How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pretty Women

Even when they leave you and vanish they somehow can still remain there with you

Even when they leave

They still are there.

(Sondheim, Sweeney Todd)

Women are the real magic of the world. I've always been influenced by women – grandmothers, mother, aunts, cousins, wives, daughters. When I wasn't listening to my mother play Chopin, I observed her reading – a different book every month. Women were the real heads of Italian households, men were the figureheads.

And although I'm grateful for the many lessons learned from those women of the family – this isn't about them.

In my chosen field of work, there have always been pretty women. Whether advertising attracts them because of its closeness to show business, or whether it's a completely subjective opinion is for others to figure out. I just know that I'm susceptible to their magic, so these stories all include – or center around – women.


Sexy Vibe, Bad Move

She was the girl who showed up before the end of the marriage. Her name was Andrea McCabe. She had that face that Italian boys like me found fascinating – that of an Irish Catholic virgin. I've thought about that attraction – it's so common among my peers, often resulting in Italian boys marrying “outside” – choosing Irish girls over Italian ones. I think I found the cause: nuns.

Think about it. If you're an Italian boy being taught by nuns in habits, what do you see of these authority figures? Their faces. All the rest is mystery. But in your neighborhood, you see Italian girls and women all the time – and if there is anything unknown about them, it certainly isn't much.

My first steady girlfriend was Irish – Mary Kay Myers from Lansingburgh – the northern part of Troy, a world away from Little Italy in the south. But her family forbade her to see me when then found out I was Italian.

My family was using the name “Visk,” having had it changed from Visco, they said, by the school system. Later, in my forties, I changed my name back to my grandfathers' names – LaPosta Visco – in a rush of ethnic pride.

And besides, I always thought “Visk” sounded like a cat sneezing.

So, in the late 60's, with all that behind me, and an unhappy marriage getting worse by the minute, I'm finding ways to not go home after work.

One of the events I told my wife I had to attend was an Art Director's dinner given by local printers. I was the only copywriter there, but my art director, Nunzio, was a good friend and let me tag along. Afterward, he and some of the printers, also avoiding going home, stopped at a restaurant and bar along the Troy Schenectady Road called the Jamaica Inn.

It was one of those horseshoe bars, with a giant lava lamp in the center, and black light that makes white shirts glow purple. Of course, none of us were wearing white shirts.

We took the only two seats left, in the far corner, against the wall. Around a sunken dance floor, where a guitarist/folk singer was performing some Lennon/McCartney tunes, there were some tables, but only one was occupied, by a couple. The young girl – the only woman in the place, actually – seemed strangely out of place.

She wore a blouse and flared jeans, and her date was an Ivy League type. I couldn't see them too well, having to look across most of the horseshoe bar and into the opposite corner of the darkened room.

I sat their quietly, my mind putting the sensuous pattern of the lava lamp together with the music. I didn't pay much attention to the girl and her date, until about an hour later, when some raucous laughter caught my ear. Three of the guys at the bar had joined the couple at their table, and they were taking turns dancing with her.

That's pretty weird,” I said to Nunzio. He agreed, and we wondered what kind of a dullard her date must be.

Another hour went by. Nunzio and the guy on his right were discussing typefaces or something, and I was on the fringe of the conversation.

Suddenly, I was aware of the girl in the corner. She seemed to pop up out of her chair, and as she started walking, I knew she was coming to me.

As she came up to the bar and started passing behind the men lined up there, one by one their heads turned, and their eyes followed her.

I was hit by a wave of panic. I was cornered.

Everything seemed to stop except this girl walking toward him. I could feel everybody watching me, as I turned just in time to see her stop in front of me.

She looked into me and said, “Hi. My name is Andrea.”

I stupidly waited for more, until I looked in her eyes and realized how incredibly difficult it had been for her to get this far. I gave her a cautious smile and said, “Hello. My name is Frank.”

She took a breath. “I had to come over and talk to you. I was getting these fantastic vibrations from you.”

I didn't know I was sending any vibrations, and I said so.

She moved her head in the direction of her date. “I told him you were an old friend and I had to come over and say hello.”

Well, I'm glad you did, Andrea.”

Are you?” She sighed. “Oh, I'm so glad. I really do want to talk to you.”

I asked her if she could stay, if I could buy her a drink, or what? She said she really had to get back to her date. I finally asked for her phone number, gave her a pen and a business card for her to write it down.

Should I put my name on here, too?”

'No, I'll remember. Andrea. I'll call you soon.”

You will? Really? Good. Thank you.”

She went back to her table, and I was the object of admiration. Remember, it's 40 years ago, and this was not the norm.

To get to the men's room from my end of the bar, I had to go across the dance floor and down a flight of stairs. Off to my left, in the darkness, was Andrea and her date. I'm embarrassed to say this, but even though I couldn't see them well, as I headed down the stairs I made a peace sign in their general direction.

Downstairs, I took my time., washed my hands thoroughly, and carefully combed my long hair and beard.

When I came back up the stairs, Andrea was sitting on my barstool, talking to Nunzio! I walked over to her, and she looked into me again.

Would you like to dance?, I asked.

She didn't answer right away. When she did, she said yes. I led her down the steps to the dance floor. We got closer and closer as we danced slower and slower. By the third number, we were practically standing still, embracing each other. Then, the music stopped and didn't start again.

Still holding her, I said, “We've got a decision to make.”


Shall we go up the stairs or out the door?”

Andrea hesitated. “Can't we go up the stairs and then go out the door?”


We went to our respective places, she came to me with a trace of a tear in her eyes, and we left together. I had never felt so cocky and so scared. I'll tell you about the rest of that evening another time. And how lovers can become friends.

A Stage full of Naked Hippies.

Manhattan - an island off the coast of America

I always felt comfortable in the big city, even as I was in awe of it. The familiarity began when I was young, when my parents would save up enough money for the four of us – parents, me and my younger sister – to spend a weekend in Manhattan.

We would take the train, then as now a beautiful ride along “the water route,” as the NY Central advertised it, down the Hudson. These days, Amtrak sneaks into the modern underground atrocity of Penn Station; in those days, when we stepped off the train from Troy, we would walk a few hundred feet through a tunnel and enter into the magnificent Grand Central Terminal, with its soaring, star-studded zodiac ceiling, magical clock and gigantic full color Kodak photograph.

We would stay at a budget west-side hotel, near but not in the famed Algonquin and steps away from the New York Times building, and go to live Broadway shows, big screen Hollywood movies at Radio City Music Hall, and even combination shows of live entertainment and a movie at theaters around Times Square!

We'd walk everywhere, me always a few steps ahead, eager to get to the next experience, my sister complaining about sore feet from the new shoes she always wore on those trips. We'd dine at the Automat, or at full service Italian restaurants around the theater district.

But now, in 1969, I was a young man, overseeing his first really important advertising assignment, having had my entire creative presentation for Dairylea milk and ice cream products accepted and approved for full blown production by a real New York production company.

Our producer chose one of the production companies that had bid on the package of spots, and he and I and the art director were on our way to the initial pre-production meeting, with storyboards and scripts and music tapes.

Just a year before, when I was still working for Phil Voss, I had been sent to “The City,” as we upstaters always called New York, to a 3-day production workshop to learn about the latest in television production techniques and equipment.

This may seem odd to the newbies in the business, but in my working lifetime, we've gone from live commercials at the beginning, followed in the 60's by black and white video tape machines as big as a commercial freezer, with two-inch wide tape that had to be spliced and taped together for editing, to one inch tape, to ¾ inch tape, to no tape at all. Anyone my age who holds an inexpensive, high definition digital video recorder in the palm of their hand today and uploads it effortlessly to, is genuinely astonished.

Anyway, I went to the Production Workshop, learned the latest techniques from engineers, cameramen, producers and lighting directors, and managed to play hookey from an evening event in order to catch a controversial new Broadway musical – “Hair.” I have to admit that it affected me personally and politically like nothing else in my life. During the play, the cast breaks "the fourth wall" and hands out small posters -- I got one of them, and made a present of it to Andrea.

I was far from a sophisticated, educated, clear-thinking person at that point. In fact, at that point in my life, I believe I was mostly in a misty, unfocused state. I had some creative ability, that was clear, but even as a married man, now with three daughters, and having my first affair, I hadn't thought clearly about life – hadn't asked any of the questions that I was now seeing asked and answered by a “tribal rock musical” that confronted war, racism and political complacency. Here I was, almost thirty, and these creative, sexy, naked people younger than me were on a stage, teaching me about life. I was never the same again.

So, a year later, my hair is longer, my focus is getting sharper, and I'm a creative director, working with a big New York production company. I was ripe for the experiences ahead. I just wasn't ready.


A real New York woman.

She seemed as exotic and fascinating as her name. She was a slim, young, very attractive and very confident young woman. Even in her twenties, she already had what professional New York women all seem to have at first glance– an air of sophistication, a self-awareness that they're operating successfully in the greatest city in the world.

While friendly and capable of the kind of sharp, humorous repartee I've always enjoyed, she let me know that producing this package of Dairylea commercials was serious business. That doesn't mean it wasn't fun.

Making commercials on this level involves the exact same elements of making a movie. Location scouting, sound stages, casting, director, producer, cameraman, makeup, equipment, catering, gaffers and grips, actors, looping, voiceovers.

Putting all these professionals together is making a company, in the original sense of the word, sharing bread together, people united in a common cause. As temporary as the company may be, intimate friendships are formed easily, some flaring up brightly for a while in the heat of passion, some lasting a lifetime, and some a combination of both.

Sevan made it clear that, although we liked each other and could joke with each other on a personal basis, that ours was a business relationship. She had a boyfriend, a young actor/director who was in the early stages of a successful career in theater and commercials. I had a wife and three daughters. And a girl friend.

But there was something between us, and it was too good not to show up. It took a few years, but it showed up.

Next time: More pretty women. And getting down to business.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Last time, I promised some stories about good vibes, bad moves and a million dollar campaign. I'll honor some of that, but the more I reveal in this blog, the more I remember and want to share. So, besides the million dollar campaign story, the others are really about bad vibes.

One of the confessions I've yet to make has to do with what may be a complete rationalization for my youthful impatience with and intolerance for certain people and situations. A couple of times in my young career in the radio, promotion and advertising business I blew up and walked out of a job without having another one to go to.

In the case of WPTR, I thought I had a premonition of impending doom, and it turned out that there was a fire in the ceiling of the office I had occupied shortly after I left.

When I left Barlow/Johnson, the ad agency that I'll be writing about for a while, my sudden exit happened just a day or two before the horrific story that leads off today's post. It's a little out of sequence, but it has a lot to do with my feeling about fate.

Following that is a short reminiscence of an account man with a strange theory, and then, finally, I'll leave you on an up note, with the story of my first shot at a really big creative campaign.

Another Appointment In Samarra.

You can run, but why bother?

There's a famous old story about a man who was walking through the market place in his home town, Baghdad, when he came face to face with Death -- the Grim Reaper, the cloaked figure with the scythe. They both freeze. Death points his finger at the man, and shouts “You!”

The man forces himself to flee, gets on the fastest camel he can find, and rides all night until he gets to the outskirts of Samarra, just as the sun is rising. He ties the camel up near the gates, and walks into the city, breathing a sigh of relief.

Turning a corner, he comes face to face with --- Death.

But -- But -- I ran away from you yesterday.''

Yes, I know," Death replies. “I was startled when I saw you in Baghdad yesterday, because I knew that today, we had an appointment in Samarra.”

You may be familiar with the phrase – it was the title of a book by John O'Hara. It was the intro to the book, and Boris Karloff told a version of the story in the movie, “The Terror.”

But there is a true and tragic story, a similar one that happened to a co-worker of mine and her spouse back in the early seventies. I'll call them Agnes and Paul.

They were a professional couple, in their thirties, growing together in life. They had a beautiful apartment in a very nice part of Albany. One day, when he was helping his mother-in-law renovate her kitchen, he fell through the floor into an old root cellar, and broke his arm.

About a week later, he was recuperating in their apartment, his arm in a cast, probably musing on how lucky he was that he didn't break his neck. It was around eleven PM. They were watching the late news from bed. She got up to go to the bathroom.

In the next instant, he died in a plane crash.

It's not a riddle. When I tell people this story, they try to make something mysterious out of it. Unfortunately, it's very simple: an airplane missed the airport by miles, fell on their house, killing Paul and bruising Agnes's knee.

Al Jensen's Battle With The Rising Sun.

Was he paranoid about Japanese car makers, or is it coming true?

The 2010 massive recall of Toyota models reminded me of another Al I worked with beginning in the late 60's. He was the lead account guy at the Syracuse office of the agency that handled the Dairylea account -- my million dollar opportunity in the next story.

I remember Al Jensen as a lean, tall, self-confident man, composed of sharp angles and sharper opinions. He believed that he knew better than anyone where to live. He actually based where he lived on his commute between home and the office.

According to him, his was the best choice anyone could make. He claimed that he lived due east of the office so that in the morning, he was driving west with the rising sun behind him, and when he drove home, he avoided having the setting sun in his eyes.

I don't know for sure if his obsession with the sun influenced his suspicion of Japanese automakers, but I suspect it had something to do with it. His theory was that once they had sufficient numbers of cars in America – a critical mass, I guess you'd call it – something terrible would happen.

As I recall, Al believed that all the Japanese cars in the United States contained a secret device that, at a given signal, supposedly generated in Japan, would cause them to self-destruct, leaving us helpless and allowing for a peaceful takeover of our country.

Of course, the idea was a product of an overly active imagination, perhaps influenced by his memories of a certain date that will live in infamy. As for his theory, of course there is absolutely no basis in truth for that.

But now that Japanese cars have become dominant in American, and so many seem to have hidden flaws, doesn't it make you wonder – somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of your cerebral cortex – whether Al Jensen might – just might – have been on to something?

I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin' – you know what I'm sayin'?

What Can You Do In Thirty Seconds?

You can start to change your life.

It was 1969. I'd been in the advertising business just ten years, and now I was copy chief of an ad agency with offices in Albany and Syracuse. And I thought I was ready for the big time.

Well, I had to be. The agency's biggest account was an association of New York State dairy farmers -- the Dairymen's League, and they marketed products under the name of Dairylea. They were ready for their first major ad campaign -- a statewide multi-media blitz of radio, TV, newspaper and outdoor.

The creative presentation was to be at their headquarters in Manhattan. We didn't have a lot of time to prepare the creative materials, and the company I used for music was in Dallas. They had just enough time to put my words to music, but not enough time for us to hear it before the presentation. It was being hand-delivered to the meeting. I had hoped to have the chance to listen to it -- do a disaster check -- before we played it for the client.

But that wasn't even the biggest problem. These guys were farmers, and I looked like a long-haired, bearded hippie freak, to use the derogatory term of the time. I was wearing a suit and tie, of course, but my outfit was a riot of color. Tapestry tie at least three inches wide, with blues and greens swirling in a psychedelic melange. Mint green shirt. Putty colored suit, fitted tight at the waist and flared at the cuffs. Fashionable, but too far out for farmers.

As I set up our creative displays in their conference room, the Board of Directors ambled in, and started putting me down. For my hair, my clothes. “Wait till Walter gets a load of this,” I heard one director say to another. “This fruit won't last five minutes.”

Walter Cantwell was the elected president of the organization, and the man who would decide the fate of our creative ideas. Well, all I could do was present what we had created, and it was good. Legally, you can't make competitive claims for milk, but we had a contemporary line that would work as a catch phrase for the seventies, just as “Got Milk?”' worked for the nineties.

Our line was: “Say something fresh. Say Dairylea.” But if the client doesn't like you, he's not going to like your campaign. And it didn't sound like this client was going to like me. He was the last to enter the room – an impressive man -- rough, big, but friendly-looking, I thought.

He sat down and told me to get started. I always try to inject humor --- usually self-deprecating humor -- at the beginning of a presentation. Laughter lowers resistance and seems to make the audience more receptive. So I said something about this being my first big presentation in the big city, and that was something for a kid from Troy, New York.

You're from Troy?,” Walter asked.

So am I!”

He then started making connections with families and places, and told me that his son had just gone on the road with the Young Rascals. To everyone's amazement, including my own, we hit it off.

I started presenting, and he loved everything.

The tape from Dallas showed up in the middle of the presentation, and I played it for the first time, right there, with everybody in the room, including me, hearing it for the first time. Walter loved the music, too.

One member of the board of directors tried to start a discussion about which spots should be produced, and Walter cut him off, saying, “Produce it all! This is great! I love it!”

We left the meeting all aglow, put the commercials out for bid with real, honest to goodness New York production companies, selected one, and traveled to the city for casting sessions with beautiful models and actors, wardrobe selection, location scouting and full scale production.

The experience made me hungry for New York advertising, and I would try, on and off, for the next eleven years, to become a part of it.

Now it's forty years later, and the putty colored suit is long gone, as is the green shirt, but the tapestry tie is still hanging in my closet, waiting for a comeback, and reminding me of a surprising success that came about because I was me, and I wasn't trying to be anybody else.

Next: Sexy Vibes and Some Really Bad Moves

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Memorable People

There will be no lurid personal details in this edition, but I'm thinking seriously about continuing with adding family details that affected me and my family, and sprinkling them in in future posts.

For example, around the time of these stories, my father became very ill and died at the age of 48. The effect on an immature young son in his 20's was frightening. We'll get into that some other time.

This time, however, I want to talk about how I learned to get ahead in advertising. (If you want to watch a very odd movie about the business, check out "How to Get A Head in Advertising." I warned you.)

Seriously, advertising is an apprentice business -- always was, always will be. It's fine to study marketing and communications in college, to read Ogilvy's "Confessions of An Advertising Man," and Jerry Della Femina's "From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor," but the real learning comes from working with, observing and emulating the people who make great advertising.

And the secret of success, if there is one, is to keep learning. Learn everything you can about every client and every customer. The great idea is often hidden somewhere in an obscure brochure or memo. And how people massage those ideas is the real creativity of the business of selling.
So, now meet some people I was fortunate to have met early on.

Learning From a Pro.

Why good is never good enough.

The man I bluffed once, and only once was an Albany legend named Phil Voss. Later in my career, I wrote an article for a local magazine about him and all the other ad agencies that he spawned – there were at least ten in the late eighties, and those have probably doubled again since, as people grow and leave and start their own “shops.”

For that article, I sought memories of Phil from some of my contemporaries. Everybody had very strong recollections, and like the story of the blind men and the elephant, if you put them together you get a pretty good idea of the man behind the legend.

One TV station promotion director remembered Phil, in a well-cut, pin-stripe suit sprinkled with cigarette ashes, striding through the door of the TV studio that had been converted into a bar – a barrel-chested man with long skinny legs, a generous nose and the bearing of a flagship Mercedes. The crowded room grew quiet as he offered his congratulations on a new programming idea, and, realizing he was the center of attention, immediately transformed his message into a speech.

His copy chief and my boss at the time, remembered Voss's “incongruously boyish gray hair that framed his furrowed face, and very intense eyes. You couldn't ignore his eyes.”

An account manager from the sixties told me that “Phil's taste in copy and art was impeccable.” When Voss saw one photograph that he deemed unacceptable, an account executive said it was good enough, and that the budget didn't allow for retouching. Phil insisted on fixing it at the agency's expense, because, as he often said, “We will not turn out something that is not the best quality that we're capable of.”

Besides pioneering endorsement advertising, as he did in the early sixties with Monty Woolley for Saratoga Vichy, Voss also laid the groundwork for today's sophisticated research. Once he knew all about the product and its prime target, he took great advantage of that knowledge. For a local brewery, Fitzgerald's of Troy, he shortened the name to “Fitz,” as he knew its consumers did, and began a slogan that fit the aspirations of sports-loving beer drinkers: “Fitz fits the hero.” It worked, as the idea still does today.

When then Governor Nelson Rockefeller used his influence to create the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, once again, Phil's creative ability helped introduce the summer season of classical music and ballet to upstaters – this time by finding delicate ways to popularize the new center without causing it to lose its loftiness. He called it SPAC, and that name has stuck for over forty years. Then, Phil called on the radio experience of his newest copywriter to produce radio commercials with the most familiar themes from classical music, and to emphasize the athletic ability and star quality of principal dancers Edward Villella and Suzanne Farrell.

As my reward in writing and producing the first commercials for the new enterprise, I was invited to attend the premier gala performance at what has become a sparkling annual summer highlight. Attending the formal affair with my soon-to be ex-wife, it was the first of many heady affairs to come.

Captain Hook” and the Bubbly

Cyril Ritchard Sells Saratoga's Most Famous Product.

Now that I was working at the agency that had brought Monty Woolley to Albany to sell Saratoga Vichy Water, we looked around the show business world to continue the celebrity endorsement. Woolley had died in 1963, only a couple of years after recording the commercials. In the late sixties, an actor/director of considerable talent and excellent taste was within our reach.

Children of the fifties had grown up knowing Cyril Ritchard as a fey “Captain Hook,” and you can still enjoy his performance in Mary Martin's musical version on you tube. But his talents far exceeded that performance – Ritchard was one of the earliest actors in Alfred Hitchcock movies, a musical comedy star in Australia with his wife, Madge Elliot, a frequent guest on American TV in the fifties and sixties, a frequent Tony Award nominee for his work on Broadway, a director, and performer with the Metropolitan Opera.

Widowed in the mid-fifties, he now resided in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and, through a talent search, we learned that he was available for commercial endorsements.

Despite his agent's warning us of a difficult star temperament, we wanted him. His image and his recognition factor among young adults were a perfect fit for the demographic profile we were looking for.

The entire creative department wanted in on this production, so we brainstormed TV and radio ideas to fit Ritchard's playful stage personality, and carefully researched his background. We learned that he was a devout Catholic who observed meatless Fridays and enjoyed fine foods. We resolved to show him all the respect and first class treatment that we firmly believed a talented performer of his ilk deserved.

We sent a chauffeured limousine to his home in Ridgefield to carry him to Albany in style, and met him, on a Friday night, in the finest suite of the finest hotel that Albany had to offer. Back then, there were still some traditional old hotels that catered to the politicians who demanded the capital city's finest treatment.

Upon his arrival on a Friday evening, we greeted him with shrimp and champagne, and found him to be gracious, warm and friendly, and during the weekend's production sessions at radio and TV stations, completely cooperative. In front of the camera and behind the microphone, his performances exceeded our expectations.

Cyril Ritchard was a consummate performer, and he passed away as a show business professional might prefer, suffering a heart attack while on tour in a production of “Side by Side by Sondheim” in 1977, at the age of 80. His funeral mass was officiated by another star of early television, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

How to Write Good

You have to know the rules if you're going to break them.

As I look back at those three or four years working at Woodard, Voss and Hevenor, it seems as though every person was the best at the job he or she was doing. Copy, art, print production, proofreading, account management – everybody knew their job, and knew that good wasn't good enough.

We had a real old pro in the production department, Bert, who started me thinking one day, when he was looking over a piece of copy I had written. He told me with a smile, “The passive voice is to be avoided.”

Of course, he stated the rule by breaking it, because the active version would be, “Avoid the passive voice.”

It tickled me, and from that day on, I began collecting and writing rules of writing that break themselves, such as “Avoid Alliteration. Always.” And, “Avoid cliches like the plague. They're old hat.”

I would share them with coworkers, and even used some of them on a promotional coffee mug at the next agency I went to. And when I got to “Madison Avenue,” I even managed to get them published in Writer's Digest.

But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. I just wanted to thank Bert, and make a transition to that next agency.

After a few years, I thought I had learned enough to become a copy chief myself. And, it turned out, a slightly larger upstate ad agency agreed.

Next time: A million dollar campaign, good vibes and a bad move.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

My First Big Break in the Ad World

I don't know what precipitated my storming out of the radio station with a histrionic "I quit!," but I did it. Didn't have another job to go to, but I did find one quickly, and I hoped it would be the right step up.

In the 1960's, I wasn't a very responsible man. I wasn't even a responsible boy. Getting married at 20, against the wishes of both families, is a testament to the power of hormones. And having two children in two years proves what good Catholics we both were then. At least in procreating.

Like most admen, I watch "Mad Men" religiously. And as I've mentioned before, it's very dark and very, very accurate. The main character, Don Draper, has traits I don't like at all, and probably because I recognize some of them in myself.

These next few stories will begin to give you an inkling of the path I was on. I'm not offering any excuses for my behavior, I'm just trying to tell the whole story. Hope you'll stay with me, if you begin to feel about the young me the way I feel about Don Draper.

A Lesson From Al

Everyone has power.

A few years ago, a local Albany advertising agency celebrated its 40th anniversary. It had been started by a cigar-chomping, brash guy named Al. I went to work for him, right after I walked out of the radio station, back in 1964.

Perhaps you'll get a good idea of what he was like when I tell you that his was one of the first vanity license plates I'd ever seen. It read “ADMAN.”

I learned some positive lessons from Al, the best of which was how to service accounts. Every week, he would have me write a new radio or TV commercial for each one of his retail accounts, large or small. Every week!

How many different ways can you sell a car dealership, an optometrist, a garage-builder and a paint store? I learned that the answer is fifty-two ways a year.

But the biggest lesson I learned was a negative one. Besides having me write new spots every week for every client, Al visited each client every week. And he sometimes took me along. One client we visited together was the local Mary Carter Paint Store. It was a franchise operation, with several stores throughout the northeast. Every week when we dropped in, Al would burst in, finding the same clerk at the counter. The clerk would greet us warmly, but Al would not return the greeting in kind. Instead, he would brusquely order the clerk to tell the manager that he was there, and let the poor assistant know that the big adman didn't waste time on underlings.

It didn't take long; maybe a couple of months. The local manager was promoted to a bigger job in the operation, and of course, his assistant was, in turn, promoted to manager of the store Al was servicing. The former underling didn't waste anytime, either. His first official act was firing Al.

As I think about it now, that was the right thing to do. But an even meaner person would have let Al keep the account, and make life miserable for him. I guess since I thought of it, I might have done that. What would you do?

More Like Don Draper Than I Care to Admit

What Can You Do in the Back of a Beetle?

I chose the title of this entire opus, and even though there's a hyphen between Ad and Missions, the idea of admitting certain indiscretions here has been slowly creeping in – because it's part of the story, and because I might never have gotten to Madison Avenue if these things hadn't happened, as unfortunate as they are.

Life is one damn thing after another,” according to Mark Twain, and this is one of those things. I wasn't the only one in Al the Adman's office – there was also a beautiful, young and voluptuous secretary named Karen.

I was 24, with a wife and two young children. Karen was probably eighteen, and I was the clich̩ Рa still unformed young man, who married against his family's advice, to an attractive former high school classmate.

It's difficult to admit it now, but it was a case of overactive hormones. I was raised as a good, Roman Catholic boy who believed, even in 1960, that sex was only for married people.

They started the sexual revolution without me, but I caught up.

First child on the first anniversary of the marriage; second child just about a year later. I woke up and realized I hadn't planned any of this, wasn't ready for any of this, and didn't really want any of this, but I did my best throughout the sixties until... well, that's a later story.

But back to Karen. We flirted like high school kids, thinking we weren't harming anyone. Eventually, I lured her into the shiny new 1964 VW Beetle, and we'd neck and pet in the back seat. That's as far as it went, thanks to two facts: the cramped quarters, and my inability to get through the multi-layers of undergarments that even firm young women wore back then – girdle and all. And a third fact: maybe she knew better than me.

The job with Al only lasted a year, because finally, there was an opening at the ad agency that I had really wanted to work for since leaving the radio station. I applied, was hired as a junior copywriter, and began to add quality to the speed I had learned up to that point, from a copywriter only a few years older than me, who had come from that storied place I was aiming for: Madison Avenue.

The Glitch That Wasn't There

Sometimes, you just have to bluff.

It was early in my career, at the ad agency I had wanted to work for ever since I saw their work come into the radio station I started at. In those days of personality radio, the early sixties, ad agencies sent a lot of live copy for the DJ's to read. They wanted that personal touch, and the stations encouraged it.

One agency's copy was always better -- fresher, hipper, more to the point. And at one point, the agency brought an old movie star to the station to record commercials for Saratoga Vichy Water. It was a resident of Saratoga Springs, Monty Woolley, once known as “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” In the early sixties he had seen better days, for sure, and it appeared that there was considerably less of the mixer he was promoting than the stronger liquid it was mixed with. Nonetheless, I was impressed that a local ad agency could work with such talent, and I wanted to be part of that.

It took six or seven years, but I was hired there, as a copywriter and broadcast producer.

The two jobs were really one, since much of the broadcast copy didn't need to be produced. When it did need to be produced, we had to go to radio stations to produce it, because there weren't any commercial recording studios in Albany at that time.

The president of the hip agency was a gruff, ugly, imposing man who took no prisoners. He knew what he wanted, and he got what he wanted. You didn't mess with him. He could, and often did, top you when you were working on a project, for say, naming a restaurant or coming up with a theme line. He forced you to be your best, and that's why I wanted to be there -- to learn how good I could become.

But there was one instance where I knew he was just exercising his authority, and teaching me to obey orders. I can be a quiet rebel at times like that, and this time, I was.

I brought back a bank commercial I had recorded at a local radio station, one I was particularly proud of. Maybe he wanted to take me down a peg or two, but whatever the reason, after hearing the recording, he complained that there was a “glitch” about halfway through.

I played it again. I heard no glitch.

He said he heard it, and told me exactly where it was. He instructed me to go back and re-record it and eliminate the glitch. I listened a few more times in the privacy of my office. I still heard no glitch.

So I left the tape right where I could see it every day, on the corner of my desk, and tackled my other projects.

A week or so later, the boss came by and asked if I had redone the spot with the glitch. I said yes, put the tape in the tape player -- the very same one that he had complained about, that had been sitting on the corner of my desk since he heard it.

I played him the same, identical recording, and he went away satisfied, saying that was a lot better. I never tried to bluff him again. I didn't have to. But I knew when to.

Next time, Working with "Captain Hook."