recognize my talent and created a “way-through” job as account executive.   Only two of us had this opportunity in the entire O&M company at the time.

A few years later, Tim went on to head up the flagship office in New York of FCB Worldwide as managing director. He was a legend.

I must say that working in an international ad agency in the ‘80s involved copious consumption of alcohol. One day a week it was almost compulsory to stay late and consume pizza and lots of beer and cheap red wine. I gather it was some kind of team-building exercise. Years later, after I had stopped drinking, I had to admit it was a dumb idea. But to an impressionable young lass from across the Briney, it seemed the thing to do.

My lasting regret was that I ignored Tim’s advice to always keep in touch with friends. You know … birthday and holiday cards. The “Hi, how are you” phone calls. I should have listened.

I missed the opportunity to say goodbye before Tim’s untimely death on December 30, 1999 because I had ignored his advice.

“Buttocks,” and “Steaming piles,” were two of Tim’s favorite exclamations. I brought him a fake “steaming pile” of dog poo once. He kept it on his desk.

You can read more about Tim here, if you’re interested. He really was one of a kind. He usually moved the objet d’art to a more prominent location on his desk if he had an important visitor.

Tim was responsible for my transfer to Adams and Rinehart, a corporate public relations agency recently acquired by O&M. Jonathan Rinehart was not enamored with my skills as a writer, but he agreed to take me on – no doubt with a little push from O&M’s star ad executive.

I proved Jonathan wrong about my ability to string a coherent sentence together and worked on the Seagram account, traveling around the country, visiting the plants and writing articles for two of the corporate newsletters, “The Seagram Company” and “On The House.” I also wrote press releases under the watchful and brilliantly talented Bob Kasmire, (who was once speechwriter for Tip O’Niell – Former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives).

Those were the heady days of Seagram Wine Coolers. Fronted by Bruce Willis, of course. I remember the launch party at which Willis was either so drunk, or under the influence of something else, that he almost fell off the stage.

They sent me to Scotland to visit the Glenlivet Distillery, to Canada to write a story about the new Captain Morgan Coolers and to London for a couple of months to run the Adams & Rinehart office while the incumbent took time off.

I even got to meet my favorite football (American) star of the time … number 56 of the New York Giants … THE Lawrence Taylor! He had huge hands!

If there’s one thing I’d care to forget about while I was working at A&R, it’s the night I was assigned to take photos at a gathering of O&M bigwigs, including Kenneth Roman, Bill Phillips, Jay Schulberg and Graham Phillips, and my flash stopped working!

To sum it all up, meeting David Ogilvy in a conference room late one evening didn’t immediately change my life. However, I began to read more about him and recognized the irrepressible belief he had in himself and his work. Tim was the same way. And so am I.

So I’ll close by borrowing something from the gentleman who told me I had a good name.

“Will Any Agency Hire This Man?

He is 38, and unemployed. He dropped out of college.
He has been a cook, a salesman, a diplomatist and a farmer.
He knows nothing about marketing and had never written any copy.
He professes to be interested in advertising as a career (at the age of 38!) and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year.

I doubt if any American agency will hire him.”

However, a London agency did hire him. Three years later he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world.

The moral: it sometimes pays an agency to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring.

Happy times.

 

Advertisements