Post #1 in a series of MarketCopywriter Blog posts on pioneering women copywriters.
“You always say, ‘If you don’t like what they’re saying about you, change the conversation.’” Peggy Olson, Mad Men
Mad Men, the AMC series about the 1960s ad industry, beamed into`American homes and hearts at exactly the right moment—just as our country roiled through the worst recession in history, massive unemployment, a divisive Middle Eastern war and threats of terrorism at home and abroad.
Never had Americans yearned so deeply for a golden past. Mad Men was the nostalgic scratch for this cultural itch.
But the show’s title is a misnomer. Because it wasn’t just men who built the US advertising industry. As Peggy Olson, Mad Men’s “girl copywriter,” proves, Madison Avenue owes a debt to its unsung women professionals. Peggy—and many more smart, ambitious “gals”—refused to accept the era’s status quo. Instead, they changed the (gender-bound) conversation.
With Ad Women, Sivulka fills us in on dozens of real-life Mad Women who influenced and engineered American advertising. We quickly learn that women have been major players in advertising since the industry’s birth in the 19th century.
Though invisible to the public—and to men with whom they worked—women played significant roles in all areas of the ad business, from account management to media brokering to art to copywriting.
Inspired by Ad Women, this post is the first in a series on pioneering advertising women. Today’s post sets the stage for Golden Era Mad Women, giving you background on the ad industry’s infancy.
You’ll learn about the huge opportunities open to American advertisers—men and women—over the industry’s first century. And you’ll discover the challenges women faced—and overcame—to grab those opportunities.
In future posts I’ll profile top Mad Women copywriters. Yes, their stories are fascinating—but I think you’ll find them more than historical footnotes. If you’re like me, you’ll find many of these women’s insights, innovations and ideas as useful to copywriters now as “back in the day.”
Want to learn more? Come journey back in time with me…
Stroll down Madison Avenue in 1870.
“How will you recompense me…?”
Fee negotiation is tough for anyone. Any time. It had to be a killer for Mathilde Weil, a new immigrant, fresh off the boat from Germany in 1870. But Weil was desperate. Soon after she arrived in America, her husband died, leaving her penniless.
The panicked young widow did translations and magazine writing before trying ad sales. Her first prospect—the owner of a toothpaste company—wouldn’t bite for Weil’s magazine. But he told her he’d buy space from another New York newspaper.
Knowing zilch about media buying, Weil pitched the newspaper’s powers-that-be. Somehow she brokered the deal—and the rest, as they say, is history: Weil went on to found MC Weil, one of New York’s first advertising agencies. She worked until her death in 1903 and left a considerable fortune behind.
Nineteenth century’s seat-of-the-pants ad industry
Our nation’s first ad agencies bore little resemblance to today’s media conglomerates or even to mid-century, sky-scraping shops like Mad Men‘s Sterling Cooper.
Nineteenth century ad professionals brokered media—and did little else. Agencies acted as middlemen between manufacturers eager to unload goods and publishers looking for extra revenue. No creative services were offered—and none needed: advertising was so basic that business owners put together ads themselves…
Post-Civil War boom years
But advertising services started to change after the Civil War when factories and businesses boomed. New fangled technologies, cutting-edge manufacturing and lightening-fast railroad transportation brought a flood of new products to eager customers.
As enterprises grew over the decades, ad agencies expanded to offer an array of account and creative services along with media sales.
Demand for these services, however, outstripped the supply of talented ad men available to agencies.
Women get a foot in the door at ad agencies
Reluctantly, ad agencies began accepting female workers. Women were ready, willing and able to do the work: Thanks to women’s suffrage, educational reform and the day’s enlightened social movements, a record number of women were finishing high school. And many were going on to college.
Women filled jobs in publishing and journalism—careers deemed appropriate for the gentle sex. Ad agencies poached these skilled workers, training women to adapt editorial skills in fashion, cooking, cosmetics, housewares and furniture for ad copywriting in the same niches.
By the turn of the century, women had quietly wedged their buttoned-up boots into the glass doors of Madison Avenue.
The business of femininity
Advertisers had long ago recognized a phenomenon: Women—not men—make most purchasing decisions. Housewives and mothers were responsible for the vast majority of clothing, beauty, household products and packaged goods sales. What they didn’t purchase directly—e.g., cars and real estate—women influenced through husbands, fathers, brothers and other male relatives.
Perceived to have unique insights into women’s hearts, minds and pocketbooks, women ad pros became indispensable.
“The service we offer is copy that is written from the women’s standpoint, by women, to women, that avoids a woman’s prejudice. Such copy is the best substitute for saleswomen,” noted MB Coffin of NYC’s Sherwood Advertising.
Working dames’ double standard
While the number of female office workers grew—from 10,000 in 1870 to 100,000 in 1900 to 200,000 in 1920—there was still a huge social stigma attached to middle class women who worked.
Ad women lacked leverage to challenge the status quo. Instead of busting biases, women copywriters created ads that reinforced gender stereotypes. So while Mad Women enjoyed the privilege of full-time careers, they wrote copy idealizing the “little woman” at home, extolling the virtues of housekeeping, child rearing, fashion and beauty.
Rosie the riveting ad writer
The Great Depression and World War II turned American life upside down. But the crises also provided incredible opportunities for working women. With men at war, all hands were needed on deck in factories and offices—and many of the hands were female.
Mad Women made advances in radio, the hot new medium, creating immensely popular soap operas with clever, tie-in advertising.
As the science of psychology gained acceptance, advertisers added persuasion techniques in messaging to create powerful new advertising tools. True to stereotype, ad executives saw women copywriters as uniquely suited to understand human dynamics, manipulate feelings and write emotional copy that targeted other women.
Advertising’s go-go Golden Era
After World War II, soldiers returned to families and workplaces. The country’s busy offices and humming factories were once more manned by men. Supported by the GI bill and a robust economy, the US middle class grew. Eager to forget the horrors of war, men and women focused on raising families, assimilating into the American mainstream and solidifying status through consumerism.
Along with America’s prosperous, popular culture, Madison Avenue burgeoned, expanding to cater to newly affluent consumers. As the industry consolidated, Mad Women played increasingly influential roles in advertising, creating some of the century’s most memorable—and lucrative—campaigns.
Want to meet real-life Mad Women?
Like to learn more about Mad Women copywriters? Come back for future MarketCopywriter Blog posts profiling:
Helen Landsdowne Resor, an acclaimed copywriter who introduced sex appeal into advertising—in the 1920s.
Erma Perham Proetz who pioneered an intriguing twist on content marketing using the red-hot new media of the day, radio.
Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, rock star of retail advertisers.
Shirley Polykoff, creator of Clairol’s “Does she . . . or doesn’t she?” campaign—an effort that increased Clairol sales by 413% over six years.
Mary Wells Lawrence, the chic and charismatic copywriter and creative director. Lawrence was the country’s highest paid ad executive in 1969—and founded the hugely successful NYC ad agency Wells Green.
Don’t miss a single Mad Women post
Peggy Olson photo courtesy of MyLifeInPlastic.com
Churchman photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Sanitol and Ivory photos courtesy of Duke University Libraries