Starting in a Madison Avenue ad agency in the ‘60’s, he actually lived the life captured in the TV show. In "Memories of a Mad Man" he shares with us an unforgettable era filled with humor, brilliance, wonderful heroes and big, bad villains.
The funny and fascinating stories he tells uncover the reality of the ad world behind the show.
• What was it like dealing with celebrities of the era?
• How did the advent of computers spoil one of the greatest boondoggles that Mad Men—and Mad Women—enjoyed?
• The Three Martini Lunch. True or false?
• What's the real truth about truth in advertising?
The book answers these and many more intriguing questions in this unique look into a unique profession.
ABOUT DON SPECTOR
Starting as a junior copywriter in a Madison Avenue ad agency in the ‘60s, Don Spector qualifies as a genuine Mad Man. Creating advertising for the agency’s high-profile accounts like Smirnoff Vodka and Tareyton cigarettes, he began his ascent up the creative ladder in several New York agencies. His commercials and print ads for advertisers like Xerox, the Yellow Pages and Jaguar ultimately led to an offer of a key position in Los Angeles-based BBDO/West where he was soon named Creative Director. After moving to a similar position at Foote Cone Belding/Los Angeles, he eventually started his own agency where he served until his retirement. The advertising he created for dozens of companies like ARCO, Absolut Vodka, Bristol-Myers and S.C. Johnson won numerous awards. But, more importantly, it generated millions of dollars in sales for them.
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Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
Brooklyn-born and raised, accent and all. Dad was a doctor and Mom was a loving mom. I was shocked one day in the fifth grade when the scary Assistant Principal without warning moved several of us into a rapid advance class. That shortened my time in junior high and high school with the result that I started college (Hamilton) at 15.
It was okay academically but I had to lie about my age for the next four years or I never would have been able to get a date. My college had a core curriculum that, among other subjects, required four years of Public Speaking. Like other students, I laughed at that but the joke turned out to be on me. A major component of my success in advertising was my ability to stand up in front of a group of clients and sell them the commercials and ads we had done for them.
Were you good at English?
In my Freshman English Composition class at Hamilton College my themes started out garnering Ds and were full of harsh red comments by Professor Barrett like, “JARGON”, “CHECK YOUR GRAMMAR “and “CAN YOU BE A LITTLE LESS BORING.” But by the end of the year I was getting semi-respectable Bs. Years later, when I sat in a Los Angeles ad agency with a sign on my office door saying, “Vice President, Creative Director” I wrote to Professor Barrett saying that although he doesn't remember me, I owe him so much. He wrote back saying, “I do remember you, dear boy, and you make me very proud.” That was a major highlight in my career.
When did you decide to become a writer?
After four years of college getting a BA in psychology and two years at Columbia Graduate Business School earning an MBA in finance, I still didn't know what I wanted to do for a career. Neither psychology nor finance looked appetizing to me and I didn't want to follow in my father’s medical footsteps. Then one day something struck me. Through high school, college and graduate school I had written for the school newspapers. That was a hint. But what pushed me over the line was that all three papers were named The Spectator. Not only were the names the same but also that name was amazingly similar to my name, Spector. I took that as a sign and decided that I’d be a writer and sought my first writing job as a Madison Avenue copywriter.
What is your favourite quote?
I love a quote that changed my life:
“Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Because if you like it today you can do it again tomorrow.”
It came from a wonderful comedian, Professor Irwin Corey, and, like everyone in the nightclub that night, I laughed myself silly. I loved it so much that the next day I made a sign of it that I put up in my office. It stood there for years. One day several years later I got a call from my actress wife. She had been offered a three-month acting gig in Madrid. We had to go, she insisted. But, I told her, my advertising career was going well and I just couldn't put it on hold for three months.
After I hung up I stared out my office window at Madison Avenue, feeling awful. What an opportunity. But I couldn't do it. Then my eyes fell on the sign. “Don’t put off till tomorrow…. what you can do today. Because if you like it today you can do it again tomorrow.” Irwin Corey’s advice was right. I walked into my boss, the agency creative director, and told him I was resigning to go to Europe with my wife. I called my wife and told her,”We’re going.” And a moment after I hung up, my boss came in and announced that they weren't accepting my resignation and were giving me a leave of absence instead. I could go as long as I wanted and could come back with my job still waiting.
We went, travelled around Europe after her work ended and came back to a year’s worth of mail waiting for me at my agency.
A postscript: about ten years after that, I saw Professor Irwin Corey and related how his line had affected my life so wonderfully. His smiling response was instant: “Do you know what that means, Donald? It means you have to buy me a drink.” I did.
What’s your favorite film and why?
“Singin’ in the Rain.” Just thinking of Gene Kelly’s rain dance makes me smile. Thinking of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘em Laugh” dance makes me laugh. Always a longtime fan of behind-the-camera film stories, I found this story of an early Hollywood studio and its move into talkies was a perfect subject for me. It made me a die hard Gene Kelly fan. That’s why, when I learned that a friend who was a major film editor told me that he worked with him on a movie, I was nervous when I asked him what Kelly was really like lest my image of him be damaged. “He was exactly in person as he was onscreen…the friendly, likeable All-American boy.”
So when I watched “Singin’ in the Rain” again after that (for the seventh time) I enjoyed it even more.
How do you think you've evolved creatively?
As an advertising copywriter I was paid for my creativity. In the beginning I tended to play it safe in writing ads and commercials. I was afraid to stretch my imagination and take my work into my boss only to have him laugh at it or even savage it. Not that a good creative boss would do that but when I started out, I considered anything I put down on paper as a piece of my soul and I was afraid to have it damaged.
But as I grew I started to stretch my boundaries and take chances creatively. Although my ideas didn't bat 1000 I had more successes than failures and so I continued stretching. Then over time I began seeing that often an idea that initially seemed far out, silly, irrelevant or even dumb could be metamorphosed into a very good creative execution. That was the origin of a mantra I carried with me into every creative session whether I was working solo, with a creative partner or in a large brainstorming session: there's no such thing as a bad idea.
I found it freed me up to explore ideas I would have dismissed in the past that led to successful advertising that sold products and even won awards.
Toward the end of my career I gave a number of talks on creativity to students and the core of my presentation was always that there is no such thing as a bad idea.
Any tips on how to get through the dreaded writer’s block?
Over the years as an advertising copywriter I didn't face writers block very often. I think there were two key reasons. First, I did most of my work as part of a team, me as the copywriter and my teammate as an art director. And even when I was writing a commercial or ad solo, I didn't consider searching for an idea a true writer's block. A blank computer screen at the start of any assignment is normal and not a sign of mental blankness.
I faced true writer's block for the first time when writing my book. I had been rolling along just fine and then all suddenly stopped. Then I knew what true writers block was. I slogged through as best as I could but it attacked me from time to time. It was during one of these blank periods that I was introduced to a fellow author. Over lunch I told him about my problem and he made a suggestion. “Use dictation.” “Why would that work?” I asked. His response was candid. " I have no idea, but it does. Try it."
That afternoon I downloaded a Mac dictation program, picked up a microphone and started dictating. And it worked. As he had suggested, I didn't look at the screen while I was dictating. Anywhere but...at the ceiling, the wall, out the window, even with my eyes closed. The ideas and the words came much more easily than I ever imagined.
Today I dictate about 25% of my writing. Using this technique I find ideas come more easily and the process is even sometimes enjoyable. I think you'll find that it pays to be a dictater (“dictater”, “dictator” Get it???)).