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5.0 out of 5 stars
Better than Mad Men!, 22 July 2010
This is the cult classic that inspired Mad Men. So if you're a fan of the series there's a very good chance you'll love it. The author, ad man Jerry della Femina, was an advisor on the Mad Men TV series and his witty, Martini-soaked account of working in the advertising business in 60s New York became an instant hit when first published in 1970. Now it's been republished, with a new intro by Della Femina who still runs an ad agency on Madison Avenue.
Della F is a larger than life ad man (on the creative side) with an effortless, deadpan style and a head full of very funny anecdotes. Reading this book is like sitting in a bar with a brilliant raconteur; he really jumps off the page. All the Mad Men stuff is in there but amplified - the desperate account managers, eccentric creatives, the neurotic models who'll do anything... the sexual politics, the bar brawls, the office shenanigans. You can really see how the series took shape from this book.
But as Della Femina says, "It was so much worse than what you're seeing on the show." In his intro to this reprint, he freely admits to running a `sex ballot' at his agency in the 60s, where the staff cast votes on colleagues they'd like most to sleep with - and ran campaigns promoting themselves as desirable candidates. Della Femina's agency put up prizes such as a weekend at the Plaza Hotel for the winning couple, or dinner for three (for the ménage a trois category, naturally).
Even if you've never seen Mad Men, it's still a great read. If you liked Joshua Ferris' fictional take on an ad firm in the 90s in And Then We Came to The End, you'll find Della Femina's true-life tales of the 60s at least as funny, but his world is much more colourful, more in-your-face, and he doesn't seem to try as hard with the humour.
This book is full of amusing observations about the consumer world, and so much still holds true. Here's Della Femina on the pharmaceutical industry's new `feminine sprays' being advertised at the time:
`The American businessman has discovered the vagina and it's like it's the next thing going. What happened is that the businessman ran out of parts of the body. We had headaches for a while but we took care of them. The armpit had its moment of glory, and the toes, with their athlete's foot, they had the spotlight too. We went through wrinkles, we went through diets. Taking skin off, putting skin on. We went through the stomach with acid indigestion and we conquered haemorrhoids. So the businessman sat back and said, `What's left?' And some smart guy said, `The vagina.'
I'm 60 pages into Orange prize-winner The Lacuna but I've put it on hold while I finish this. Whoever dug this little gem out of obscurity is a genius.