Sterling Cooper’s Ads Are ‘Kind of Crappy’: A McCann Man Talks About Mad Men

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"Bean ballet"? I don't think so. Photo: Courtesy of Greg Birbil

For four decades, Greg Birbil was an art director and executive at McCann Erickson, the giant ad agency that dominates the last episodes of Mad Men. Born in Brooklyn to Greek-American parents, he spent most of his career in London and then Athens, where he worked on (among others) the Coca-Cola account. Today he and his wife, Jeannine, divide their year between Manhattan and a hilltop house facing the Aegean. (You can read his blog, titled An Ad Man in Greece, here.) We called him up to discuss the final season of the show, about which he was not entirely delighted.

First off: When were you at McCann? 
My whole life! I joined them straight out of Pratt, left for a year and a half to go with a McCann guy to a magazine, and came back. I started in ’61, something like that, and I retired ten years ago. 

Which magazine?
Ladies' Home Journal. We were going to redesign it. I got all the woman editors upset because I'd say fuck and things like that. And they had never worked with layouts, and we were agency guys, working with photos prior to finishing it. That was new to them.

In the old days, the writers would write something and send it down to the art director, who’d do a layout. Fortunately that changed, and I was part of the transition — I worked with a writer all the time. And whenever he had an assignment to do, he would present stuff with layouts, and I would present stuff with copy and headlines already written. 

And at McCann, you worked on Coca-Cola.
The guy who is absolutely the Coca-Cola wizard wordwide is Bill Backer. And when he left the company in 1979, I think it was, he opened his own agency, and I was offered his job, but I had just taken the job of creative director for Europe. And Backer was so good — you can’t come in after that guy. 

The ads they come up with at Sterling Cooper are pretty crappy. There’s no way Draper did the Coke commercial! But right now they’re writing a lot about Bill Backer, and that's a resurrection. He was a genius when I knew him — he'd sit at his piano, he’d play a jingle. Anyone who hires someone like Billy Davis, who was writing hits in Detroit, to become music director at an ad agency, that’s pretty innovative stuff. 

Backer was brilliant, and there were a lot of accounts that he didn’t get involved with — but he did Coca-Cola, of course, and "Miller time." And he ran a very good creative department — you had some oddball characters. All the Greeks and Italians were the art directors, the Jews were the copywriters, and the Wasps were the account guys. You know there was even a Greek art directors' club in New York? 

George Lois ...
A genius. His Esquire covers!

As they talk about McCann on Mad Men, we were the big fat agency that doesn’t do great stuff. Until you go back and analyze what McCann has done! "You’re worth it" for L'Oreal, "Put a tiger in your tank" for Esso — it’s an agency known for doing great things.

I was in London, which was ten times wilder than New York. It was glamorous — we thought we were hot shit. Things were going on that nobody could believe, between drinking, smoking your brains out, sex, long lunches — that was what was going on. You could get away with murder if you were a great creative guy.  In London, we thought the advertising world was going  to break down the class barrier, because an East Ender who was a great creative guy could demand a Bentley to come work at your agency.

A lot of English film directors came out of advertising, too. Alan Parker was a producer at an agency. In the world of London, the world of advertising and movies were the same. In America, you had New York and California, and they were separate. Here's something that was wonderful: You'd go to Hyde Park on a Sunday, and apparently the English government gave a field to the Americans and set it up as a softball field — all the others were set up for soccer. And whenever a film was being made, the park was filled with every actor under the sun, plus all the ad people. It was an incredible place to live. I think we were even more creative than New York. The States had creative agencies like Doyle Dane Bernbach, but the giants — Young & Rubicam, J. Walter Thompson, and McCann — we had offices in 120 countries. It's easy to pick on McCann.

I've noticed that they never seem to show anyone doing a lot of work on Mad Men — did you work really hard?
As you know — you're a writer! — they wouldn't show you working because it doesn't look like you're doing anything. But we would stay at the office two, three days in a row: There was an apartment. I started out as an art director, eventually became a CEO, and I was especially good in the mornings. And when I had a copywriter working with me, he drank at lunchtime, so he was better in the mornings, too. You'd sit, talk, argue, yell, a lot of yelling. You may have worked very late at night, but that was because you were screwing around during the day. 

You know, I have a whole theory: I just think computers are not good for creative people. They’re a finishing-up tool, not the instrument to help you create. It’s not because I’m an old guy — because I don’t respect or understand the value of the computer or the internet. It’s a pencil, an extremely fast pencil. But the computer guys, at a digital agency, they’ve got their heads in the screen all day and have absolutely no human skills. An art director in the old days was dealing with typesetters, photographers, the client. These guys don’t. You’re looking to make people see things in a new way, and if you’re in there looking for stuff, that won’t happen.

A lot of the show is about women, and I'm curious about what the atmosphere was like for them.
Was there sex in the office? And were the men male-chauvinist pigs? [In the background, Greg's wife, Jeannine, loudly: "YES!"] All of that is true. Were they pigs in the same way? Yes. 

In the Mediterranean countries, some of the best people in the creative departments were women. When I came to Athens, a guy told me, “Don’t hire Greek men. Hire Greek women.” Why? "They're smarter, and they won't ask for a raise." When I was in London in 1979, a woman researcher who had been part of one of the teams that drove the company very well, the European operation, was Ann Burdis. She was a researcher and a very good one, and they made her chairman of the London office. Was she successful? No, but not because she was a woman — she was a researcher, and could see both sides of things. Do we have many women running our companies? No. Should we have more? Probably.