Overlooked in the three-martini Madison Avenue lunching of TV’s fictional Sterling Cooper agency is arguably a more intoxicating story: the creative revolution that upended the New York City ad industry in the 1960s. Longtime adman Andrew Cracknell relates that tale in The Real Mad Men, a new book that includes accounts of the personalities and cultural influences that made that decade one of the most exciting in advertising history. Adweek recently caught up with Cracknell—a former executive creative director at agencies in both London and New York—who interviewed more than 50 people from that era to write a thoughtful paean about the creative people who pioneered modern advertising and the dynamic cultural environment that influenced them.
Adweek: How did the cultural changes in New York in the 1960s fuel advertising’s creative revolution?
The cultural explosion in New York City in that decade was probably the richest and most concentrated the world has ever seen. It happened across every medium—writing, music, theater, architecture, painting. It doesn’t matter whether this new generation of advertising workers actively went to poetry readings, happenings and jazz-poetry fusions because that was the background that inspired what they were doing.
During this period in advertising history, how were agencies changing, and how did this shift affect agency-client relationships?
[Agency] PKL would answer its switchboard by saying: “This is PKL, who the fuck are you?” It was the new attitude. The old ad man was asked, “What time is it?” and answer “What time do you want it to be, Mr. Client?” There was a new pride, a new determination.
In the Mad Men series, are there elements that ring true or align with what you personally witnessed?
It’s a terrific series, but I understand the disquiet of some critics who lived through it. The big story of the 1960s was the creative revolution; the series doesn’t cover that. The creative revolution was vast, massive and hugely influential, but it affected less than 10 percent of the billings that went through New York. For nine out of 10 people working at a New York agency in the 1960s, Mad Men is more correct. The portrayal of Peggy [Olson] is really important and accurate. There were a lot of women writers who converted from being secretaries.
Did you ever work at an agency like Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper?
Britain was far more like Sterling Cooper than it was the creative revolution. In the ’70s, I worked at KMP and there was prodigious drinking, shagging, smoking. You didn’t go out to lunch without having a gin and tonic first at the agency and then another one while choosing your meal. If there were four of you, the waiter would automatically bring two bottles of wine. Afterwards there would be brandy with coffee and maybe a Sambuca and a couple of cigarettes. Then you’d go back and work. I don’t remember not working in the afternoon because we were out of it. We just had different constitutions, and there was a lot less to do—it took six weeks to do a television commercial and four weeks for a print ad.
Why should young advertising creatives today care about what went on in the ’60s?
It’s the importance of simplicity, narrative, persuasion.