For seven seasons, millions have watched the AMC hit “Mad Men,” but Ronald Frear doesn’t need the TV show to tell him about New York advertising agencies of the 1960s or the hard-living, power-hungry men who worked there.
That’s because the State College man lived in that world. Frear, 84, worked on Madison Avenue, (“Mad Ave.,” as he calls it,) for paper-products giant Kimberly-Clark Corp. from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. A Penn State graduate, Frear moved up the ranks of the company and concluded his career there as director of sales and marketing near Atlanta, after Kimberly-Clark closed its New York office.
Q: What was your job when you started with Kimberly-Clark?
A: I started off as an account executive, and that was concentrating mostly on marketing. That’s when I would get involved with the ad agencies and so forth.
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Q: How would that work?
A: If we wanted to launch a product or make an improved product, or we wanted to change the packaging or things like that, we always went through an agency. (Kimberly-Clark) had a couple different agencies they worked with and it depended on the size of the product. … It used to be there were the “big four” (ad agencies) and they handled the Procter & Gambles and the Kimberly-Clarks and all that.
Q: What was it like to sit in on the pitches and be involved in that process?
A: I learned something working with ad agencies: Good agencies never listen to you. Never. And don’t try to tell them what to do. First of all, they take great pride in their reputation. ... They speak right up to you, you might have seen that (in “Mad Men”). You see them talking to clients and sometimes they’ll just say, “Your product stinks.” They’ll come right out and say it. The agencies do a lot — they get market research, they do product specialities and so forth, so they really encompass marketing. And they are tough. Don’t try to tell them what to do, they just won’t listen to you.
Q: Do you watch the show?
A: I used to watch it regularly. I used to laugh at some of the things.
Q: Like what?
A: Like hiring a guy because his father was a big executive with a potential customer, and if you want to get the customer, you have to hire this guy. There was a lot of nepotism going on. ... And then there’s the entertaining. There was a time when I could have gone out for lunch everyday in the best restaurants in New York. The agencies had huge expense accounts, expenses were never a thing with them. ... For instance, there would be word out on the street, “Kimberly-Clark is going to launch a new product.” Boy, I’ll tell you, the fur would fly. These competitors would be after that like you wouldn’t believe.
Q: What about some of the big egos?
A: They were all big egos. They’re there usually because they control a couple of accounts. They actually become a part of the business. If you go out and you line up a Procter & Gamble, you’ll become a chief executive officer because you’re an important guy. The whole nutshell is getting accounts. These guys would kill for the accounts. So yes, the egos were there. And there was a little bit of hanky-panky going on — somebody and their secretary or so forth, but that happened an awful lot in New York.
Q: Is there anything when you watch the show that makes you think, ‘Oh, it wasn’t like that at all?’
A: Yeah, the drinking. They all had bars in their offices and at five o’clock they’d offer you a drink. Or if you were going to lunch they’d offer you a drink, but these guys (on “Mad Men”), they drink all the time. I didn’t see that much — but maybe they did it when I wasn’t there (laughs).
Q: How about the smoking? It’s almost hard to imagine the smoking culture that’s depicted in the show.
A: I was a big smoker, I smoked in the office. When I got into my sales, I did some business with Philip Morris and Salem and so forth, so it was pretty hard to call on them and not smoke because they’d throw packs of cigarettes at you. I never had to buy cigarettes. I started to smoke back when I was in college, and smoking in those days, that was a thing you did, just like drinking.
Q: When you watch the show does it bring back memories?
A: Oh yeah. I’ll say, “I remember that” or “Yeah we did that — it didn’t work, guys!” And I remember the staff meetings; I did sit in a couple of them because they told me to stick around. At those meetings, with their own staff, they’d argue over something and they’d actually end up almost punching each other. I mean, it was vicious. One guy would have been working on a project and it would be ready to go and another guy would come up and criticize most of it. They’d argue back and forth but then they’d walk out and go have a drink.
Q: When you moved to Atlanta, did you miss Madison Avenue?
A: You better believe it. I missed it terribly. When I got off the bus or the train (from home in New Jersey), I could just feel the vibration. You get off the train, and it’s just hustle and bustle. And the lunches and the dinners ... I entertained so much, there were times when I had seen every Broadway show in New York. I used to have lunch at the 21 Club and all of the famous restaurants and so forth. ... It was really exciting.