My Della Femina Debut

 “From those wonderful folks who brought you Pearl Harbor.”

 – Tagline suggested for a prominent Japanese firm by Jerry Della Femina.

Yes, you read it right. This was what Jerry had suggested in a meeting full of top executives from Japan. Or so the legend goes. This shocking verbiage was also the name of Jerry’s best-selling, hilarious book. Equally provocative was the subhead, which read “Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising War.”

Book It was a war. And I was in the trenches. Even though it was 1983, Della Femina, Travisano and Partners, the hallowed, revered Madison Avenue ad agency that birthed the Creative Revolution in the 60s, was still in full, uproarious swing.

Mad Men, step aside. Back away from your egos. This was the real deal. And my very first job as an ad copywriter.

I was fresh out of The Bubble, SMU in the Park Cities in Dallas, Texas, where I had been sheltered and coddled by a society and ecosystem that was a breeding ground for a big nest of WASPS.

HPAnd here I was, smack dab in the middle of the New York ad world working for a witty provocateur who also famously said that “advertising was the most fun you could have with your clothes on.” Oh, and did we. In those days, we were allowed to smoke (#guilty) in our offices and cocktails were shaken and stirred for any reason, or no reason at all – I mean, who needed one?  It was a par-tay waiting to happen. At any given moment. Of any given day. It was a odd, endlessly exciting world, one unlike any other I had ever encountered. Actually, it was more like an adult playpen. Extended adolescence. But a place, nevertheless, where magic happened.

My colleagues sported exotic names like Frank DiGiacomo. Joe Della Femina. Phil Silvestri. Mark Yustein. And Karee Rubenstein.  Lots of Italians and Jews – everyone dark and swarthy all around me. Then there was pale-faced me, Lisa Johnson, or Junior Miss, Miss Texas, and any of the other nicknames du jour they lovingly called me. In any event, there I was, Sue Vanilla (#white bread) trying to stay afloat amidst this colorful crew, daily standing back in awe watching them create killer ads effortlessly. To top it off, I was one of two female writers at this famous boys club. Despite the fact that I tried to dress the part of a New York copywriter by doing the whole Antique Boutique vintage thing, Della Femina was still a lot for this little Dallas girl with frosted blonde hair to take in.

I was not good at what I did back then – no creative muscle to speak of. While I was good at puns, and was the ultimate punographer, ad concepts I just could not generate. I had gone to the School of Visual Arts and taken portfolio classes. I had cobbled together a “book” , a model’s portfolio full of my speculative – “spec” – ads drawn on typing paper with Marks-a-lots. I got the job, which to me, was a miracle. But at this point, I was painfully slow and needed remedial help – I had no Concepting Legs. I could have used a walker.

In addition to “ideating” and  “papering the walls with layouts” as we used to say, the offices were always abuzz with lots of hollering and laughing and yucking it up  – until 5 p.m., at which point on Fridays, it was time for a bit of liquid inspiration. The location: the bar in Frank’s office, where he had a little fridge full of wine and beer, as well as a small table with all kinds of other liquors and libations.

As the only Junior Copywriter in the bunch, I was chronically afraid to go into this gathering of seasoned pros – they had won every award you can name. (#Cannes, #One Show, #Clio) Though one afternoon, I had to venture in. After I had slaved away for hours coming up with just the right headline, I wanted to get my supervisor’s approval of it.

As I sucked up my courage to walk in, I approached Mark (#prince of a guy), and said, sheepishly, “Hi can I get you to look at this?” He smiled and said, “Lisa, this is cocktail hour. We’ll look at that tomorrow.” I need to add that Mark Yustein was an Ad God. As an art director, he was part of the team that came up with the famous line for Meow Mix, “Tastes so good, cats ask for by name”. He also partnered with several writers to pen the brilliant Blue Nun wine radio commercials featuring the inimitable banter between Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara.

As you can see, I was surrounded by Awesomeness. So it was only natural that during this time in my life, I was a bit more serious about the ad game – staying late nearly every night, honing my craft, puffing away on Marlboro Reds and having giant, heart-clogging pretzels with mustard for dinner.

One day I was rather upset and distraught that the client had changed one of my headlines for a newspaper ad. I marched into Ron Travisano’s office simply beside myself. How could this have happened? What was the client THINKING? Ron Ron tried to calm me down, but I just wouldn’t have it. Finally he said, “Lisa, get a hold of yourself. People use these to line the bottom of their bird cages. Relax. This is only an ad.” Boy did that hit me like a Mack truck. WHAT? You can’t be serious. I was in this for blood – and awards! And an award I got with the help of Senior Writer, Rita Senders. A Clio Finalist, complete with an invitation to the ceremony at the Waldorf. I still have the menu from that day and on it, a nice dime-sized stain of mustard vinaigrette.

Even though Jerry was the head guy, he was frequently out of the office, I’m sure, rustling up new business. I didn’t present work to him (thankfully), but one day, I had to. My bosses were out on a shoot. His assistant set up some time for me to see him. So in I went.

Nervous, fidgety, overly-apologetic – scared as a little church mouse – this was me as I sat across from Epic Greatness in the form of Jerry Della Femina. Clad in his sleek Italian finery with the top of his iconic hairless head gleaming in the neon lights above, he smiled, and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “Have a seat, my dear,” he kindly said to me. So I did as he said.

We were working on an ad for the New York Times for First Boston, an investment bank.

FBostonI was really struggling with what to say in the headline. I didn’t do math or numbers, much less banking. But I did come up with a nugget of an idea. So I presented it, we lobbed it back and forth a few times, then we birthed: “What every great banker needs is a great banker.”

Oh what a feeling! (cue the “Flashdance” anthem.)

I was titillated, energized, but also relieved that my meeting with him was over and I was no longer in his office. He was kind of just too much for me in my meager 23 years of life and my yet-to-be-fully-developed frontal lobe.

The only other time I really got a good chance to see Jerry, other than when I saw him in Frank’s office deep into storyboards, was when he walked down the hallway one day playing the ukulele. It was joyous site to behold.

Another fun event was when the office was getting redecorated. For some reason after the walls had been stripped bare of wallpaper, we created a contest involving toilet paper rolls. Whoever could stack them up next to their doors in the most creative way got a prize, which I think was a hotdog.

But it wasn’t always so magical.

I was working on a radio spot for Six Flags Great Adventure, a :30 spot. Problem was, it was coming in at :40, according to the account guy. I took another pass at shortening it and thought it was fine. In the days before email, I would just put the copy that I typed on a typewriter (#fossil) in the chair of the designated AE (account executive.) Then he/she would read it and walk it back over to my office.

On my way to lunch, I dropped the radio copy off with the AE, sure I had nailed it. I can’t remember his name, so let’s call him Fred.

When I got back, what appeared at my door was an irritated, red-faced, spectacled Fred fiddling with his police/porn moustache and puffing on a cigarette with an inch-long ash. “Um, Lisa. This is not working. You’ve got exactly thirty minutes to make this thirty seconds,” at which point he hurled a stopwatch at me, narrowly missing my nose, skittling and clanging across my glass-topped desk, and knocking over my pencil holder. He stood there, swaying to and fro like a buoy in the Connecticut Sound. I could smell him six feet away. Apparently, he had just returned from a 16 martini lunch.

After he staggered away, I burst into tears, then got up and went into Mark’s office sniffling and trying to speak, barely able to eek out what happened. After I explained the situation, Mark was not happy. Fred got in big trouble. I hate to say it, but I was so happy.

The other moments that stand out were the Christmas Party at the River Café in Brooklyn. The lights of Manhattan twinkled on the East River as we partied and danced the night away.

cafeI also had the distinct privilege of working for Luke Sullivan who penned “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.” He was later inducted into the Copywriter Hall of Fame. I learned a tremendous amount about ad writing – and life – from him.

At one point, EST was The Big Thing. EST stood for Erhard Seminar Training. Everyone in the office was doing it. But I ended up declining. It was rumored that they locked you in an auditorium full of strangers for an entire couple of weekends and wouldn’t let you out to go to the bathroom or wear a watch, all the while pummeling you with data, shouting at you with depressing facts about humanity (so I heard) that wore you down to a nub. Then on the last day, you were supposedly rid of all your painful childhood memories, limiting beliefs and were built back up. Made all new and pretty – rarin’ and ready to change the course of your life.

The last phenomenon around the office I remember was The Hunger Project. Sounds good, right? Like you’d be helping the world, right? Well, I went to a meeting after work one night along with some other folks from the agency. Jerry even went.  During the evening, we were presented with staggering, heartbreaking facts about hunger along with sad faces of precious children. I was weeping through much of it.

I had asked a good friend of mine to go with me that night, but the whole presentation was REALLY dragging on and on. Way too much information. About halfway through, we saw Jerry get up and leave. I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “He’s probably like, ‘Let’s get outta here. All this talk about hunger is making me hungry. I am diein’ for a big plate of spaghetti.’ ” We could hardly contain ourselves after that.

The sad truth about The Hunger Project was that while the overall purpose of the movement was admirable, they were criticized for using most of the money for educating the public about worldwide hunger rather than actually feeding people.

But after all of these kooky happenings, the most fun, most insane, most deliriously ZANY event at the agency was…

The Sex Contest.

No, it wasn’t a live sex show. But the vibe of the whole thing was deliciously wild and racy. Women voted for the man they’d most like to have sex with, and men voted for the women they’d most like to boink. The winning couple would be announced at a luncheon called The Secretaries Luncheon. The prize: a weekend at the Plaza. Beyond Fabulous, right? But here’s the thing: each winner would not be getting their own room. The prize was one room…that the two lucky winner swould share…to ostensibly get lucky. Second prize was one night at The Plaza. The third prize was a night on Ron Travisano’s office couch.

The day arrived for the luncheon and the big announcement of the winning couple. We shut down at noon on Friday and all headed over to a Mexican restaurant on the Upper East Side – one that we had rented out for this soon-to-be-raucous party.

The afternoon was somewhat of a blur. All I remember is that after the winners were announced – they were both way too sexy for their shirts – the margaritas and funny cigarettes (#mary jane) started flowing. Secretaries were sitting on top of the laps of the wasted account guys as well as some handsy creative directors. I crawled out of there at some point, blotto and bleary-eyed, and went to bed for what may have been the entire weekend. Oh yeah. It was some party, the memory of which is both vague and achingly specific in my mind. Some things that happened there…I’ll never share.

Lots of stuff happened during my stint at Della Femina. But it was one of the best years of my professional life. I can honestly say it was a balls-to-the-wall year of true Mad Men revelry that glows and sings and Snap Crackle Pops in my memory.

My Afternoon with Norman

” Give me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy.”

– Norman Berry, Creative Genius and Ad Legend, Ogilvy & Mather.

I quote him often.

He was my big boss from 1986-89 in New York when I was a copywriter at Ogilvy.

I frequently saw him dashing by atwitter, burgeoning with disruptive, brilliant ideas, clad in Omar Sharif collared shirts inspired by Dr. Zhivago and made by Turnbull & Asser.

collared shirt

He would be hunched over with laser-focused attention on the print ad or TV spot at hand, chain smoking, and moving his head about in bird-like sharp movements with lovely, deep, caring eyes. His laugh filled the atmosphere in any room with hope and endless possibilities.

norman

My assignment was for New Freedom Maxi Pads, a product from Kimberly Clark. First, I worked on Pull-ups, those in-between baby diapers that kids wear when they are potty training. Now it was time to move on to more mature bodily emissions. The dreaded period.

pads

How might my partner, fabulous Senior writer, Alice Henry Whitmore, and I make this interesting or most importantly, tasteful? How could we hook people in and prevent them from being instantly turned off by the decidely intimate subject matter, and change the channel the second they heard the words “maxi pad”?

Well, we had an idea.

For historical context, let’s remember that this was in the late 80s. It was before the end of the Cold War. The world was a different place.

People in communist countries had little to no freedom, especially the women.

So for our New Freedom project, Alice and I posited this intriguing question at the top of our TV spot:

“What if the women of Moscow discovered New Freedom?”

But here’s the kicker: the entire spot would be spoken in Russian – with English subtitles.

While the startlingly beautiful model we’d cast was moving freely about Red Square (oh yes, LOVE the irony) you would hear her extolling the virtues of these awesome maxi pads that were the best thing since sliced bread (visual intended) while the translation populated the bottom of the screen:

“I can wear it everywhere I’m allowed to go…I can even wear it with my Official Party Dress. I can carry them in modern pouches of plastic…even in Red Square.”

And so on.

Red Square

The campaign would also extend to the oppressed Chinese women and have the same opening line:

“What if the women of China discovered New Freedom?”

Our lovely Chinese model would be elated about her newfangled maxis while English subtitles played on the screen.

Chinese

We were tickled. We loved our idea. We thought for sure we had a BIG win. A smash hit, one that would march us right into the Copywriters Hall of Fame.

We couldn’t wait to present this to Norman.

The day arrived for us to see him. I was terrified. Sweating. Obsessing about what to say – writing my notes for the set up for our brainchild, then scratching them out in a furry, and starting over again and again and again. I was a mess.

I finally calmed myself down before we went in.

When Alice and I arrived at his office, we were surprised to see Norman sitting on the floor in front of his coffee table puffing away on a cigarette wearing his signature Omar shirt. We sat down and joined him. I was wearing a skirt, so sitting cross-legged was not an option. Didn’t want to flash anyone. I was no Sharon Stone.

I was already a bit jittery to begin with. As I positioned myself on the floor in what felt like the most awkward of poses, my leg and hip started to cramp. I thought my elbow upon which I was leaning was going to give way. But that all went away once we launched into our idea.

I got off to a sputtering start, “So we thought that, well, I mean, we were thinking that, um, women in Communist countries who had few liberties would be a good juxtapose, sorry, juxtaposition to the name, New Freedom,” I said.

Luckily, Alice jumped in and saved me while she pulled out the key frames for the TV spot.

Norman inhaled on his cigarette with such force, I knew we were in trouble. His brows furrowed, his eyes half shut.

With an exhale like God breathing life into the universe, he said, “This is brilliant, simply brilliant. I love it. Great work, darlings.”

We couldn’t contain our elation. Alice and I both tried to disguise our smiles, giggled a bit, but were still focused on the work.

“However, ” Norman said, “this would never fly in the States.”

We were heartbroken.

“It would play smashingly, swimmingly in the UK,” he said. “There, you don’t have the strict social mores like we have here. It would be a brilliant there….but not here,” he said.

He went on.

“I applaud your bold creativity, loves,” he said to me. “Can you all come up with something else as brilliant?”

Alice and I both nodded eagerly like little cocker spaniel puppies indicating, “yes.”

We thanked him for his time and left.

After that day, I saw him at department meetings where he’d give a rousing, encouraging speech to all and then show some stellar, recently finished spots – Seagram’s Wine Cooler spots featuring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd who were the stars of “Moonlighting”.

Bruce

I had worked on the radio and it was presented to Edgar Bronfman, CEO of Seagrams, with my voice recording of the spot I had written (thrilling!), but it was never bought. (See the dashing fellow below.)

edgar

Back in those days, we had an Ogilvy bar, replete with a bowtie-wearing bar tender who would serve up terribly strong drinks and bowls of peanuts to the wayward, haggard account execs who needed to recover after being beaten up by the client or weary creatives who needed to birth a new idea after theirs was savagely killed.

I loved hearing Norman give the State of the Agency address at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, where we had our holiday meetings, after which, the Ogilvy Choir would sing. Yes, a choir filled these famous halls with lively Christmas cheer that somehow made me think of fruitcakes – the food, not the people. Also offered while I was there was a bevy of swag in Ogilvy red: watches, umbrellas, and finally, a flannel unisex nightshirt. I still have mine.

ogilvy

With Norman at the helm, it felt like a club. Not a company. Not a job. But a place, a home, where you could make memories, history and lifelong friends. I think there was even an Ogilvy alum newsletter – way, way before social media hit. This was a place that just got things right.

In those pre-Cold War days, we could have never foretold something like Facebook. The world is radically, immeasurably different today – especially in the ad business. Web is King, the Grand Poobah of all. Mobile is Queen. Google is a verb.

The nerve-wracking days of meeting our air date or print deadline are mostly over. Ideas are distributed through a dizzying array of channels and are evaluated through a new lens: your Followers, SEO, and all those other things that makes my head spin. It’s a whirling dervish, a technological cauldron of activity which, if I let it, can become a time-sucking life invader.

These days, if I am in a meeting with ad folks, I will invariably quote him. Sadly, few people know this classic maxim. It’s too bad. It has helped me many times when explaining to a client why the TV spot filled with 50 competing ideas just won’t work.

Here’s to you, Norman. My time with you was brief, but meaningful – indelibly etched on my heart.

Because after all the hoopla of new media is said and done, and we’ve moved on to The Next Big Thing, you and your timeless, tightly defined words still reign.