There are a lot of books inspired by the AMC series “Mad Men”. Some of them are an homage that celebrate the era and the show’s creativity. Some are just out to make a quick buck (a different kind of homage, I suppose). And some are clever re-packages of classic tomes (these are the ones that look like Saul Bass had a hand in the art direction).
But one of the things that makes “Mad Women” by Jane Maas so interesting is that it’s none of these. Ms. Maas, an astute judge of what the market is interested in, however, knows how to keep the customer satisfied. So she has used her experience in the industry to write a very clear and direct response to specific aspects that drive the show’s popularity. The sex. The drinking. The office politics. Chapter after chapter addresses a different specific element: “Sex in Advertising”; “Sex in the Office”; “The Three Martini Lunch and other Vices”. And because she was really there on Madison Avenue in the halcyon days of Ogilvy, Bernbach and Draper Daniels (considered by many to be the inspiration for Don Draper), she clearly knows what she’s talking about.
Starting out writing banter and questions for quiz shows, Ms. Maas graduated to the ranks of copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather in 1964, working on classic woman’s accounts, eventually rising to become a Creative Director. When she left in 1976, it was to join the hottest of the hot shops, Wells Rich Greene and work for the pre-eminent “mad woman” of her time (or perhaps, any other), Mary Wells Lawrence. In 1977, she used her decades of experience to co-author “How to Advertise” with fellow Ogilvy-alum Ken Roman (it’s still in print), and in 1987 she produced her memoir “Adventures of an Advertising Woman”.
And while there are a lot of efforts to paint Ms. Maas as a sort of proto Peggy Olsen, the model doesn’t exactly fit. Jane is happily married (when was the last time you saw that on “Mad Men”?). She has kids. She has a nanny. She is torn between being a successful executive and being a good parent. And while this doesn’t make her any less genuine, it does make her a different kind of character than the one she returns to in the book.
But it is just that difference that makes her uniquely relevant to the issues swirling around us today. There’s the “boys club” she’s trying to break into (the part of the story that is perhaps the most closely related to “Mad Men”). But there’s also her close observation of Mary Wells Lawrence, who writes the introduction to “Mad Women”. And while she admires Ms. Lawrence, it is clear she never wanted to emulate her. And then there’s Leona Helmsley, a woman executive of another stripe, who was Ms. Maas client when she opened Jane Maas Advertising (New Yorkers of a certain age will not need to be reminded of the carrying-ons of the famous “Queen of Mean”; but for those not of that age – or geography – this obituary is vital)
One can tell that Ms. Maas loses her infatuation with “Mad Men” about half way through her book, as her narrative wanders past the strict purview of the show into the 1970s and beyond, relating stories that, while interesting, are more personal. And perhaps that’s because ultimately “Mad Women” isn’t so much about the Mad Men era, as it is about the role of women in business. From Shirley Polyakoff’s advice to Jane (“Get the money before they screw you, darling; before they screw you the way they screwed me”), to working with Mary Wells Lawrence, to enduring Leona Helmsley – to her meditations in the book’s final chapter “Have You Really Come Such a Long Way, Baby?” – “Mad Women” examines the questions that, in light of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay in the Atlantic we are still wrestling with. And probably will be for decades to come.
And yet, because it is populated with the kind of in-the-trenches stories that will entertain “Mad Men” fans, the same stories which will make those who lived through that (or any, really) advertising era shake their heads in a sort of wistful nostalgic dismay, and because it is well-written in a way that was natural to copywriters of another generation, Jane Maas’ “Mad Women” is not just a “must-read”, it’s a “fun-read”, a “good-read” and yes, a “mad read”.