Pittsburgh's Real '60s "Mad Men"

A look back at Pittsburgh's advertising community during the "Mad Men" era of the 1960s.

By the dawn of the 1960s, Pittsburgh was already rising to high noon in Renaissance I. “City’s Biggest Ad Agency Moving to Gateway No. 4” was announced atop an article in the Dec. 18 Pittsburgh Press, which noted that No. 4 was “the Golden Triangle’s newest office building.” A photo accompanying this story about Ketchum, MacLeod & Grove showed George Ketchum, the firm’s president and one of its founders, posed near a window with a panorama of the Point, its park potential still a work-in-progress.

In a wry touch, the first episode of TV series “Mad Men,” set in the fictional Manhattan advertising agency Sterling Cooper in the early 1960s, received the nicotine-inspired title of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Although the reality and moniker of “Smoky City” was being banished here, Pittsburgh, like the Manhattan of “Mad Men,” was still a place where the cigarette reigned.

“Everyone smoked,” remembers Ann McFadden, a Squirrel Hill resident who began a life in advertising in 1962 as a copywriter in her native Australia and whose long career included Ketchum in Pittsburgh. “I lived ‘Mad Men,’” laughs McFadden, now creative director emeritus of Pittsburgh-based advertising agency Brunner Inc.

Back then, Pittsburgh was still the Steel City and the nation’s third-largest corporate headquarters, which made it a nexus for advertising agencies (a City Directory of the time lists more than 70).

“For its size, Pittsburgh was a major advertising town,” McFadden reflects. She also goes on to note that the city had a legacy of visionary advertising thinking, citing H.J. Heinz and his “57” concept and George Westinghouse’s innovations.

In 1960, the Pittsburgh skyline was dominated by the weather-predicting lighted ziggurat atop the Gulf Tower, the city’s tallest. That was a subtle but potent advertisement in itself, back before companies attached their names to the skyscrapers where they resided. Closer to earth, billboards, some quite imaginative, vied for your attention, and a section of Grant Street that later became the U.S. Steel Building plaza functioned like a mini Times Square. Neon was another way to catch the eye. (Anyone remember the gaggle of charming geese near the Bloomfield Bridge that made you want to buy Drake’s Bread?)

You also would have seen bread ads in newspapers, which were a major medium for print advertising. The Press edition of Dec. 18, 1960, was packed with ads for Gimbels, Horne’s and Kaufmann’s department stores, May-Stern’s, Kelly & Cohen, Dimling’s Candy, Wilkens Jewelry Co. and a great white way of movie theaters. And there were typewriter ads (an Olympia was $69.50 at Standard Typewriter on Liberty Avenue). As for electronic advertising media—radio had been around for decades, and Pittsburghers also were pitched their products in black-and-white between shows on a handful of local television stations. Cable TV? Computers? Internet? The stuff of science fiction.

The pages of that Dec. 18 Press also include news about the opening of a new Shadyside art gallery, Portrait and Design Associates. Complementing the article is a photo showing the owners displaying a Henry Koerner portrait of the president-elect, John F. Kennedy.

Although some of the fun of perusing that old newspaper and watching “Mad Men” is time-traveling back to that bygone era of half a century ago with a measure of sentimental affection, the zeitgeist of the early 1960s did not embrace nostalgia. It celebrated the new. Mayor Joseph Barr’s Pittsburgh was redefining its architectural identity with, not only the aforementioned Gateway Center complex, but also with the Hilton Hotel, the Civic Arena and more mid-century wonders. “Urban renewal” was a quixotic force that had not yet acquired the taint it bears today. Historic preservation was an exotic idea.

Although people back in the early 1960s likely viewed their times as modern, sophisticated and progressive, and the times were a changin’, racism, sexism and homophobia—like smoking—also were signs of the times. When everyone still wore a hat, a 1959 issue of Town & County magazine saluting the city’s bicentennial had this skyline on its cover: “Pittsburgh: A Man’s Town.”

Although critical analysis might differ in assessing the accuracy or exaggeration of the corporate culture depicted at Sterling Cooper in the early 1960s, Ann McFadden says some of what she’s seen on “Mad Men” rings true, including the glass ceiling for women and “three- and four-martini lunches.” The character of Peggy Olson on the TV show, however, she says embodies “the problems of four people—not everything happened to one person,” she points out.

But McFadden also shares happy memories from the early years of her advertising career. “It was a fun, crazy era…with larger-than-life characters.” She fondly cites offices rather than cubicles, more leisurely lunch hours, leaving work at 5 p.m. to gather at the Pewter Mug in Market Square with colleagues. “At 7 p.m. people are still at their desks,” she says of today.

But her love of the advertising biz, her “great passion,” still endures, McFadden says. Among her current endeavors, she’s co-chairman of the Pittsburgh Advertising Federation’s Legacy Project, which will preserve, honor and showcase the history and significant achievements of the Pittsburgh advertising and marketing community. A Hall of Fame is also planned.

George Ketchum would most likely be pleased. So might “Mad Men’s” Don Draper.

Categories: Community Feature