What Phyllis Robinson can teach us about courage and conviction


Credit: Eddie Hausner, The New York Times, 1968

Cigarettes, sensational egos, sordid affairs and sexual encounters behind the doors of nth floor offices in Madison Avenue, New York. This is Mad Men. But what about The Real Mad Men? The trials, tribulations, desperation and determination of those advertising agencies which sprung up from the ashes of the war? Of the men and women who moulded them, and the legacy they left behind? I spent this Feed exploring the realities of advertising from the very beginning.

The Real Mad Men, by Andrew Cracknell, recounts the reality of life in the fast lane of advertising from the ’40s to the ’70s; from selling ad space in the broadsheets to crafting ideas-driven, conceptual campaigns for some of the biggest brands, pushing businesses and consumers to the borders of creativity and beyond. There’s two things that have stayed with me from this read; conviction – the steel nerve of the people behind the agencies, and courage; the likes of Phyllis Robinson.

It’s refreshing to discover someone so convinced by an idea and so determined it’s the right one, he’ll go to barmy lengths to prove it.

Imagine you’re an ad man. You’ve got a boardroom filled with clients and tobacco smoke and you’re pitching a concept. As you make your proposal you’re confronted with expressionless faces, not a twitch of excitement. No doubt you’d take the blow, move on to your next idea or reschedule the meeting, promising to come up with something the client will love next time; even if every bone in your body tells you this is the best way to get people saying their name. Not  George Lois (PKL). Faced with nonchalance he does the exact opposite. He slides open the windows of his 20th floor office, steps out onto the ledge and proclaims that if they don’t go with his idea, he’ll jump. Now while this would be against all health and safety regs, is somewhat over-dramatic and, lets face it, borders on lunacy; I can’t help but be impressed by his antics. It’s refreshing to discover someone so convinced by an idea and so determined it’s the right one, he’ll go to barmy lengths to prove it. Thankfully for him they said yes. I shudder at the thought of him (presumably) ducking back into the office after all that.

Then there’s DDB founder, Bill Bernbach’s conversation with a new business prospect. The client asks, “what would you say, Bill, if you were told exactly where to put the logo and what size it would be?” His response to this $10 million question? “I’d say we’re the wrong agency for you.” It’s so wonderfully reckless isn’t it?

In 1950s New York there was change in the air. Things were shifting and new possibilities were emerging from the cracks, for those hardy enough to fight for them. At this time clients were refusing to work with agencies who had writers or creatives from minority backgrounds; whether Jewish, black or female. Women were relegated to secretarial roles and – this is where Mad Men apparently gets it right – subjected to incessant sexual advances and general belittling. The book recounts the story of Carl Ally (Carl Ally Inc) writing a letter to the female staff forbidding them to wear trousers in the office, that is until he realised his error  – that you can see more of a woman’s figure in trousers than a skirt. The ban was subsequently lifted.

“The most successful headline I ever wrote was ‘Dear Mrs Robinson.’”

One women hell bent on busting through this misogyny and into a copywriting role was the formidable Phyllis Robinson.

During High School, she told her teacher that advertising was the world she wanted to work in – a very eccentric notion at the time. As Europe was falling apart and the war finally came to America, Phyllis worked in public housing, convinced she should be doing something serious in such serious times. But the lure of words could less easily be quelled. Moving to New York was the pivot point. She began writing fashion articles and that’s where she caught Bernbach’s eye – she then started with Grey and when Bernbach decided to break away and form the infamous DDB, he took on Phylliss as ‘the copy chief of me (him)’.

She had enormous influence over the the agencies creative output, as well as hiring fresh new thinkers to join the team. Phyllis went on to work on some of the most out there campaigns, working with the creative dept to achieve beautiful synergy between words and image. One of her employees once said, “the most successful headline I ever wrote was ‘Dear Mrs Robinson’”, which sums up the heights this women achieved. In the face of ‘you can’t’ she said ‘I think you’ll find I can’, and that’s an attitude to admire and harness.

We’ll be getting Phyllis’s picture blown up and framed in the office imminently.  I’ll probably hold off from climbing out the windows though – but in the future, when faced with rejection of something I wholeheartedly believe in (from others or myself), I’ll be less inclined to hastily leave it by the wayside.

Courage and Conviction. More of it please.


Get your hands on The Real mad Men.

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