My Dad was a mad man before Mad Men was cool. Sort of.

September 3, 2008

Dan and his brood.Dad and his brood.

My dad tells a funny story about his earliest days in advertising and I hope he’ll forgive me for telling it here. Must have been around 1960, in Chicago. Junior Achievement was still a viable doorway for men beginning careers and my father was no exception…

An aspiring writer, young Larry finds himself seated next to a smallish, older man at a JA banquet downtown. My dad is unaware of the old man’s identity. Maybe he’s thinking about the White Sox or, more likely, some girl in Rogers Park. Anyway, not long into lunch, the gentleman leans over to my future father and speaks. “So, young man, I understand you want to be an advertising copywriter. May I ask why?”

“Because,” my dad blurts, “you make the most and work the least.”

Aghast, the man replies: “Is that so? Well, I’m Leo Burnett and I can tell you this, as long as I live you’ll never work at my agency!”

Though my father had an illustrious career in Chicago (mostly at Needham, Harper & Steers now DDB), he never did wield one of Leo’s famous black pencils. He almost took a job there after Leo died. But that’s another story. I ended up working there 17 years but that, too, is another story.

Why I plucked this chestnut from the Postaer pantry I’ve no idea. Could be I’m feeling nostalgic after viewing two episodes of Mad Men on DVR. Like me, my dad loves this show. Probably because he lived it. The early sixties were his time, too. Smoking and drinking, even in one’s office. Hitting on the girls in the steno pool (whatever that is). It really was like that.

For me, the Leo Burnett-JA story plays like an outtake from Mad Men. The above anecdote captures two men in a moment in time, precisely.

Vintage. Comical. Real. I see Leo Burnett’s rumpled suit, a box of Marlboros in his front pocket. I can almost hear my dad’s voice: the naïve audacity of his remark. While Pop’s confidence would serve him well in days to come, not on that one.

Obviously, my father did not get where he is today making boneheaded comments. Quite the contrary. From what I’ve been told, and seen for myself, he’s actually a consummate professional the likes of which Ad Land seldom sees.

Yet, in some screwy way, the story makes me love advertising and my father even more. Not to mention Mad Men.


7 Responses to “My Dad was a mad man before Mad Men was cool. Sort of.”

  1. Just came home to a package from — Just as soon as I hear how unqualified Sarah Palin sounds in her speech tonight I’m flipping off the TV and digging into The Happy Soul Industry.

  2. chicagowriter said

    Sweet post about your old man. what did your Dad think? BTW, I’m digging Mad Men myself. The botched AA pitch was perfect. I could feel their pain.

  3. TwoCent said

    Strangely, I find something Burnett-like in your father’s statement about making the most and working the least. It may not have hit the right note at the time, but it’s clearly intelligent (almost a duh moment) and made the point about “working smarter and not harder” probably well before the phrase was coined. I’d be willing to bet if you could ask Leo about that now he’d chuckle at his own response. He was no fool.

  4. peanut gallery said

    Just got your book, too. I burned through the first 15 pages last night and am loving it.

    The movie will be something.

  5. SRP said

    I’m glad people are receiving the novel. Even gladder they’re loving it!
    Thanks all, Steffan

  6. Yeah… the movie… can I be an extra? I promise I won’t try to re-write my lines.

    Did I mention I want lines?

    Cheers, I’m 3 chapters in and lovin’ it.

    (That’s a genuine “lovin’ it” not a McDonald’s one).

  7. MembersOnly said

    Your book better be good. I dropped $10.67 on it at Amazon. That’s a Twelve Pack of Stella.

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