Here’s to You, Mad Men

Legendary ad man Richard Kirshenbaum (Snapple, anyone?) dishes on old-school advertising and its boozy culture.

Photo: Megan and Don Draper. Courtesy of AMC.

Photo: Megan and Don Draper. Courtesy of AMC.

When I first got into the advertising business, it was the tail end of what some now call the “creative revolution.”  There were young guys like me in my 20s entering the business and executives in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who had lived during the Mad Men era. Now, one has to understand that during this time, there was no Internet or cellular devices. People communicated by landline, flying, or driving to see the client. There were also mimeograph machines to make copies and the eventual breakthrough, the fax. And, yes, they wore skinny ties and the older women still wore silk dresses to work every day.

This, of course, meant life was a bit slower, sweeter, and people were able to make the 5:50 p.m. train to Greenwich or Larchmont or wherever they were going. It also meant people had more time; some had affairs, some smoked, but mostly everyone had a glass. Oh, the drinking!!!

If I had lunch with a senior executive in those days, he or she most definitely had a cocktail, and this was at lunch, not just dinner.  Whiskey, rye, and, most definitely a gin or vodka martini with olives was the order of the day. Lunches were longer, people ate more because they drank more, and no one eschewed the bread basket. Steaks, veal chops, and burgers and fries were produced in short order at tony restaurants, nary a salad in sight.

In addition, if one worked on a cigarette account, the executives smoked like chimneys. There was always a ciggie dangling from the lip. If one worked on a liquor account, it was important to be seen drinking the brand and to be out on the town at accounts and bars downing the liquid and letting the client know how wonderful it was. When I was running the Hennessey and Moët & Chandon business and would travel to France, dinner was a grand affair with a variety of cocktails, followed by various wines and vintages at dinner and champagne and then followed by an after-dinner drink. One didn’t feel drunk, but social.

Don Draper sipping a cocktail

Photo: Don Draper. Courtesy of AMC.

Over the years, as technology invaded our lives and the group heading the ad business became younger people and more health conscious. The older group running the business gave way to younger men and women who were running at the gym and liked the lean, hard look and what it meant in business. The old guard drank but the new guard drank bottled water and juiced. Drinking at lunch all but disappeared, as did smoking, and many agencies wouldn’t take a cigarette account as they wanted to make a statement to their creative departments.

I, too, followed suit … until recently.

About five years ago, I was doing some work in Europe and had a business lunch with some young and very in shape French and Italian clients. All were trim and looked great, and every one of them ordered wine for lunch. I, too, decided to partake in this long-forgotten tradition.

“I see people here still drink wine at lunch here?” I asked.

“I know. It’s terrible in the U.S.” my French client told me, “It’s like Prohibition. We don’t understand it. We never gave up wine at lunch. It’s healthy and relaxing, and we get more work done.” He then lit up a cigarette after his meal and talked about going to Le Sport (the health club).

Around the same time, my father became much more interested in wine and the health benefits of red wine and suggested I drink Vino Rouge. I still prefer rosé but understand the benefits and the pairing of certain wines with food. As he got older, I would have lunch with him once a week, and he would always insist I had a glass.

When he became ill and went into the hospital, his advice to me was, “Live, love, dance while you can. Get back to doing what you always loved … the creative work … and always have a glass of wine at lunch. It will make you better. Have a great meal and a bottle on me.”

Once he passed, I felt drinking wine with lunch was my right, as well as a connection to him, and each and every day, I have a proper meal and a glass of wine, mostly white or rosé.

Madboy Richard Kirshenbaum

Photo: Richard Kirshenbaum

The reaction to my drinking has been somewhat surprising. People are a bit taken aback that I drink at lunch. Some will join me for a glass, and some will not. Most of my U.S. friends feel it is a luxury and an indulgence. That said, I remember back to some of the original mad men and women, who would have two or three cocktails and become obliterated, and feel my imbibing is justified and healthy. And whether they join me or not, I always say:

“I am upholding the age-old tradition of advertising people drinking at lunch,” which no one seems to question and which gets everyone’s head nodding. So a toast to the men and women of the advertising business who still drink at lunch. My young millennials who work for me have even taken up smoking again. Whatever anyone wants to do is fine with me — just give me my Domaine Ott and look the other way.


richard kirshenbaumRichard Kirshenbaum (b. 1962) is one of the most exciting personalities in New York City advertising. With partner Jonathan Bond, he founded the Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners agency, which pioneered such innovative marketing concepts as the pop-up store, sidewalk advertising, and other forms of high-visibility guerilla marketing. Kirshenbaum has lectured at Harvard Business School, appeared on Crain’s “40 under Forty” list, sat on the board of directors of the One Club for Art & Copy, and snagged second place on a list of top hundred U.S. entrepreneurs. He is the author of Madboy, a memoir about the transformation of the advertising business. His newest book, Isn’t That Rich: Life Among the 1%, publishes next month.

Download Madboy on Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble. And preorder Isn’t That Rich from Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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