My Della Femina Debut
“From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor.”
– Tagline suggested by Jerry Della Femina
for a prominent Japanese car company.
Yes, you read it right. This was what Jerry had suggested in a meeting full of top executives from Japan. Or so the legend goes. This shocking verbiage was also the name of Jerry’s best-selling, hilarious book. Equally provocative was the subhead, which read “Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising War.” It was a war. And I was in the trenches. Even though it was 1983, Della Femina, Travisano and Partners, the hallowed, revered Madison Avenue ad agency that birthed the Creative Revolution in the 60s, was still in full, uproarious swing.
Mad Men, step aside. Back away from your egos. This was the real deal. And my very first job as an ad copywriter.
I was fresh out of The Bubble, SMU in the Park Cities in Dallas, Texas, where I had been sheltered and coddled by a society and ecosystem that was a breeding ground for a big nest of WASPS.
And here I was, smack dab in the middle of the New York ad world working for a witty provocateur who also famously said, “Advertising was the most fun you could have with your clothes on.” Oh, and did we. In those days, we were allowed to smoke (#guilty) in our offices and cocktails were shaken and stirred for any reason, or no reason at all – I mean, who needed one? It was a par-tay waiting to happen. At any given moment. On any given day. It was a odd, endlessly exciting world, one unlike any other I had ever encountered. Actually, it was more like an adult playpen. Extended adolescence. But a place, nevertheless, where magic happened.
My colleagues sported exotic names like Frank DiGiacomo. Joe Della Femina. Phil Silvestri. Mark Yustein. And Karee Rubenstein. Lots of Italians and Jews – everyone dark and swarthy all around me. Then there was pale-faced me, Lisa Johnson, or Junior Miss, Miss Texas, and any of the other nicknames du jour they lovingly called me. In any event, there I was, Sue Vanilla (#white bread) trying to stay afloat amidst this colorful crew, daily standing back in awe watching them create killer ads effortlessly. To top it off, I was one of two female writers at this famous boys club. Despite the fact that I tried to dress the part of a New York copywriter by doing the whole Antique Boutique vintage thing, Della Femina was still a lot for this little Dallas girl with frosted blonde hair to take in.
I wasn’t good at what I did back then – no creative muscle to speak of. While I was good at puns, and was the ultimate punographer, ad concepts I just could not generate. I had gone to the School of Visual Arts and taken portfolio classes. I had cobbled together a “book, ” a model’s portfolio full of my speculative – “spec” – ads drawn on typing paper with Marks-a-lots. I got the job, which to me, was a miracle. But at this point, I was painfully slow and needed remedial help – I had no Concepting Legs. I could have used a walker.
In addition to “ideating” and “papering the walls with layouts,” as we used to say, the offices were always abuzz with lots of hollering and laughing and yucking it up – until 5 p.m., at which point on Fridays, it was time for a bit of liquid inspiration. The location: the bar in Frank’s office, where he had a little fridge full of wine and beer, as well as a small table with all kinds of other liquors and libations.
As the only Junior Copywriter in the bunch, I was chronically afraid to go into this gathering of seasoned pros – they had won every award you can name. (#Cannes, #One Show, #Clio) Though one afternoon, I had to venture in. After I had slaved away for hours coming up with just the right headline, I wanted to get my supervisor’s approval of it.
As I sucked up my courage to walk in, I approached Mark (#prince of a guy), and said, sheepishly, “Hi can I get you to look at this?” He smiled and said, “Lisa, this is cocktail hour. We’ll look at that tomorrow.” I need to add that Mark Yustein was an Ad God. As an art director, he was part of the team that came up with the famous line for Meow Mix, “Tastes so good, cats ask for by name”. He also partnered with several writers to pen the brilliant Blue Nun wine radio commercials featuring the inimitable banter between Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara.
I was surrounded by greatness. So it was only natural that during this time in my life, I was a bit more serious about the ad game – staying late nearly every night, honing my craft, puffing away on Marlboro Reds and having head-sized, heart-clogging pretzels with mustard for dinner.
One day I was rather distraught because the client had changed one of my headlines for a newspaper ad. I marched into Ron Travisano’s office simply beside myself. How could this have happened? What was the client THINKING?
Ron tried to calm me down, but I just wouldn’t have it. Finally he said, “Lisa, get a hold of yourself. People use these to line the bottom of their bird cages. Relax. This is only an ad.” Boy, did that hit me like a mack truck. WHAT? You can’t be serious. I was in this for blood – and awards! And an award I got with the help of Senior Writer, Rita Senders. A Clio Finalist, complete with an invitation to the ceremony at the Waldorf. I still have the menu from lunch that day and on it, a nice dime-sized stain of mustard vinaigrette.
Even though Jerry was the head guy, he was frequently out of the office, I’m sure, rustling up new business. I didn’t present work to him (thankfully), but one day, I had to. My bosses were out on a shoot. His assistant set up some time for me to see him. So in I went.
Nervous, fidgety, overly-apologetic – scared as a little church mouse – I was as I sat across from Epic Greatness in the form of Jerry Della Femina. Clad in his sleek Italian finery with the top of his iconic hairless head gleaming in the fluorescent lights above, he smiled, and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “Have a seat, my dear,” he kindly said to me.
We were working on an ad for the New York Times for First Boston, an investment bank. I struggled with what to say in the headline. I didn’t do math or numbers, much less banking. But I did come up with a nugget of an idea. So I presented it, we lobbed it back and forth a few times, then we birthed: “What every great banker needs is a great banker.”
Oh what a feeling! (cue the “Flashdance” anthem.)
I was titillated, energized, but also relieved that my meeting with him was over and I was no longer in his office. He was just too much for me in my meager 23 years of life and my yet-to-be-fully-developed frontal lobe.
The only other time I really got a good chance to see Jerry, other than when I saw him in Frank’s office deep into storyboards, was when he walked down the hallway one day playing the ukulele. It was joyous site to behold.
Another fun event was when the office was getting redecorated. For some reason after the walls had been stripped bare of wallpaper, we created a contest involving toilet paper rolls. Whoever could stack them up next to their doors in the most creative way got a prize, which I think was a hot dog.
But it wasn’t always so magical.
I was working on a radio spot for Six Flags Great Adventure, a :30 spot. Problem was, it was coming in at :40, according to the account guy. I took another pass at shortening it and thought it was fine. In the days before email, I would just put the copy that I typed on a typewriter (#fossil) in the chair of the designated AE (account executive.) Then he/she would read it and walk it back over to my office.
On my way to lunch, I dropped the radio copy off with the AE, sure I had nailed it. I can’t remember his name, so let’s call him Fred.
When I got back, what appeared at my door was an irritated, red-faced, spectacled Fred fiddling with his police/porn mustache and puffing on a cigarette with an inch-long ash. “Um, Lisa. This is not working. You’ve got exactly thirty minutes to make this thirty seconds,” at which point he hurled a stopwatch at me, narrowly missing my nose, skittering and clanging across my glass-topped desk, knocking over my pencil holder. He stood there, swaying to and fro like a buoy in the Connecticut Sound. I could smell him six feet away. Apparently, he had just returned from a 16 martini lunch.
After he staggered away, I burst into tears, then went into Mark’s office sniffling and trying to speak, barely able to eek out what happened. After I explained the situation, Mark was not happy. Fred got in big trouble. I hate to say it, but I was happy.
The other moments that stand out were the Christmas Party at the River Café in Brooklyn. The lights of Manhattan twinkled on the East River as we partied and danced the night away.
I also had the distinct privilege of working for Luke Sullivan who penned “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.” He was later inducted into the Copywriter Hall of Fame. I learned a tremendous amount about ad writing – and life – from him.
At one point, EST was The Big Thing. EST stood for Erhard Seminar Training. Everyone in the office was doing it. But I ended up declining. It was rumored that they locked you in an auditorium full of strangers for an entire couple of weekends and wouldn’t let you out to go to the bathroom or wear a watch, all the while pummeling you with data, shouting at you with depressing facts about humanity that eventually wore you down to a nub. Then on the last day, you were supposedly rid of all your painful childhood memories, limiting beliefs and were built back up. Made all new and pretty – rarin’ and ready to change the course of your life.
The last phenomenon around the office I remember was The Hunger Project. Sounds good, right? Like you’d be helping the world, right? Well, I went to a meeting after work one night along with some other folks from the agency. Jerry even went. During the evening, we were presented with staggering, heartbreaking facts about hunger along with sad faces of precious children. I wept through much of it.
I asked a good friend of mine to go with me that night, but the whole presentation was REALLY dragging on and on. Way too much information. About halfway through, we saw Jerry get up and leave. I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “He’s probably like, ‘Let’s get outta here. All this talk about hunger is making me hungry. I am dying for a big plate of spaghetti.’ ” We could hardly contain ourselves after that.
The sad truth about The Hunger Project was that while the overall purpose of the movement was admirable, they were criticized for using most of the money for educating the public about worldwide hunger rather than actually feeding people.
But after all of these kooky happenings, the most fun, most insane, most deliriously ZANY event at the agency was…
The Sex Contest.
No, it wasn’t a live sex show. But the vibe of the whole thing was deliciously wild and racy. Women voted for the man they’d most like to have sex with, and men voted for the women they’d most like to boink. The winning couple would be announced at a luncheon called The Secretaries Luncheon. The prize: a weekend at the Plaza. Beyond fabulous, right? But here’s the thing: each winner would not be getting their own room. The prize was one room…that the two lucky winners would share…to ostensibly get lucky. Second prize was one night at The Plaza. The third prize was a night on Ron Travisano’s office couch.
The day arrived for the luncheon and the announcement of the winning couple. We shut down at noon on Friday and all headed over to a Mexican restaurant on the Upper East Side – one that we had rented out for this soon-to-be-raucous party.
The afternoon was somewhat of a blur. All I remember is that after the winners were announced – they were both way too sexy for their shirts – the margaritas and funny cigarettes (#mary jane) started flowing. Secretaries were sitting on top of the laps of the wasted account guys as well as some handsy creative directors. I crawled out of there at some point, blotto and bleary-eyed, and went to bed for what may have been the entire weekend. Oh yeah. It was some party, the memory of which is both vague and achingly specific in my mind. Some things that happened there…I’ll never share.
Lots of stuff happened during my stint at Della Femina. But it was one of the best years of my professional life. I can honestly say it was a balls-to-the-wall year of true Mad Men revelry that glows and sings and Snap Crackle Pops in my memory.
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