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, June 27, 2010


Not long after leaving the Catholic Communications Department, the pastor of a local Dutch Reformed Church decided to use advertising to attract more parishioners. My priest recruitment ad drew him to me, and, since he fashioned his protestant service to make ex-catholics comfortable, I created the theme that would appeal to that target audience: The kind of church you don't have to go to, you just want to.” Once again, a religious ad of mine got publicity. And this one actually increased Sunday service attendance for the local church.

But other parts of life weren't as successful.

Friday night, during the first act of Shakespeare & Co.'s “Women of Will,” the creator and star of the show, Tina Packer, was making a point about how people keep making the same mistakes throughout their lives, and that change comes through an encounter with another person. To illustrate her point, and to involve the audience, she asked if anyone present had been married three times.

I was the only one who raised his hand.

She looked up at me, as I sat in the stage right box seats, and asked if the second marriage was the same mistake as the first. I admitted it was. Then she asked about the third marriage.

I said, truthfully, “That was the one.”

She repeated that, and asked why.

I said I didn't remember who I was quoting, but that it had been said before, “It was the triumph of hope over experience.”

I think I helped Ms. Packer make her point about Shakespeare, and if Eileen was watching, as I suspect she was, there was a familiar hearty laugh in heaven.

(The quote, I subsequently discovered, was from Samuel Johnson, and was uttered about a man who had remarried soon after his first unhappy marriage had ended.)

And that brings me back to Madison North in the mid to late 1970's, where I met the woman who consented to join me in what turned out to be a most unhappy union. Blessedly, it was over in a year.

The agency, however, began falling apart much sooner. Madison North's fault lines began appearing before I showed up in 1976. Seems it wasn't enough for creative people to do good work – they have to be appreciated, and it has to be demonstrable.

It wasn't.

Last time, I talked about some of the creative work we did there. This time, the theme is departures.

First to Go

Jack Graber, a talented, good-looking artist, art director and illustrator was probably the nicest guy I knew.

He still is all of that, and I'm proud to say that we're still friends, and get together for lunch occasionally.

Jack was in his first marriage at the time, and was producing children regularly. In fact, his wife was quite pregnant when he left the agency.

We've never spoken about his reasons for leaving Madison North, but I suspect it was for what looked like a greater opportunity, with a more stable employer, for a man with a growing family. He was leaving to become the art director of the Albany Times Union, a newspaper in the Hearst chain.

The agency threw him a farewell picnic, so it wasn't a rancorous parting. The art department prepared a bogus newspaper, with all the stories featuring Jack, and I contributed a limerick. Writing a limerick is a challenge on many levels – it has a definite rhyme scheme, and it should also have something of a bawdy cast to it. I think the one I wrote for Jack is one of the best I've written, and I'm happy to share it with you here:

A handsome young artist named Graber,

is prolific with pen and with “saber.”

His wife's ready to burst,

He's working for Hearst,

Now they'll both know the meaning of labor.

The Great Leap

Mary Van is what we always called her. And as a lot of people in life do, she weaves in and out of mine, and makes a difference in the look, the feel and the heft of it.

Her thread entered the loom about ten years into my working life, when she was hired as one of my replacements at the upstate advertising agency that everyone wanted to work at in the sixties. I had been there about four years, learning the craft of ad writing from some excellent practitioners.

But it was time to run my own show, and a competing agency was looking for a Copy Chief. I was ready, and I went.

Mary Van moved in, recently college-degreed and eager. I didn't know her then, and it would be eight years before we'd work together, at the upstate advertising agency that everyone wanted to work at in the seventies.

After a series of personal disasters in my life, involving divorce, monetary self-punishment for a feeling of worthlessness, a depression that culminated in my walking away from a job, then leaving an apartment and a lover in New York, the ignominy of having to move into my mother's house and take a job with the local Catholic Diocese Communications Office which I managed to put out of business in just one year, when the call came from Madison North. As I've said, it had an incredible roster of talent, but seriously flawed management kept it from becoming the hotshot agency of the Northeast.

Mary Van had moved there, along with most of the talent from the previous hot agency of the sixties, and when I got there, she had morphed into an account executive, of all things!

Not a typical Empty Suit, she was as creative in pitching and servicing accounts as she was in writing ads for them. She called me into her office and showed me a telephone directory index -- the kind where you slid the tab to a letter of the alphabet, pressed the bar and it popped open to the page you wanted.

She handed it to me with a look of great anticipation, and I disappointed her, because I didn't see anything special about it. She was crestfallen. The telephone index had been mine, and she had saved it ever since she had moved into my old office in the sixties, and had taken it with her when she changed jobs.

Mary Van and I worked on accounts together, became good friends, and learned about each other's problems. At that time, hers were: a not so good marriage, and a not so good lover. One day, she asked me to meet her for lunch away from the agency. She said she had a problem she wanted my help with.

Frank, I've been offered a job as Account Supervisor on Miller Lite at McCann Erickson in New York.”'

Mary,” I said, “let me see if I have this straight: you want to get away from your husband, and your lover, and you can leap from account exec in Schenectady to Account Supervisor in New York – on a major account?”

Right,” she answered.

So what's your problem? This is your answer. Go!”

She took my advice, and became a success on Madison Avenue. This would become very important to me in just a couple of years.

Mass Exodus

Jack was gone. Mary was gone. And now, they started leaving in clumps. Just like the end of season three of “Mad Men,” four people left en masse to start their own agency. An art director, logo master, copywriter and an attractive blond female account executive with whom I was having a romance, gave notice together, and opened up a shop called “Communication & Design.” Having that romance is the important part of that sentence, for me.

Soon after they set up shop, the copywriter, Ellie, who I'm still lucky to count as a friend, left the area. I was recruited. And, feeling like I had been deserted at Madison North, I joined them, based on the promise of sharing equally in the rewards of the company. Soon, the blond AE and I were no longer having a romance, and, in fact, were barely speaking. And once again, promises weren't kept – the other three gave themselves company cars and raises, and left me out.

My relationship with the agency was as bad as with the blond. I couldn't work. They didn't want me there. I didn't want to be there. The head of the agency, the art director, was so tight-fisted that he actually asked me to quit so that he wouldn't have to pay unemployment for firing me!

At the same time, I had entered into that second, flawed marriage, and that wasn't going well either, to put it mildly. The best thing that came out of that marriage was another job I couldn't have dreamed up if I tried.

Next time: Unsettling News

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