The Public Relations Strategist

How Much Does Your Work Really Matter to You? A Glimpse Into My Parents’ ‘Mad Men’-era Careers

April 26, 2016

Tom Murray and Carol Muehl [courtesy of david murray]
Tom Murray and Carol Muehl [courtesy of david murray]

Do you take your work as seriously as Don Draper or Peggy Olson?

Over seven seasons before its finale last spring, the TV show “Mad Men” asked its viewers to contemplate the cynical recklessness of workplace drinking and office affairs.

My father saw a few episodes before he died and hated it on the grounds of, “You don’t make great ads by drinking and screwing all day!”

He would have known. A creative director in the 1960s, Tom Murray — and my late copywriter mother, Carol Muehl, with whom he had an office affair — worked earnestly for their Detroit ad agency, for their clients and for better business communication.

He was offended by a show that deemphasized the seriousness of his life’s work.

As I discovered in telling detail last year while writing a memoir, “Raised By Mad Men,” work mattered to these people. Read this excerpt and see what I mean, and then ask yourself if your work matters as much to you. Can you say you’re trying to improve the way institutions communicate in your corner of the world?

The creative revolution

In the early 1960s, there was an astonishingly robust correspondence among the managers at the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency. Nestled inside the old General Motors Building, the company was struggling to be seen as more than GM’s “house agency.”

The agency president, creative director and copy supervisors all exchanged frequent, long, searching, urgent and occasionally heated memos about advertising theory and the implications of the creative revolution that was spreading from New York to other agencies around the country.

No one wrote more of these memos than Tom Murray, even as a young midlevel copy supervisor.

“I think our present GM advertising, while adequate, is neither portraying the kind of image GM should be portraying, nor does it agree with the kind of image the products themselves represent,” Murray wrote to his boss in 1960.

“In short, I think our ads look like the 1930s or early 1940s in the magazines, yet we are offering for sale the newest cars made in the world today. The ads, in other words, look like the GM Building when they should look like the cars.”

Murray was losing faith in the possibility of achieving what he had come to Campbell-Ewald to do: make great ads for GM. He was seeing his rivals at other agencies making much better ads for clients who were too poor and desperate to turn down compelling ideas.

His best friend at Campbell-Ewald, Carl Ally, left to start his own agency in New York and made a 1963 Volvo ad that was the talk of car advertisers at the time. Far from the misty, flattering drawings and doctored photographs in GM ads, Ally’s ad — designed to demonstrate the toughness of the car — showed the Volvo mud-splattered and in midair, with a headline that read, “Drive it like you hate it.” The TV version added an even more compellingly idiosyncratic coda about the car you could punish: “Cheaper than psychiatry.”

Those were the kinds of arresting ads Murray wanted Campbell-Ewald to make, and if GM wouldn’t pay for them, then perhaps other clients would.

Honest communication

The same year that Volvo’s stunning ad appeared, Campbell-Ewald did a comparative study of its own ads with those of Doyle Dane Bernbach and the other most-lauded revolutionary agency, run by David Ogilvy.

Those ads, the internal study found, had certain characteristics in common: “Enormous simplicity. … A single verbal communication…without the profusion of extra elements so common in many other ads. … A look of largeness. … Great sobriety. Or, you might call it ‘apparent patience,’ or ‘commercial restraint.’ … the avoidance of brag, claim or commercial clichés. … An apparent singleness of authorship. We get the feeling that somehow, some one individual is talking to us.”

This, Murray would offer for example, was what such ads sounded:

“What’s the ugliest part of your body?” … “Does she or doesn’t she?” … “Take this eye test.” … “Aren’t you glad you use Dial? (Don’t you wish everybody did?)” … “To Peggy — for marrying me in the first place.” … “What’s the matter with you, Everett Haygood?” … “At 60 mph the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock.” … “If you drive places you wouldn’t want to walk.” … “1969 cars still have a collapsible driver.” … “A cold sore is no big thing. Until you get one.”

Here and there, thanks mostly to the people Murray was hiring and the atmosphere he was trying to create for them, Campbell-Ewald was beginning to produce examples of advertising that harmonized with the voice of the creative revolution.

Copywriter Carol Muehl, for instance, wrote an ad for FTD Flowers that showed a man peering through a frame of leaves. The headline: “If you feel silly sending a man flowers when he’s sick, send him a big, hairy plant.”

She did a safety ad for GM, showing a macho truck driver smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee: “Harry never drives more than two hours without stopping. Harry must be a sissy.”

“New York’s great,” began her recruiting ad for Campbell-Ewald, “but it’s so far away from everything.”

For Boeing jetliners, she tried to promote faraway vacations: “There’s just one trouble with taking the same vacation every year: You’re always the same person when you get back.”

“Red China doesn’t interrupt the late, late show with a bunch of commercials,” read the copy over a photo showing Chinese peasants stooping in a rice paddy. “But then, Red China doesn’t have a late, late show.”

And she wrote an ad in 1964 for an unspecified client: “If you feel sure civil rights is moving fast enough,” began the headline over a grainy black-and-white photograph of a racially ambiguous child in a crib, “try to imagine your children waking up Negro tomorrow morning.”

When I say that headline out loud, I get choked up. Not because of the obvious virtue of the cause, but because of the honest intention to communicate.

My dad was creative director and oversaw creative more than writing it. But he kept his hand in, and the week before the first moon landing in the summer of 1969, he wrote an ad for Apollo contractor North American Rockwell:

“America is about to put men on the moon,” the headline said. “Please read this before they go.”

The ad began, “Perhaps the best way for anyone to try to understand the size of such an undertaking is not for us to list the thousands of problems that had to be overcome, but for you to simply go out in your backyard some night, look up and try to imagine how you’d begin, if it were up to you.”

It’s advertising, not public relations. The style is dated and some of the causes seem long lost and others overwhelmingly won.

But the essential truth remains — yes, even in our screaming-fast, social media-fractured, post-loyal corporate communication environments.

Whatever our leaders will achieve through communication — it is largely up to us. And what communicators think is possible for our leaders to do — and how much we care about making that happen — will make a difference, to our leaders, to our organizations and to the people who rely on them and the society they serve.

Do you believe that? Do you behave like you do?

David Murray

David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He is also editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly magazine that collects the world’s best speeches.

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