George Parker: how I invaded Madison Avenue

After arriving in New York in the booze and drug fuelled Mad Men sixties, my first task was to get a job. For two weeks I trudged the concrete canyons of Manhattan lugging my oversized portfolio of samples. I soon realized the best way to achieve temporary relief from the suffocating heat and humidity of New York in mid-summer was to traverse entire city blocks through air conditioned department stores, or find one of the cool underground tunnels connecting many of the office buildings.

What didn’t help was the fact that I was wearing a typically English, three inch thick, worsted wool business suit, which while more than suitable for your average sixty degree English summer day, in New York, this horse blanket for Red Rum, turned out to be the equivalent of walking around inside a steam bath while wrapped in your Dad’s World War II greatcoat!

The turning point in my search came when I interviewed with Lou Dorfsman (pictured). Now, if you’re long enough in the tooth to recognize the name, or at least savvy enough to know something about the history of advertising and design through the latter half of the Twentieth Century, you will probably know that Lou was the legendary head of the CBS design studios for about forty years.

Everything from ads, to direct mail, to brochures, even to record sleeves which came out of CBS and relied on graphics to make an impression on the audience, bore the impeccable imprint of Lou’s influence and direction. This was a guy who would arrive at the office at 5AM, act like a complete SOB (he preferred the description, benevolent dictator), be involved in every decision, and consistently push everyone who worked for him, including many who went on to become famous in their own right, to make everything they worked on was great.

I’d called him up out of the blue explaining that I had recently arrived from England, and could he kindly give me ten minutes of his time. Back then you could do that. There was no email, voice mail, cell phones, PDAs or any of the devices so common today which allow people to shield themselves from the rest of the world, whilst espousing the value of social networking and engaging in “conversations.”

There were however, secretaries!

This is why my English accent paid off in spades. Remember, back in the early sixties, with the exception of the previously mentioned David Ogilvy, there were very few “English Chaps” working on Madison Avenue. By laying on the English accent thick and heavy, I could often manage to avoid the perfunctory “Mr. Big Shot is in a meeting right now, but you can leave your name and number, and he’ll get back to you.”

So, I could usually wangle an appointment with the person I was trying to meet, even if it was for no other reason than that the “Gatekeeper” (secretary) couldn’t wait to get a look at me and see if I would measure up to the over-the-top George Sanders impression I had endeavored to leave with my plummy accent.

Arriving for my interview with Lou, and because it was yet another typical balmy mid-summer day in glorious Gotham City, meaning the temperature was 99 degrees with 99 per cent humidity, upon being ushered into Lou’s office, I was completely lathered in sweat, out of breath from lugging my vastly oversized portfolio of samples, and just about completely knackered, (which is English for pooped).

Lou took one look at my ruddy, perspiring complexion, which was matched in wetness by the armpits of my previously mentioned three-inch think English suit, sat me down, told me to relax and get my breath back, then kindly asked his secretary to bring me a cold soda. After a couple of minutes of polite chit-chat he asked to see my work.

He actually seemed to like it, saying a few complimentary things before asking me how competent I was in various stages of pre-press work. I hummed and hawed for a couple of minutes, finally mumbling with typical English reticence, “Well, I’m not sure if I know a great deal about that”. Going bright red in the face, Lou exploded! Jumping out from behind his desk he yelled at me, “Listen you English schmuck, the first thing you need to realize about working in the United States of America is you’ve got to make damn sure everyone thinks you’ve got a bigger dick than they have!”

Without wishing to appear ignorant in the ways of the New World, I hesitatingly asked him what he meant.

Lou then proceeded to explain to me a fundamental premise of the way business is conducted in America, one I would definitely be the first to acknowledge, has stood me in excellent stead throughout my long and somewhat checkered career. You’ll find examples of this in later chapters, but be aware that it is not something you learn in school, or by burying yourself in a mountain of debt to pay for a totally useless MBA.

No, this is simply about developing an ability to instantly come back at a fucktard client or moronic account exec with a razor sharp, detailed and seemingly unquestionable piece of logic, which in reality is a totally spurious cascade of bullshit. It’s a ploy I’ve used on numerous occasions to great effect. You simply need the courage of your lying convictions, and the balls to keep a straight face while you’re doing it.

After all, we’re talking advertising here, not brain surgery!

Three sweat soaked weeks after arriving in America, and after trudging up and down Manhattan’s seemingly endless concrete canyons knocking on countless doors, I finally landed a job at a large design studio in the East Forties, pasting up type, ordering stats, specifying color separations, hacking out finished art – all the boring labor-intensive stuff that thanks to the wonders of the digital age, no one does any more. But, you know what? In six months, I learned to start talking the talk, walking the walk and drinking the Kool-Aid. But, only if it came in a Martini glass and had an olive in it.

Ah yes in-fucking deed, the sybaritic pleasures of the three martini lunch. Par for the course in Mad Men days, not to forget the smoking and shagging. Social networking indeed!

This is the second excerpt from AdScammer George Parker’s seminal work Confessions of a Mad Man.

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About George Parker

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George Parker has spent 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which is required reading for those looking for a gnarly view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, Confessions of a Mad Man, makes the TV show Mad Men look like Sesame Street.