Why George Lois Is Wrong About Mad Men: A Conversation with Mel Abert

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Art director: Mel Abert; copywriter: Mel Newhoff. © 1968 Chiat/Day

Ever since Mad Men premiered in July of 2007, George Lois has been shooting off his mouth – I know: Dog Bites Man – about how the show got everything all wrong because … well, because it wasn’t all about him.

George has been a consistently brilliant – and persistently self-aggrandizing – ad legend for over 50 years. But he’s not yet realized the brilliance of opening the series in 1960 at an old-school Madison Avenue agency. Nor has he discerned the shrewdness of the show’s occasional offhand reference to the nascent Creative Revolution, beginning with that brief commuter train conversation about Doyle Dane Bernbach’s “Lemon” ad in the third episode. Instead, George has wrapped up his latest screed – in Playboy’s August issue – with a firm “Fuck you, Mad Men!”

Even Mary Wells, another extremely innovative, successful, and celebrated creative genius who also rose to fame during that era, has proclaimed that as far as she’s concerned, Mad Men is simply not real. After all, it’s now season four, we’ve entered the mid-1960s, and by that time, Mary had already become a vice president and copy chief. But poor Peggy Olson. Why, she’s still just a mere senior copywriter.

Sure, creator Matthew Weiner could have debuted his show with some dramatic bit about a colorful, overbearing Greek guy screaming at Bill Bernbach for taking on a “Nazi car” client. And yeah, then we could have looked forward to a decade or so of plotlines about theatrical egomaniacs climbing out onto skyscraper ledges at client meetings and other such wacky hi-jinks. But personally, I’m grateful that the airwaves occasionally has room for more subtle narratives and gradual character developments.

With the season finale coming up, and with Don Draper’s agency about to shift in another direction – hmmm – I got in touch with Mel Abert, one of the original “mad men” of Los Angeles..

Hey, APALA: that's "ABERT"… without an "L." Photo by Eric Mathias

I ran into Mel a few weeks ago at the Advertising Production Association of Los Angeles hosted a “Mad Men of L.A.” discussion at the Downtown Independent Theater. As soon as I heard it was a public event, I made it into a field trip for my Design History class at Art Center. After all, here was a golden opportunity for them to learn about their city’s advertising world back a half-century ago, directly from people who lived through it.

A half-dozen well-seasoned vets from the ad and graphics fields came together that evening to share their Wilshire Blvd. memories and perspectives. Panelists included Ewel Grossberg, former chairman of George Rice and Sons; Keith Bright, president and creative director of Bright Design; Shirley Tuber, RPA’s VP Director of Print Production; Mort Nagler, formerly of Andresen Typographics; Frank Franco, Effective Graphics sales manager; and Mel Abert, who I’ll get to in a second.

Ewel reminisced about the five-martini lunches and about building client relationships with the help of prostitutes. There were also nostalgic recollections about the good ol’ pre-computer days – before all the fun was gone – when trades were respected and business quality would win out over pricing. Vintage printing expressions like “dye transfer retouching” were tossed around, along with vintage “pretend it’s a cigar”-style jokes.

Now about Mel Abert. Briefly: he was hired out of college in 1966, as art director at Faust/Day. He then became one of the original Chiat/Day employees with the 1968 merger. Over the years, he’s also been a partner at Abert/Poindexter and Abert, Newhoff, and Burr. Currently he’s partnered with his wife Connie at Abert Entity.

Mad Man Mel had a great deal to say about his time with Guy Day and Jay Chiat. An Art Center grad himself, he also addressed my students directly from the dais in the midst of the presentation. I recently got hold of Mel for a follow up interview. And of course, my first question was regarding a comment he’d made about his own 1960s experiences being “exactly like Mad Men.”.

Photo by Eric Mathias

Michael Dooley: What are the similarities between Mad Men and your early career?

Mel Abert: From the first day I watched Mad Men, it was one incredible flashback after another. It was just like it was when I walked into Faust/Day on my first day. The office decor, everyone smoking, wearing suits and ties. The secretaries wearing dresses with pointy boobs. Copy being typed on Selectric typewriters with carbon paper, and so forth. I was fortunate enough to have lived and worked in a time period before the introduction of computers, PDFs, and emails. It was a freer time. Clients had larger budgets, and they were more willing to take creative chances. We had fun.

Creative wasn’t done 9 to 5. Mad Men depicts Don Draper as always working, even when he’s not at work. That’s true, but out here on the West Coast, we felt laughing and having fun was part of the creative process. I’ve been accused of playing during the day and not starting work until after 6 p.m. But after six it was all work … most of the time. “Creative” comes out of life experiences. It becomes a reflection of what we do and feel. I would encourage my creatives to laugh and loosen up and let the creative flow.

One day, a beautiful blond walked into my offices and, feeling a bit more creative than usual, I got down on all fours and barked like a dog. Today I’d probably get arrested or sued, or maybe both. But 11 years later, I married her, and today we are not only man and wife but she’s also my business partner.

A good creative has a constant curiosity for life, and never stops learning. I never stop exploring possible solutions for a problem, right up to the time we present the ideas. Many times, the winning ideas would come to me in the middle of the night and as we were driving to the client. I would be finishing up the layouts in the car. It’s never too late.

Dooley: Did you ever get fired?

Abert: No, but I think I came very close several times. When I worked at Chiat/Day, I worked directly under Jay. We were both very intense and we would argue very passionately for our ideas. It got to the point that every Monday we would sit down at 8:30 in the mornin
g and have a meeting so we could get through the week. You’ve always got to fight for the best ideas.

There are times when I think that if Chiat/Day were my agency, I would have fired me several times over.

Art director: Mel Abert; copywriter: Mel Newhoff. © 1970 Chiat/Day

Dooley: In a recent episode, Don’s agency went after Honda motorcycles to handle their new auto rollout. How did that fictional account compare to your Honda experience?

Abert: That episode is called “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” It had to do with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s pitch to Honda. Since I was working at Faust/Day at the time and the account was at Grey Advertising, I wasn’t privy to the details of how the agency won it. Grey got the account in 1962, four years before I joined Faust/Day. I do know that Honda was spending a great deal of money during that period of time promoting its motorcycles with the tag line, “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” I would guess Mad Men’s version of how the agency pitched the account is very Hollywood-ized, or New York-ized.

Years later, after Faust/Day became Chiat/Day, we pitched the Honda Car business. This was a big deal for a small creative shop like Chiat/Day. Honda was a marquee brand known for its quality line motorcycles, and to introduce a car with the same name was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Unlike Mad Men, when we were pitching the account, we were always very professional.

Art director: Mel Abert; copywriter: Mel Newhoff. © 1972 Chiat/Day

Honda gave us a budget of $500,000. Not a very large budget to introduce an automobile to the United States. The client was asking for small space ads but in the classic Chiat/Day form, we presented color ads, produced TV commercials, produced jingles, far more than the proposed budget would allow. Honda loved the show business. We got the account. That was a valuable lesson to learn. One that I live by today.

Then, reality set in after we won the business, and we had to get real and present real campaigns. We went down to Honda to present our ideas. All throughout the presentation, the client sat silently watching and listening, looking up the words in the headlines one at a time. At the end of the presentation he stood up, hissed, and told us to go away and “wash our minds.” In other words, “What you presented sucked, come back with some new ideas.” The next morning I met with the copywriter and he told me that last night he went home and washed his mind, and that this morning he couldn’t do anything with it.

And that was the start of a wonderful working relationship with Honda Cars.

Art director: Mel Abert; copywriter: Mel Newhoff. © 1971 Chiat/Day

Dooley: What about all the boozing?

Abert: Mad Men fairly accurately nailed this part of the agency culture in the ’60s and ’70s. However, it was my recollection that there wasn’t as much drinking in the office 9 to 5 as depicted in Mad Men. Maybe that was the difference between the ad biz in Los Angeles and New York. I don’t know. Lunchtime was different. It wasn’t uncommon for the suits to go out and have their usual three martini lunches. Since I was on the creative side, our lunches consisted of tacos and a beer at the most.

Shortly after I was hired at Faust/Day, I got a phone call from a retoucher who wanted to take me to lunch. Having just graduated from Art Center, I didn’t have much money and as always, I had brown bagged it. He said, “Just put lunch in the refrigerator and let’s go get a bite to eat.” I couldn’t say no. To impress me he took me to a very upscale, classy restaurant. A lot different than my college days! Three martinis and a steak sandwich later, he dropped me off at the agency, I went into my office and passed out on my drawing board. I woke up five hours later. They were kind enough to shut my door and let me sleep it off.

Art director: Mel Abert; copywriter: Mel Newhoff; illustrator: Mark English. © 1970 Chiat/Day

Dooley: And the ladies?

Abert: The ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s were as crazy as you might have heard. Women were as forward as men. There were always affairs going on and you were never sure who was doing what to whom.

There were parties, drinking, dope, affairs, agency baseball teams, darts, and suits versus creative football games. It was definitely the golden era of advertising. I don’t think the agency business will ever match the craziness of that period.

A “surprise attack” story. My birthday is December 7, 1941. Yes, Pearl Harbor day. I had several Japanese creatives who liked to celebrate my birthday every year with their own surprise attack. And I don’t mean a birthday cake. Some time during the day they would attack me with a cream pie in the face. One year I thought I avoided the attack. I went into the men’s room. As I was settling down with a magazine and my pants down around my ankles, I looked down and all around the stall I was surrounded by feet. Next thing I knew shaving cream cans came over the top and I was up to my ass in shaving cream. The next guy into the stall wasn’t very happy..

Dooley: You had some words for my Art Center students. Could you recap?

Abert: Today’s advertising business has some very creative, fun people who love what they do. Find the ones you get along with and enjoy the ride. Today’s budget pressures and having to be overly cautious about what you say and do makes it difficult, but it can still be fun with the right people.

In the pre-computer days we had all sorts of photographers, illustrators, typesetters, printers, engravers, retouchers. Today, most of them are gone. Because of the computer, they either had to reinvent themselves and become relevant or leave the business. I chose to stay. Today’s creatives have great tools to work with. Learn them, exploit them, knowing that tomorrow there will be new technologies that will expand your capabilities. Have fun.

I’m going to continue to learn and hang on as long as I can myself.


Mort Nagler, Keith Bright, Ewel Grossberg. Photo by Eric Mathias

Frank Franco, Mel Abert, Shirley
Tuber. Photo by Eric Mathias

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