Q&A: Jane Maas, the Real-Life Peggy Olson

Jane Maas has been called the real-life Peggy Olson, although for that statement to be entirely true, Peggy will have to end up as president of a major advertising agency by the end of her career. Like Olson, Maas started as a copywriter; she rose through the ranks at the famed Madison Avenue firm Ogilvy & Mather to become creative director and agency officer, finally leaving in the '70s to become vice-president at another agency, then president of a third in the '80s.

Maas has published several books about advertising over the years, but it's her new memoir, Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond, that's been generating all kinds of recent buzz. In the book, Maas shares what it was really like in the era, not just at an advertising agency, but as a working mother. Was there as much sex at work as there is in the show? More, Maas says. Was there as much sexism? Much, much more.

Maas is now 80, and she's bringing her insights on life and advertising to town this Thursday. She's a delightful conversationalist with an easy laugh, and she clearly loves telling stories. Fans of the show—or of good advertising—won't want to miss it.

What is one thing that people think is true about Mad Men that isn't at all?

That we drank from 9 in the morning until midnight. I think in every episode someone walks into the office, first thing in the morning, and pours a drink. I never, in all my years in advertising, saw that happen. People did go out for three-martini lunches, but the women didn't really, although that may have been as much about dieting as anything. The men would go out every day, and we would maybe join them once a week. We women brown-bagged it at our desks, from copywriters to executives. … The other thing is that we had more fun and joy and love of each other than is being exhibited on Mad Men. There was a deep brotherhood between us. … We thought we were inventing advertising. And in a way, we were.

You were a working mother at a time, and in a career, where that was a rarity. That must have been quite a challenge.

It was. The women whose children went to school with mine would look down their noses at me. They thought I was a really terrible mother. And the men, the men I worked with and other men, they thought I must be married to a bum who couldn't provide for me. … Luckily I was married to an ex-Marine who was used to standing up for himself, and he thought my career was terrific and supported it, and that made an enormous difference. … By the way, Michael proposed to me on the outskirts of Knoxville—did you know that?

No, really? Wow.

Yes, we were driving back from two weeks in Mexico, after he had left the Marines in San Diego, and we spent the night outside of Knoxville in a lovely lodge on a lake. … We were out in a canoe on the lake, and Michael asked me if I would marry him when we got back to New York. … I stood up in the canoe to say, "I would love to!" and of course I fell overboard. But I didn't drown or anything, and we got married two weeks later in New York.

That's a wonderful story. So you're really well-known for your "I Love New York" campaign, of course, but is there another campaign you worked on that's one of your favorites that no one really associates you with?

I especially enjoyed working with Patricia Neal.

She's from Knoxville!

Oh that's right! I had forgotten that. But Pat and I—we worked for five years on the Maxim coffee campaign and became lifelong dear friends. I miss her every day.

How do you think advertising agencies have changed since the era in which you worked in them—except, of course, for probably a little less drinking?

I think the advertising agencies are scared, and scared people never really do great work. There's really no long-term relationship between agencies and client anymore, no 25-year, 40-year relationships. The clients move on to other agencies too easily. … So I think agencies are trying to do things to please the clients instead of trying to do great work.

Do you think it's easier to be a woman in advertising now, or is it still pretty much a boy's club?

I think it's easier to be a woman in advertising because it's easier to be a woman in business. But I don't think it's any easier to be a working mother now than it was when I started at Ogilvy in 1964. Working mothers still have to choose between their families and work, and they make the decisions to go see their kids play soccer or take their daughters to ballet, and that's the death knell for a promotion. I think women need to set much tougher priorities, and tell their husbands and tell their children, "Sorry, I can't make it to the soccer game or the ballet recital." And do whatever it takes—working late, working on weekends—to get ahead. But really, I don't think we're programmed that way. I think we really don't want to be the top dog. I think we don't really want to be where the buck stops. … I think the only way it's ever going to change is if women change their own priorities, and I'm not sure that's ever going to happen.