Monday, November 15, 2010

“Mad Men” Memoir Meta Musings

It’s a meta, meta, meta, meta world. Roger Sterling, the character played by the wonderful John Slattery, was composing his memoirs on last season’s “Mad Men.” Like any good 1960s male boss, he even spoke them into a Dictaphone. This week the book debuts as Sterling’s Gold: Wit & Wisdom of an Ad Man. The supposed gold dishes up program snippets rather than “real” memoirs. Clever, yet is it a missed opportunity?

Two real mad men come to mind, game changers both. Robert C. Townsend, the Avis CEO, created a brilliant book in 1970 that’s still in print, Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits. Short chapters hammered home pithy advice to fellow execs: “Call yourself up,” he urged. “Pretend you’re a customer. You’ll run into some real horror shows.” Townsend died 12 years ago. It’s only gotten worse, Bob. David Ogilvy’s trilogy, launched in 1963 by Confessions of an Advertising Man, was another touchstone. Ogilvy founded the agency that gave us the Man in the Hathaway Shirt (with his eye patch) and Schweppervescence. He was pompous, precise, prescient.

Too bad it took pioneering ad woman Mary Wells Lawrence until 2003 to publish her memoirs. By then the ad agency world had lost its fizz. But in its heyday the industry was fun, fun, fun—or so agency veterans say—and I wish “Mad Men” radiated even one-tenth of that spirit. The theme song is gloomier than a dirge, and is that figure plummeting downward in free fall a metaphor for the industry itself?