‘Man, did I drink.” That could be the refrain of nearly every person who worked in advertising in the 1960s.
It's what Allan Kazmer remembers of his days at the agency Goodis, Goldberg, Soren, in Toronto late in that decade – and his nights, after work, in the nearby Pilot Tavern. “Creative guys were expected to drink.”
Mr. Kazmer has been sober for 30 years now, but that image of the Canadian ad business aligns perfectly with what viewers of the popular TV series Mad Men have been taught to expect: bottles of scotch in desk drawers; casual sexual harassment; cigarettes constantly burning and, in those pre-regulation days, being advertised freely.
A little less familiar, north of the border, was the crackle of boundary-breaking creative pyrotechnics like those of the show's idealized ad wizard, Don Draper (Jon Hamm).
From the first plummet of that skinny-tied silhouette in the opening credits in 2007, Mad Men has created a fascination with America's advertising past. But while Canadians may tune in next week for a fifth season's vision of 1960s Madison Avenue, another ad street of the era has not gained nearly so much cultural cachet: University Avenue.
It might surprise Torontonians now to know that this wide central boulevard was once home to many of the country's largest ad agencies, though there were pockets elsewhere in town, in Montreal and, to a much lesser extent, in the rest of the country.
The office layouts, wardrobes and lifestyles looked much the same as in New York, but there were important differences in the mentalities: Madison Ave. did not find itself straddling two cultures the way the Canadians did.
The colonial double-pinch
British ads were slick and witty, entertaining the public in order to cover over the filthy business of asking them to buy things. American ads were brash and bold. And Canadians fell in the middle, says Mr. Kazmer, winding up with “pablum.”
While Toronto's mix of Canadian- and American-owned agencies were doing original work, international clients such as Procter & Gamble pressured them simply to pick up U.S. campaigns, even if they didn't speak as effectively to consumers here.
“We used to pray for southern accents,” says Mr. Kazmer. “We would look for reasons not to pick up American stuff.” (Ironically, Mr. Kazmer was himself also an import, arriving in 1968 as a Vietnam draft dodger.)
But for others, the U.S. influence couldn't come soon enough. University Ave. creative directors were chasing their counterparts south of the border, where a creative revolution was being led by the likes of Bill Bernbach and Mary Wells. Canada's industry was parochial by comparison.
“People didn't get it here for a long time,” says Gary Prouk, who began work in Canada before being wooed to Doyle Dane Bernbach in New York.
“The advertising business in this country, then, was so tightly controlled by people who spent their time at the Rosedale golf and country club. It was all guys from Upper Canada.”
However, the industry hid some of the country's great artistic minds as well. Many of the Painters Eleven group of abstract artists (which included Harold Town and Jack Bush) made their money with commercial art.
One of them, Tom Hodgson, had a loft above a banana importer at King and Church Streets that became a popular after-work hangout known as the Cave. When someone new joined an agency, the Cave hosted boozy initiations.
From pranks to piggishness
Doug Linton, who started at J. Walter Thomson in 1961 and went on to be a partner at Ambrose Carr Linton Carroll, says that one thing Mad Men does not depict nearly enough is the pranksterism – a way, he supposes, for ad men to blow off steam from the constant rejections.
“You can do a lot of evil things with rubber cement,” he says. With a willing team of five or six, apparently, it's possible to strip an office, desk and all, down to a single phone left lying on the carpet, in about a minute.
But some of the shenanigans were decidedly less lighthearted.
For women working in agencies, flirtation from male superiors was the norm, recalls Margot Brown, who recently retired as vice-president of media at McKim Cringan George in Winnipeg, but started as a typist in 1967 in a Toronto agency.
“You tolerated a lot of stuff. You had to roll with it,” she says.
For Ms. Brown, as for many women, the only way to advance was as a media buyer – purchasing space for the campaigns that were created by the men, in newspapers or on TV and radio.
However, some women were beginning to work their way into copywriting positions, such as Joanne Lehman, who started her career at MacLaren (known as “Mother MacLaren” for the number of later prominent ad men and women who got their start there, including Terry O'Malley, author of the Carling Red Cap beer ads, who would later become chairman and creative director at Vickers & Benson).
“You didn't go to meetings, and when you did, you weren't allowed to say anything,” Ms. Lehman says. She recalls being kept away from meetings about a campaign she wrote for Stelco in Hamilton, Ont., because the agency did not want the client to know they'd let a woman tackle a steel account.
While the U.S. was known for its civil-rights struggles at the time, racial tensions were also very much a reality in Canada. Agencies were almost entirely white-staffed, and when Mr. Kazmer wanted to use blues legend Taj Mahal in one campaign, he was forced to use a white singer instead.
He also recalls a campaign he did for Christie, Brown & Co. (which marketed Nabisco cookie brands in Canada) that featured both Asian and black child actors eating cookies. One employee at Christie asked Mr. Kazmer, “Why must you keep selling our commercials with darkies?”
At least that time, though, the man was overruled: The executive in charge approved of the campaign's civility, and green-lit the ads.
Finally blooming – and then bought out
Canadian ad firms' conservatism was driven partly by tighter budgets, compared to the market 10 times the size south of the border. By 1968, though, total ad expenditures in Canada had exceeded $1-billion, which “produced a number of leading agencies nearly as sophisticated and imaginative as their American counterparts,” Paul Rutherford wrote in his 1990 book When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1967.
Many credit Jerry Goodis, one of the few Jewish ad men to start his own agency at the time, with kicking off the creative push, with his campaigns for brands such as Hush Puppies and Speedy Muffler.
But it was just in that moment, when Canadians were finally sparking, that the American takeover specialists came to call. In his 1972 book, Have I Ever Lied to You Before?, Mr. Goodis recalls a Chicago advertising consultancy coming to town several times in the late 1960s exploring possible targets for acquisition.
In 1959, 12 of the top 15 agencies in the country were Canadian-owned; by 1971, it was just 7 out of 15, a sign of the consolidation to follow in the decades to come.
“If you can't lick 'em, join 'em becomes a very appealing business philosophy if you're a Canadian agency these days,” Mr. Goodis wrote.
“You may want to call your article ‘Sad Men,'” Mr. Prouk says, ready as ever with a pitch. “It was so much sadder than in the States. You can have that, for free: ‘Sad Men.'”
Yet while Mr. Prouk was seduced by the sunnier charms of Madison Ave., just two years after the 1960s ended he would go on to direct a Canadian campaign that would later make it into the Clio advertising awards' TV hall of fame – proving that the industry was not such a creative wasteland.
With the typical attitude of an ad man, even a Canadian one, he recalls that ad, the “Mona Lisa” commercial for the Caramilk chocolate bar: “The thing was lit like a Renaissance painting.”
Susan Krashinsky is the advertising and marketing reporter and writes the Persuasion column for Report on Business.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Gary Prouk directed the only Canadian campaign ever to make it into the Clio advertising awards' TV hall of fame. It also stated incorrectly that Terry O'Malley, formerly of Vickers & Benson, was deceased. And Allan Kazmer's memories of after-work drinking at the Pilot Tavern date back to his time at the agency Goodis, Goldberg, Soren. This version has been corrected.Report Typo/Error