She clawed her way up from secretary to copywriter to creative director at Ogilvy & Mather and Wells Rich Greene. But she denies that she is the real Peggy Olson — the character immortalized in AMC's long running series Mad Men.
Maas was a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather and Wells Rich Greene, and president of Earle Palmer Brown. She was Advertising Woman of the Year, won 47 creative awards, wrote five books and raised two children. Today, she describes herself as a creative consultant and a warm and witty keynote speaker.
Really Big Shoes
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Advertising Age calls her “a legend.” One of the founding mothers of advertising, she’s been an agency creative director and president, ran the iconic “I Love New York” campaign, and published two books in the past two years.
CMSWire caught up with her recently to discuss advertising, her career and how the profession has changed in the past fifty years, especially for women.
Sobel: What does Mad Men get right — and wrong — about the 60’s?
Maas: Mad Men gets so much right about the 60s that you can smell the cigarette smoke. They get the way we looked. Women always dressed to the nines. Even the sweet little housewives in my commercials wore dresses and high heels to scrub the kitchen floor.
They get the underwear right in the sex scenes. We wore a lot of layers in those days: slips and bras and panty girdles with garters to hold up our nylons with their seams. Men had to have a lot of patience in seduction scenes.
“She wears the pants in the family” was a terrible thing to say about any woman. In 1965, I was the first woman at Ogilvy & Mather to come to work in a pants suit. It caused quite a stir. I was supposed to meet my husband for drinks at 21 after work that day, but 21 didn’t allow women in pants.
I gather that Marlene Dietrich showed up there one evening in her signature pants and the restaurant, true to its dress code, refused to seat her. Marlene went to the ladies room, took off the pants and returned in just her long suit jacket. The 21 maître d' ushered her to a table. Now she was properly dressed.
There is one thing Mad Men gets wrong. There are lots of scenes of men drinking in the office first thing in the morning. I don’t remember anyone ever pulling bottles out of the file drawers before noon. Well, on second thought, maybe not before eleven.
Sobel: What role did David Ogilvy and his agency play in the Creative Revolution?
Maas: In the 1960s, there were basically three schools of advertising. There was “old advertising,” epitomized by the Ted Bates agency and hammers pounding on an animated head for Anacin, stomach acid bursting into flames for Tums. When people talked about irritating ads, they generally meant this kind of hard sell commercial.
Then there was the Doyle Dane Bernbach style, the new school. They avoided the usual hyperbole and didn’t take the products too seriously. In fact, they sometimes poked fun at them.
It’s hard to understand now how shocking these ads were. Avis admitting that its brand was only Number Two, Volkswagen calling its car a "Bug,” Benson & Hedges touting the disadvantages of its longer cigarette. Many DDB alumni, like Mary Wells and George Lois, left the home ship to start successful agencies of their own.
David Ogilvy was a school unto himself. A cultured Englishman who had attended Oxford, he thought that most advertising insulted the intelligence of consumers. “The housewife is not a moron,” he famously wrote. “She is your wife.” He believed in long copy, ads packed with facts and bragged about using 3,242 words in an ad for the World Wildlife Fund.
David told us to give our brands a “first-class ticket,” and did just that with advertising for Rolls-Royce and Steuben Glass. He believed in illustrations with story appeal and put his agency on the map with the man in the eye patch for Hathaway Shirts. I think his most lasting gift to the advertising world was proving the important of market research.
Sobel: How has the advertising business changed? How has the creative content changed, for better or worse?
Maas: The ever-increasing importance of digital means that the advertising world is a lot more egalitarian. The kid who just graduated from college last week knows as much — or more — about technology than the wisest old sage.
One bad thing, of course, is the shrinking world of ad agencies due to mergers and acquisitions. The other downside is that clients are not as loyal as they used to be. In the old days, when a campaign started to wear out, the client would tell the agency to start thinking about a new campaign.
Today, the client is just as likely to start thinking about a new agency. This means that creative people today are a lot more insecure, a lot more scared. And scared people don’t produce great advertising.
Sobel: How has the status of women changed?
Maas: At the height of the Women’s Movement, a cigarette was created just for women. The slogan for Virginia Slims was “You’ve come a long way, baby.” My counter-slogan for today is: “But you haven’t come as far as you think.”
When I was doing research in preparation for writing Mad Women, I talked to over 100 women. Some of them had been working mothers in the 1960s, some were working mothers today.
The women from the Mad Men era all felt guilty. One after another, they said: “I wasn’t a very good mother. I wasn’t a very good wife. I wasn’t even as good at my job as I wanted to be. I was so torn.”
Amazingly, when I speak with working mothers of today, they say exactly the same thing. They are guilt-ridden because, in trying to do so many jobs at once, they are not doing any one of them with excellence.
They agree that husbands these days are trying to be more helpful, but when the chips are down, they ask, who stays home with a sick child? It is not usually dad.
Women have to learn that we cannot have it all, at least not at the same time. We have to raise our children to understand that sometimes we will miss the ballet recital or the soccer game.
And make our bosses understand that sometimes we will give husband and children priority over our jobs. We must learn to hand over responsibilities for housekeeping and even child rearing.
Sobel: Out of the thousands of advertising agencies in the United States today, how come only three percent of them have women as creative directors?
Maas: Well, I don’t think it is some Machiavellian plot men have devised to keep women in our place. Women, especially working moms, are opting out of the top jobs.
They tell me that they would rather be the well-respected, well-paid second-in-commands. They don’t want to be the one who has to come in on weekends and stay until midnight, the one who has to fire half the creative department if you lose a client. But don’t give up too soon.
Take a shot at the top. You just may like it there.
Title image by Michael Leu/all rights reserved.