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, August 8, 2010

Some Overdue Thanks

I have no insight into what "Mad Men" will be doing tonight, but I doubt that a copywriter on that show will write a wine ad for a boss that every writer but him argues with, or run into a one-eyed man he met in college and thank him for advice that helped the copywriter succeed. Those are my stories today.

The reason I bring this up is because I've recently re-established contact with my friend, Jane, who I met in the '80's during one of my summers sharing a house in Fair Harbor, Fire Island.

She has begun following this "memoir blog," and has pointed out some of the coincidences between some of my stories and the events in the fictional but accurate "Mad Men" 4th season episodes in the last couple of weeks. Both the episodes and my weekly blog entries begin on Sunday; mine in the morning, theirs in the evening.

First, it was that we both mentioned "Kenyon & Eckhardt." Next, it was a story of the old pro and the newbie. Today, I'm betting against any more similarities.

Levels Of Quality In The Pan Am Building

In the early eighties, I found my job: New York City Copywriter.

It was a goal I had often fantasized about, and even more often, had feared. But it happened, without any struggle, and it was good. Mostly.

Because of the accounts I was assigned to, as a sort of pinch hitter copywriter, I soon found myself in two different groups.

Here's how it happened. A group was made up of an Associate Creative Director (ACD) overseeing teams of writers and art directors. One of the most wonderful aspects of advertising agencies is their ability, even their desire, to adapt to the creative people in their fold. That's the way things worked at Kenyon & Eckhardt, which had three floors in what was then called the Pan Am building. The first thing they discovered was that I could write about motor oil, so I was in the group that had the Quaker State account, on the 17th floor.

Then, the client at Air France developed a dislike for their copywriter, and I was put on that account and deemed satisfactory. The airline moved into another group, which was on the 18th floor. I was kept on both accounts, and found myself the only writer in two groups at the same time. This gave me the opportunity to compare.

To me, the floor each group occupied indicated its level of quality. I thought the ACD of the 17th floor group was a hack. The ACD of the 18th floor group, Monte Ghertler, was something of an advertising genius, but he drove everyone crazy. Every writer in his group fought with him over every word. When he would go on a shoot, he would change everything at the last minute, driving budgets, producers and accountants through the roof. But everything he touched was great advertising.

I decided that I couldn't be split like that anymore, and I made a decision. I had been writing for twenty years, albeit in a small town in upstate New York, so I knew that the only one of my two supervisors I could learn from was Monte. I made my case to him, and really surprised him. It seems he had frustrated so many writers that most of them were asking to get out of his group.

Now, being the only one who asked for it, I was assigned to Monte exclusively. If I really could learn from him, then it was my job to learn how to write so well, and so like him, that he wouldn't have to change a word. It took more than a year, but I finally did it. The copy I wrote and presented to him on that great day was for our wine account, and I had to create a first person ad for the owner of a great restaurant in New Orleans, Commander's Palace, praising their house wine, Monetery Vineyard, which was one of our brands.

Monte read the copy, handed it back to me and said, “Visco, you're coming along.” It didn't sound like it, but I knew it was high praise, because he didn't change a word. I was never happier doing my job. Thanks, Monte.

The One-Eyed Man Is King.

A follow-up to a previous story. It was about twenty-two years after my one semester at Ithaca College, and my up and down career was now really up. It was 1980, and I was a New York copywriter at Kenyon & Eckhardt, a real ad agency with national and international clients.

As I walked down Second Avenue from a dinner with friends in midtown Manhattan, toward my 28th Street apartment, I saw a familiar-looking man approaching. He had an eye patch. Could it be -- the man who taught me how to get my first job? It was. I stopped him. “Excuse me -- aren't you Joe Culligan?”

He said yes and looked a little wary -- I was, after all, a rather big, hirsute man. I tried to take his fears away as quickly as I could.

“I want to thank you. I was a student at Ithaca College when you lectured there and told us how to get a job or at least some experience, by offering to work for nothing for a specified time period. I did it, and it led to my present job -- copywriter at Kenyon & Eckhardt.”

He looked relieved, and invited me to meet him the next day so we could talk. We met at the Sky Club, which happened to be at the top of the Pan Am building – the very building I worked in.

He told me he was looking for someone to write his biography -- actually ghost-write his autobiography, so we met a few times and I started working on it in my spare time.

It didn't come to fruition, but that's another story. This one ends here, with a grateful student being able to thank his teacher for the one lesson that set his life on a wonderful course.

Next time: Fire Island stories.


  1. Frank, your story about Joe Culligan and his suggestion to work for free to prove yourself jogged my own memory! I recall you telling me that story when we both worked at Madison North in the '70s. Years later, when I left that agency and wanted to buy into another, I used that technique myself. This ultimately led to my full ownership of Luyk Advertising! So: You thanked Joe, and now I thank you! Best regards, Bill Bortis

  2. Thanks, Bill.
    I guess that's what they call "paying it forward."
    Glad it worked for you, too.