I moved to Flushing, Queens, during the summer of ’79 to work for a successful advertising photographer in Manhattan. Back then, the New York I knew was pretty dirty and dingy, and the Disneyfication of Times Square was still years away. But the parties at Studio 54, Palladium, and later, Limelight, helped make up for the low pay and hand-to-mouth existence of my first few years in the city.
Those kooky, creative types. So at age 22, my agency experience was limited to booking models, holding casting sessions, styling still-life shoots, picking up layouts, and personally delivering the jobs (film) to the art directors at the big agencies like Ted Bates, NW Ayer, Benton & Bowles, William Esty, and Doyle Dane Bernbach. While I never saw anyone riding a lawnmower through an ad agency office, there were still some pretty crazy times. I remember the sign on the elevator on Scali, McCabe, Sloves’ creative floor that bore the name, “The Whip.”
Very High Times. I worked on the 1980 High Times calendar and contrary to rumor, every bit of the client’s “product” was cataloged and returned to the magazine in the same condition it arrived.
“Lucky Strike represents 71% of the agency’s billings.”* I survived a grueling, seven-hour marathon interview at Chiat/Day and was finally offered the job. The next morning, the advertising column in The New York Times announced that Chiat/Day had just lost the Reebok account. That afternoon, my headhunter called, wanting to know if I would “still come on-board – but at 2/3 the original salary.” Thankfully, I declined because the agency laid off nearly all of the creative support staff not long after.
Nice work if you can get it. (Memories 1-4)
Memory #1: The layout required a tight shot of a hunky man’s chest, hands holding a can of deodorant. During the casting session, I remember a handsome model with long hair and a heavy accent. As he looked at his Polaroid, he told the photographer and me, “Treasure this photo because I will be famous one day.” As the model was leaving, the photographer elbowed me and said, “Yeah, right.” And who was this model? Remember Fabio? The king of romance novel covers and TV commercials hawking imitation butter!
Memory #2: The photographer I worked for was being paid $3,500 to shoot a still photo of a couple bags of Cheetos that would appear on screen for a few moments at the end of a 30-second TV commercial. What should’ve taken a half-hour to shoot lasted an entire day. “They’re payin’ me this much, Nancy. I can’t just finish the shot in 20 minutes!” So our client from Frito-Lay, the food stylist, the photographer, his first assistant, and I spent a half-day selecting only the most perfectly-formed Baked and Crunchy Cheetos for the shot, and the other half-day styling the bags and shooting them in countless angles.
Memory #3: I freelanced at Young & Rubicam, doing photo research for a cigarette campaign. Upon submitting my bill, I was told to “double my fee.” That’s because the agency could charge the client (and mark-up) only what they had spent.
I wouldn’t ever consider working on anything tobacco-related today, no matter how much money was being offered.
Memory #4: I took a simple typing test to land an entry-level position at Grey Advertising. Sure, I could type 60 WPM with few mistakes, but I remember flunking the test – on purpose. Hey, I had a BFA in Photography and wasn’t about to get stuck behind a typewriter. Thinking back, I kick myself on that one. Who knows, maybe I would’ve become the next Peggy Olson?
My own Mad Men memories: Part Two, it is still in the works. That’s where I detail my experience working at Great Scott Advertising from 1990 to 1991, right after Scali dumped Trump for non-payment. Sound familiar? Stay tuned!
*For the record, the line, “Lucky Strike represents 71% of our billings” comes from Mad Men.