Who Needs Don Draper? The Real Mad Men Were Much More Interesting

Everyone’s heard about Don Draper, the suave, bed-hopping, 1960s creative director in AMC’s “Mad Men.” However, most people know nothing about the actual ad executives the character is based on. That’s a shame, because they were much more interesting — mostly because of the astonishing work they produced.

Take, for instance, Bill Bernbach. He founded the most creative advertising agency in history, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), in New York in 1949. More than anyone else, Bernbach was responsible for the “Creative Revolution” of the 1960s. A creative director and copywriter of staggering talent and insight, Bernbach and his agency produced advertising based on incredible candor and wit.

Bernbach’s copy chief at DDB was the brilliant Phyllis Robinson. She disproves the disturbing “casting couch” storyline that runs through so much of “Mad Men.”

Robinson started in advertising as a copywriter and was quickly hired by Bernbach to run his entire copy department. She and art director Bob Gage teamed up to create the famous Ohrbach’s department store campaign, which was so innovative, Volkswagen hired DDB without an agency review when it learned the agency had produced it.

Ohrbach's Ad 2No discussion of the real mad men is complete without mentioning George Lois. Volatile, arrogant, profane and exceedingly talented, Lois founded Papert Koenig Lois (PKL) in 1960, the first ad agency to be publically traded. PKL was as wild and boisterous as Lois himself, with frequent fistfights among employees and verbal abuse of clients. Despite the chaos, Lois and his staff produced an astonishing array of breakthrough campaigns. See them at georgelois.com.

The most successful advertising practitioner of this era was undoubtedly Mary Wells Lawrence. Nicknamed “Bunny” because of her stylish wardrobe and vivacious personality, Wells Lawrence moved to Manhattan at 18 to become an actress but soon discovered she had natural gifts for advertising copywriting, presentation, business — and especially self-promotion. After stints at DDB and Jack Tinker and Partners, she married one of her clients, Harding Lawrence, the president of Braniff Airlines, and started her own agency, Wells Rich and Greene. Making a salary of $250,000 a year, Wells Lawrence developed environmental marketing by dressing Braniff stewardesses in designer uniforms and hiring famous artists to paint the airline’s fleet of planes.

Braniff 2As they say, truth is stranger (and much more interesting) than fiction.

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