Friday, September 5, 2008

who is the real @peggyolson? look it up in the library

The Ad World depicted in AMC's Mad Men (and recently extended, in a brilliant move, to Twitter) depicts a world in which men were the only masters of the universe (clients don't count; sorry Rachel Menken…er, Katz.) That depiction is largely accurate; however, there were a few women who climbed out of the steno pool, who managed, like Peggy, to make their marks as copywriters. The New York Science Library pays a tribute to them in an exhibition through September 26, Real Men and Women of Madison Avenue. The show highlights the achievements of creative ad legends, including women working just across town from Peggy, fighting their way up ladders at Sterling Cooper's competitors.

Reva Korda began her career in the 1940s by writing copy for Bernice Fitz-Gibbon who ran the art department at Gimbels. "Fitz" was a stickler for good copy, having created an empire with enduring lines like "It's smart to be thrifty" for Macy's and "Nobody, but nobody, undersells Gimbels." Seeking to hire only the best, Fitz had placed an ad for "Phi Beta Kappa English majors" which Korda, a Phi Beta from Hunter answered. In 1951, David Ogilvy, noticing Korda's work in The NY Times, stole her away and by 1962 she was a creative director at Ogilvy and promoted to senior vice president. She made her mark on ad history with the "Schweppervescence" campaign for Schweppes Tonic, putting crowns on the heads of Imperial Margarine eaters and her work for Dove and Pepperidge Farms.

Phyllis Robinson began in Grey's promotions department in the 1940s writing fashion for Bill Bernbach, and moved with him to be a staffer at Doyle Dane Bernbach when he opened the doors in June 1949. Bernbach credited Robinson with helping to professionalize advertising and lauded her ability to differentiate between "creative work" and "creative acrobatics." At DDB, Robinson teamed up with another Bernbach acolyte from Grey, Bob Gage, to form what is believed to be the first official copywriter/art director team. (Prior to this, art directors were thought of as mere layout men.) Robinson's work for Ohrbach's, Levy's bread and Polaroid won her a spot in the Copywriters Hall of Fame. One of the cub writers she supervised was Mary "Bunny" Wells.

Mary Wells spent time writing fashion copy at Macy's, then as copy supervisor at McCann, before moving to DDB in 1957 where she rose to associate copy chief and head of new-products development. There, she made her mark with copy for the French tourist office ("The Basque and his beret are never separated") and a Warner's girdle ("Slip into something comfortable and take two inches off your waistline.") In 1963, Marion Harper hired her away to Jack Tinker Partners which she helped transform from a think tank into a functioning creative shop. When Tinker had a heart attack, she expected to succeed him as president, but two male partners threatened to resign rather than work for a woman. A few months later, Wells left with the $6 million Braniff account and in 1966 started her own agency with two other Tinker renegades: Dick Rich and Stewart Greene. They shocked the airline industry and jolted Braniff sales by painting their planes pastel and putting their "stewardesses" in Pucci uniforms. ("End of the Plain Plane.") A year later, Wells married Braniff's president, but soon dropped his $10 million account to take on TWA's $14.6 million business. (Perplexing many in the industry, they remained happily wed.) Wells also did groundbreaking work for Benson & Hedges and Alka Seltzer. By 1969, Mary Wells was reported to be the highest-paid executive in advertising, making $250,000 a year. (And what will Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper think of that?)

Shirley Polykoff grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. "It was from magazine advertisements that we learned how to be truly American", she said and began her career by writing copy as a teenage secretary at Harper's Bazaar, then for a series of department and variety stores, including Bamberger's and Kresge. In 1955, she became Foote, Cone & Belding's only woman copywriter and was assigned to a tiny Bristol-Myers division known as Clairol. (Like Peggy Olson, she got the account because it was felt that only she would understand the product.) At the time, only 7 percent of American women dared dye their hair, mainly actresses, models and other "fast" women. When her line "Does she…or doesn't she?" was first presented at the agency, her male colleagues tried to kill it, claiming the line was too suggestive. Polykoff added the reassuring tag, ''Hair color so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure.'' The headline soon became a national catchphrase and dyed hair went from déclassé to de rigueur. Miss Polykoff went on to become FCB's lone female executive vice president and the 1967 Advertising Woman of the Year.
So, hang in there, Peggy. The future looks promising.

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