03/01/2012 10:05 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jane Maas On The Real Mad Men And Women Of Madison Avenue

On March 25, the much-awaited fifth season of "Mad Men" will pick up where it left off, and the posh sexual politics of Don Draper's advertising world will once again come to life. What will happen to newly engaged Don? Or to ambitious and unacknowledged Peggy? Or to feisty Joan, who's pregnant with Sterling's baby, unbeknownst to her husband? Moreover, how close is this deliciously debauched world to what really happened back in the 60s?

In the new book "Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond," Jane Maas, who's been called "the real life Peggy Olson," brings us a personal portrait of what it was really like to work in the Madison Avenue advertising world of the time -- not only as a businesswoman but as a mother and wife. Maas began her career at Ogilvy and Mather as a copywriter in 1964, eventually became its creative director and, later, moved onto Wells Rich Greene as its Senior Vice President. She's a Matrix Award winner, has been named Advertising Woman of the Year, and is the brains behind many memorable ad campaigns.

I recently caught up with the lively Maas to discuss her book and the mad world of advertising.

I have to start simply by asking: Are you a fan of "Mad Men"?

Should I be? I think it's grown on me. It gets a lot of things right and it gets some things wrong. One of the big things it gets wrong is that it doesn't reflect the passion we had for trying to do great advertising. It doesn't reflect the fun we had, either. My God, we had fun back in the 60s and the 70s! We also really liked and respected each other. All of this throwing people under the bus is bothering to me.

Those were the heydays of advertising.

Oh yes, it was just the beginning of the enormous impact that advertising started to have; when people began to watch TV and lean forward when the commercials came on. How many times have you heard people say, "I thought the ads were more interesting than the show"? That's not true anymore.

What makes the advertising industry conducive to the kind of promiscuous sexuality that's depicted in Mad Men and described in your book? What makes it sexier than any other industry?

As an industry, advertising has always been fascinating to consumers. Look at all the big city newspapers that have long had advertising columns that are very well-read by general consumers. People love to peek behind the scenes. And advertising people have always been kind of glamorous. They're kind of the next echelon to film and TV people.

Back when you were in advertising, the term 'sexual harassment' hadn't been invented. And there was far more inequity between men and women in the workplace, as "Mad Men" makes brilliantly clear.

I think that we women were extremely passive. A woman copywriter who worked next to me went to our boss, the creative director, and complained that the guy who was sitting in the next office was making twice what we were making. She said, "I think I'm churning out more and better copywriting than he is." And the boss said, "But he's a man. He has a wife and kids to support." And she said, "Oh. I didn't think of it that way." And she didn't bring it up again. I think we accepted this as the status quo. We accepted working in this sort of ghetto.

On the other side of that coin, you describe women who were more than happy to seduce their way to the top. There's an anecdote about a woman who openly copped to getting promoted after she slept with her boss.

Yes. She worked for me as an assistant -- we used to call them secretaries in those days -- and she desperately wanted to be a copywriter. So she left and went to another agency and was working as a secretary to the chairman, and he got her promoted to copywriter and he ultimately married her. And when I interviewed her for the book I said, "was there much sex in the office?" And she said, "Jane, how do you think I got Joe?" Joe is a pseudonym for her boss. She said this with a laugh, as if, hey, it was all fair.

These were the "Mad Women" who played whatever game was necessary, even if it involved sex -- which it often did -- and even if it still didn't give them equal footing or equal pay.

Yes. I think when you look at "Mad Men" -- Peggy Olson is very ambitious but she's not willing to say, "To hell with you guys, I'm outta here unless I get equal rights." She is still very passive-aggressive. I think for season five she's either going to have to get promoted into a much bigger job or else she's going to leave and become a creative director at another agency.

You write about how the advent of the pill made sex so much more delicious in the 60s. That was the beginning of using sex to sell product. And sex still sells.

Boy, does it ever. I think it's so basic. There are so many things you can trace back to pleasing the opposite sex. When I worked on Maxim coffee, our positioning was that this coffee tastes so great, your husband is going to love it and have a second cup. Well, replace "love it and have a second cup" with "love YOU and have a second cup and take you to bed because he likes your coffee so much... " Why did women want to give their men shirts without ring around the collar and floors without wax buildup and coffee that tasted great? I think it harkens back to the idea that your husband is going to love you more and sex will be better.

Speaking of husbands and wives, you write that a lot of the senior executives of your time gave more priority to their jobs than they did to their marriages. And when they came home late at night, their wives were already in bed exhausted from their own day's work with the kids. Everyone was too exhausted for sex. But how much has that really changed -- if at all?

The last chapter of my book is "Have You Really Come Such a Long Way Baby?" And I say no, I don't think we really have come such a long way. When I interviewed women who were working mothers in the 60s, and then interviewed working mothers today -- senior vice presidents, executive vice-presidents -- I heard exactly the same words from them. They'd say, "You know, Jane, I'm really not a very good wife and I'm really not a very good mother, and I'm not really doing the best job that I could be doing because I'm so torn."

Working mothers had a lot of guilt then -- and they still do now. Did you feel guilty? You were a working mother with two kids.

I was very upfront in saying to myself -- my husband knew it and my children knew it -- that my job was priority number one, husband was priority number two, and children were priority number three. And they did get a lot less from me than I think I could have given them. That was the only thing that I felt really guilty about. I didn't feel guilty about writing supposedly sexist slices of life where women are doing stupid things. I didn't feel difficult guilty about a lot of other things. My children were the only thing I felt guilty about -- but not very.

There's an interesting anecdote about Shirley Polykoff who came up with the famous Clairol slogan, "Does she or doesn't she?" Before that campaign, only "hussies" colored their hair. Ten years after that campaign, more than 50 percent of women colored their hair. Now it's got to be close to 99 percent. How has advertising targeting older women changed?

Older women are now a much more sought-after market these days. No actress over 35 ever appeared in any commercials in the sixties. The women who appeared in all of our commercials debating endlessly about ring around the collar and wax buildup in the corners of your floor were all in their 20s. These days, we see older women in advertising, but it's all about erasing wrinkles.

Who's coming up with those anti-aging ads for older women -- men or women?

There is a gender imbalance. I heard a statistic that less than 5 percent of the creative directors in advertising are women.

Beyond sex, what other themes are you beholden to in your book?

I'm going to be 80 in March and I am having a wonderful romance. One of the subtexts here is the vibrancy of women who are aging, which doesn't come out in the book deliberately, but it's there as a spine. And the other spine is what you already asked -- the working mother guilt thing that hasn't changed.

Tell me more about your wonderful romance and the vibrancy of older women. When did you meet your new love interest?

After my husband died, 10 years ago. I fell head over heels in love.

So you met this man when you were in your 70s? How did that happen?

Yes, I was in my 70s. And it's a romantic and sexual relationship. I'm just so lucky to have this wonderful romance descend on me with this wonderful, romantic, literate man who reads poetry to me all the time. Nine years ago I went back to my 50th reunion at Bucknell University. I learned that a professor of mine was widowed and was still living in the area. I had a huge crush on him when I was a freshman but he was already married. When I heard that he was widowed, I called him and asked if he'd be my escort at a dinner that was being held, and he said he would be delighted. And he picked me up where I was staying and we took one look at each other, and that was it.

What's one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you were growing up?

That everything is going to be okay.

Check out the trailer released by AMC with highlights from the two-hour season premiere of "Mad Men," scheduled for March 25.