Gargano’s Golden Age

Born into a hardscrabble childhood in Detroit during the Great Depression, he shipped off at 20 to fight in Korea. He returned, went to school, took a lowly job in the ad business and, in 1959, moved to New York. By 1962, he had done well enough to join some fellow disgruntled alpha males, and with a single client, launched a new agency. Their work would become the toast of Madison Avenue.

It sounds eerily like Don Draper, the starched and dashing — but also brooding, boozing and womanizing — fictional creative director on Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s cult hit on AMC.

But this is real. This is Amil Gargano, who also happened to be handsome and talented, and who made his mark during the so-called golden age of advertising, when Italians and other non-WASPs infiltrated the old-boy ranks and came to dominate the new thinking.

Now, at 78, Gargano has come out with a painstakingly researched, lucidly written and strikingly art directed book, Ally & Gargano, published by Graphis Inc. As the book soon makes clear, while Gargano and Draper may share many things, they are nothing alike. For starters, Draper is a man of secrets. Gargano, in the autobiographical sections of his book, tries to be entirely honest — often poignantly and painfully so.

While he would seem to be cashing in on the Mad Men moment, Gargano has been keeping notes since 1969, and writing the book since 2000. And it shows. Crammed with beautifully reproduced print ads and storyboards, the carpet-sample-size, 584-page tome weighs in at more than 9 pounds. As such, it’s like a giant newborn, a labor of love.

The subhead, “The life and death of the agency that created perhaps the most successful advertising of the last half of the 20th century,” makes it clear that Gargano is making sure his baby gets its rightful place in history.

And after perusing the 46 case histories (FedEx, MCI, Dunkin’ Donuts, Timberland, etc.), it also becomes apparent that agencies are delicate organisms to manage. And in the end, despite all the success, what killed Ally & Gargano was the same thing that doomed the original Doyle Dane Bernbach — a wrongheaded move to go public, coupled by bad management.

But what a glorious run A&G had. (It was called Carl Ally Inc. until 1977, when it became Ally & Gargano.) What’s remarkable is how different the great campaigns were from each other, yet they all shared a laser-sharp clarity about the strategy. And though the agency prided itself on being the first to run competitive advertising, it did so with startling smarts and good humor.
Take Hertz (please). By late-summer 1966, DDB had turned the ad world on its head with “We try harder,” and Avis was threatening Hertz’s position as the market leader. But with Gargano as art director and Jim Durfee writing copy, A&G came up with a way to stop it.

“For years, Avis has been telling you that Hertz is No. 1. Now we’re going to tell you why,” said the ads, which debunked the advantages Avis had been bragging about — cleaner ashtrays, newer cars, etc. The book refers to a Time magazine piece in which Carly Ally said he toured the country doing ashtray research. “We lost in Tulsa, for instance, by one butt,” he says. “But in Amarillo, they had two more cigarettes and a half-eaten taco.”

This kind of delightful but toothy takedown is how the FedEx work started.

Shipping boxes of sand, the agency showed that FedEx beat the competition — at the time, Emery — every time. Written by Patrick Kelly and art directed by George Euringer and then Mike Tesch, the work was so successful that it began to seem mean-spirited. So, the agency went on to do some of the funniest work ever made. The spot with fast-talker John Moschitta is one of the best-loved ads of all time.

The agency hit another home run for MCI, an upstart phone company no one had heard of. Ma Bell had enjoyed great success promoting long-distance service with a big, sentimental ad with an older African-American couple standing around the phone, talking to their son. Mom cries as she says, “He just called to say he loved me.”

MCI’s answer, written by Tom Messner and directed by Bob Giraldi, re-created the AT&T ad frame for frame, except for the ending. The husband asks his wife why she’s crying. “Have you seen our long-distance bill?” she replies. The rest was history.

What struck me while looking through this fascinating catalog of work was how many creative greats emerged from Ally (Ed McCabe, Martin Puris, Ralph Ammirati, Helayne Spivak — way too many to list). And how such a small agency gave rise to so many big, successful, blue-chip creative shops.

It’s a lot to ponder. I wish I had a few weeks to go off and absorb the book in its entirety. (It would count as my carry-on.)

At the very least, it will give Matthew Weiner endless grist for the mill.