On the real Madison Avenue in the '50s, Phyllis Robinson was a pioneer.
By Ann Cooper
In an ad business historically dominated by men, Phyllis Robinson, who joined Doyle Dane Bernbach on the day it opened—June 1, 1949—is one of the giants of the industry. As DDB's copy chief, she was one of the few women working in the creative side of advertising in an era when most were secretaries. Robinson became famous for her witty, urbane campaigns for Ohrbachs, Levy's bread and Polaroid, which gained her entry into the Copywriter's and One Club's Halls of Fame. She also helped define the entire "me generation" with her liberating spin on selling Clairol ("It lets me be me,").
Even as a child, Robinson, who was born in 1921, felt drawn towards advertising. "My high school math teacher asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, 'Go into advertising,'" says Robinson. "Her eyebrows shot up, because it was absolutely unthinkable then. So I told her a long story about how, as a kid, I lived in a 3rd Avenue apartment next to a tenement house on whose wall was an enormous painted sign for Castoria (a laxative syrup for children). It said, "Children cry for it." And that was the first ad message I ever saw."
Robinson also remembers driving around with her father and reading the Burma Shave signs (a shaving cream famous for its advertising gimmick of posting humorous rhyming poems on sequential highways). She was fascinated. Decades later she called the company and acquired one of the signs. "I was living in the country at the time. I put it up in my field. It's sort of a badge, a symbol of my earlier life."
Having graduated from Barnard in 1942, Robinson's first job was writing pamphlets. "I worked at some Federal project. I wrote pamphlets for people who lived in housing projects and didn't know what the hell to do with their lives.”
Robinson joined Grey Advertising in 1944 and started writing fashion promotion. She immediately hit it off with the creative director, one Bill Bernbach. "Year after year at the Christmas party, Bill would put one arm around my waist and wave the other at the crowd and say proudly, 'Our children.' He was terrific and paternalistic."
In the clubby, male-dominated world of Madison Ave, as depicted in the AMC television series Mad Men, there were only a handful of women who made it. They included Bernice Fitzgibbon, former ad manager at Marshall Field's, Macy's and Gimbel's. "She did a wonderful job of building the image of Gimbel's and selling a lot of merchandise. I was so impressed by the fact that a woman had been able to rise to that position, and that kind of lit a fire in me,"says Robinson. "Then there was Margaret Fishback, who was ad manager of Macy's when I was a girl. She later came to work for us. But it was not only in the retail store field that women were successful, there were a few in the agency business—Jean Rindlaub (who spent 33 years at BBDO, retiring in 1962) among others."
When Bernbach, along with Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane, opened up shop at 350 Madison Avenue, Robinson was in on the ground floor. "I remember telling an aunt of mine that there was going to be a new agency and I was going with them and I was going to start with these very smart people. She was so impressed, she said, 'Do you have an office?' and her smart-ass niece said, 'No, I'm gonna work out of a phone booth.'" Bernbach teamed her with art director Bob Gage, helping to perfect Bernbach's new copywriter/art director "team"concept and the rest, as they say, is history.
Robinson began hiring other women creatives. "The first copywriter I hired was a woman, mostly because I was very new as a boss, and I think I felt safest in beginning with another woman. I was a little timid at the beginning about supervising men,"she once told a Japanese magazine. (But despite her reticence, she still went on to preside over the likes of George Lois and Julian Koenig, hardly shy wallflower types.) "And then after the staff developed, it was about half and half.”
In the early days in the agency business, women worked on baby products or foods. "They were considered the experts in the home and in the kitchen,"says Robinson. "And that was a woman copywriter's way into the business. I got in through fashion and cosmetics, but I quickly left behind the idea that this was all I could do, because I was looking for new challenges. And I worked on many different products. So the field broadened."
Among those she hired was Mary Wells, another Madison Avenue icon. In her memoir A Big Life (in Advertising) Wells writes of her first meeting with Robinson: "She was like the lead angel in an opera, tall, handsome, strong, brimming with energy and humor and purpose, an honest-to-goodness adult, she swept me into her office and turned her intelligence on me like a beam from outer space. Seeing how overimpressed I was, she eased down into the role of a friend and did all she could to help me with the interview. "Other female DDB alumni included Paula Green, who worked on Avis and later went on to start her own agency, and copywriter Lore Lionel Parker. But while Robinson hired women, they were all copywriters. "Art directors were all men,"she says. Nor were there any women in the account side. "It would be very unlikely that women became account directors, that was seen as a man's job,"she says.
As for the constant smoking, Robinson says, "Everyone smoked. I smoked for a short period of time and my husband bought me a beautiful cigarette holder which I used to call my affectation. Someone would light up and I'd say, 'Wait a minute, I have to take out my affectation.'"
And when it came to drinking, "I have no recollection of anyone ever touching a drop in the office,"she says. "Out of the office was a different story. I knew a few guys who would practically stagger back into the office. We had one account director who was a serious drinker and I'd occasionally have lunch with him and have a sip or two.”
Robinson, who still lives in Manhattan, says one of the things that delighted and astonished her most about DDB was, "I could hire anyone I pleased. Even big shots." Though when it comes to pioneers, there can be fewer, or bigger, shots than Phyllis Robinson herself.
See our interview with Elisabeth Moss, who plays the fictional Phyllis Robinson in Mad Men.