Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The first days of a Mad Man.

         Yesterday was the first day of the new quarter at the college where I teach, and I'm not fond of first days. They're sort of a strange combination of the known and the unknown, which I find a little alienating. I don't like changes.

         As I recall, though, my first day as an intern at an ad agency wasn't this way at all. It was at Campbell-Ewald in Detroit, Chevrolet's agency. I had arrived from Chicago the night before and showed up at 8:30 a.m. on the 4th floor of the General Motors Building, waiting for the other seven of us to arrive. We were all from the University of Michigan, to intern at the same time. Four wanted to be art directors, two wanted to become account executives, and two of us wanted to become ad writers. It was like summer school for over-achievers.

        I felt quite at home from the start. The marble in the lobby and the walnut along the corridors were somehow comforting. I don't know why. At home we had neither a lobby nor corridors.

        Every morning I got to work around 7:45 and went down to the basement "arcade", to the coffee shop for breakfast. Around 8, the Chairman of the Board of the agency, Ted Little, stopped in there, too, for his oatmeal, and about the tenth day I introduced myself. His picture was on the cover of Time magazine that week, along with other ad biggies, and I wanted to tell my friends I knew him.

        The Copy Director at the agency was Don David, and he taught me some important stuff that summer. He taught me you get ahead by taking a chance.  "It's easy enough to get the pancake off the ceiling," he said. "The tough part is getting it up there in the first place." He told me to read the New Yorker from cover to cover every week, which I did for years. It's consistently the best expository writing in the U.S.

         Don also told me to always look at the first paragraph of any copy I wrote. Pointed out that it tends to repeat the headline in some way, and isn't needed.

         Dick Candor was the agency copywriter I gravitated to those months. I practically lived in his little walnut office. He had been a cartoonist before this job and he still thought like a cartoonist. He taught me about doing commercials taking place in improbable situations, and the value of a humorous conflict between the visual and the headline.

        My first assignment was to create a huge outdoor poster at Tiger Stadium for a large, conservative bank, I had the idea of a baseball player sent to the showers, with the headline, "Save for a rainy day". Dick did the cartoon, and the bank loved it.

         The difficult first day was when I had to return to school in Ann Arbor. Couldn't wait to graduate and go to work at an ad agency.  Which I did, and took my summer at Campbell-Ewald with me.

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