ADVENTURES IN ADLAND #1: Luxury bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel, rented sports cars, and Dustin Hoffman

I started in the advertising business just as the creative revolution was rendering the two-martini-lunch, gray flannel suit clad Mad Men obsolete.  The hottest agencies were Doyle Dane Bernbach, Wells Rich Greene, Papert Koenig Lois and Carl Ally… where account guys (and it was still all guys in those days) were relegated to “carrying the pizza bag.”  Award-winning copywriters and art directors were kings (if not gods).  Television ruled the roost, and smart, funny, witty spots were the rage.  I was at Ogilvy & Mather in New York, where David’s many creative “guidelines” (aka, “rules”) were mercilessly enforced… but great work (albeit rarely funny) still emerged because the shop was dedicated to producing “big idea” advertising.

Everybody wanted to work on Madison (or Michigan) Avenue in those days.  Wall Street was just a stuffy place filled with bond traders.  The region that would become Silicon Valley was filled with artichoke farms and cattle.  Advertising was where you could make money, express yourself – and most of all, have FUN! 

Fun seems to have been drained out of the agency business… but in the 70’s, when I was climbing the creative department ladder at O&M, most of us put fun first.

TV commercials took much longer to prep, shoot and complete in those days than they do today.  Casting was “live,” there was no video assist… film dups of rough-cuts had to be sent back east to be blessed (or not) by the creative director… and FedEx hadn’t been invented yet, so approvals could take days!  In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for a team of agency creatives and account guys (along with equally fun-minded clients) to spend four weeks (!!!) in L.A. – staying in luxury bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel, driving rented sports cars, hanging out at the pool or on the tennis court on off-days, hitting the best restaurants and clubs in town (all on the client’s dime) – to shoot a package of spots. 

O&M was an incredibly enlightened agency during the 70’s.  They believed in “growing their own,” so junior creative people were often sent on TV shoots “to observe and learn.”  That was how an assistant art director in my group named Rich Hovanec ended up having a late dinner with us at the Beverly Hill’s famous Polo Lounge. 

In those days, the Polo Lounge was renowned for having telephones at every table.  (Cell phones wouldn’t make their appearance until the late 1980’s.)  To make a call you’d give the operator the number you wanted and your room number (or a telephone credit card number)… and she’d place the call for you. 

It was about 10 p.m.  We probably started the meal with a couple or three drinks… followed by a rich appetizer like snails in butter sauce… followed by big Caesar salad… which in turn was followed by a high-caloric steak with a baked potato drenched in butter and sour cream on the side.  (There’s a reason many 60-something former New York agency types have had angioplasty!)

We were all transfixed on our food when suddenly Richie let out a strange strangled gasp, grabbed the phone, and asked the operator to connect him to a 516 area code number.  I remember thinking, “who the hell is he calling on Long Island at 1 a.m. their time?!?,” when, very excitedly, Rich said “Ma… ma… it’s me, Rich. [Pause] “Yeah, your kid Rich.”  [Pause]  “It’s not that late, ma… it’s 10 o’clock out here…” [Pause]  “You’re not gonna believe it, ma, but I’m in the Polo Bar (sic), and The Graduate himself is sitting at the next table.” [Pause]  “Yeah, Ratzo Rizzo.”  [Pause]  “He’s having coffee…”  [Pause]  “Yeah, coffee.”  [Pause]  “He’s with a woman…”  [Pause.] “Yeah, I suppose she could be his wife…”  [Pause]  “I’m sure he would…”  [Pause]  “I can’t see why not…”

At which point Rich got up, dragging the phone along with him, went to the next booth, stuck the handset in Hoffman’s face, and said, “Ratzo, say hi to my ma!”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on Hoffman’s face.  “Who was this kid?  Why does he want me to talk to his mother?  How is this happening?”  I was certain that Hoffman was going to call for security… but then he took the phone and said, “Hello, ma.  And goodnight,” at which point he hung the phone up.

Rich stood there for a moment, and that’s when I knew that his “observing and learning” had worked, because he then said, “Send the check to the next table.  You’re a great man!”

Which is how Nabisco came to pay for dinner for Dustin Hoffman and his wife on the night we shot a toaster pastry spot.

Author Bruce Silverman is one of America’s best known and well respected marketing-communication and branding experts. He is writing a series of posts titled, “Adventures in AdLand” for THE FIVE. During his Madison Avenue days, Bruce was the creative mind behind “Don’t Leave Home Without It” for American Express, “Bullish on America” (Merrill Lynch), “Something Special in the Air” (American Airlines), “Not made in Nooo Yawk Ciddy” (Pace Picante), “The Shell Answer Man” and a dozen other award winning campaigns for such clients as IBM, Hershey, Baskin-Robbins, Coldwell Banker, Sizzler, Suzuki, Pabst, Sanyo, Mattel, Greyhound and Post. He currently spreads his words of wisdom, offering strategic and tactical counsel to marketers of consumer and business-to-business products and services and to advertising and public relations agencies, as well as serving as an expert witness for legal firms. For more Adventures in Adland, click here.




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