Before Mad Men: Women Pioneers on Madison Ave

“Mad Men” captured the 1960’s golden age of advertising: jet-setting lifestyles, Martini lunches and old boys networks (packaged for today’s audience). Underpinning the glamour and cigarette smoking–account teams, strategists and creatives toiled on the stories that shaped the iconic brands of today. While the executive class was (and still is) dominated by men, advertising enabled women to carve out careers and independence like never before.

©TIME 1948–Newell-Emmett Covergirl

©LIFE 1948–Newell-Emmett Covergirl

In 1948, LIFE Magazine ran a cover story about a new phenomenon in America–the career girl. Beating over 1,000 hopefuls for the article, 23 y/o Gwyned Filling was propelled into celebrity status in a 12-page photo essay: “Career Girl: Her Life and Problems.” Before Mad Men, before Sex in the City, the exposé created an instant sensation–at the time it was controversial partly for the intimate photography capturing a single girl in the big city.

Her job: Advertising Copywriter. Her agency: Newell-Emmett.

©LIFE 1948: Career Girl, Copywriting Is Never Easy

©LIFE 1948: Career Girl, Copywriting Is Never Easy

“The story got publicity because I was breaking into a man’s business when there weren’t very many women it. I was breaking barriers, as they say. Women were nurses, teachers, secretaries … they weren’t in a competitive field and I was. It was unusual and it was interesting. That’s why Life wanted to do the story–that was the whole idea.” GWYNED FILLING (Chicago Tribune)

It’s remarkable how Gwyned’s post-war life story mirrors many of the challenges of modern-day women: juggling work, responsibilities and romance. What’s also interesting is that the creative process, captured in the photographs, is very much alive in today’s agency world.


©1926 Newell-Emmett Chesterfield Billboard

©1926 Newell-Emmett Chesterfield Billboard

Beyond LIFE and “career girls”, the Newell-Emmett agency championed provocative marketing. In 1926 N-E made advertising history with Chesterfield’s billboard: “Blow some my way.” Its headline caused outrage with an “innocent woman being seduced by the evils of nicotine” (Advertising in America, Goodrum/Dalrymple). The devilish effect was long-lasting, opening up a valuable new consumer segment–WOMEN.

©Newell-Emmett: Self Promotion
©Newell-Emmett: Self Promotion

In the 1940’s Newell-Emmett also bucked clients’ myopic consumer perceptions–which were focused on upper-middle class stereotypes. Instead, N-E implied that audiences could be found in “grey herds of houses…down by the railroad tracks” (Advertising The American Dream…Marchland). I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall of that presentation.


Two years after the LIFE article, Newell-Emmett was reorganized to become Cunningham and Walsh. The agency opened with billings of $26.4 million, which ranked it No.15 among U.S. agencies. Billings grew to $370 million over its 37-year history.

From its doors many advertising greats were launched: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” for Anderson Clayton Foods’ Chiffon margarine; “Let your fingers do the walking” for AT&T Corp.’s Yellow Pages; “Tastes as good as its name” for Old Milwaukee beer from Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co.

Like Newell-Emmett before them, Cunningham & Walsh also thought differently about its audience. It believed in the power of market research to underpin creativity. In the late 1940s and ’50s, its Videotown USA survey examined the emerging usage of TV. Later its Women in the Workforce survey stayed abreast of 1980’s trends.

A leader in championing the :30 second spot in the 1960’s, C & W lobbied for TV networks to allow back-to-back commercials from different clients. Previously, expensive 60-second commercials prohibited lower budget brands from participating in TV.


©Rachel Newell: Robert R. Newell, Chairman Cunningham & Walsh

©Rachel Newell: Robert R. Newell, Chairman Cunningham & Walsh

One of the things that set Cunningham and Walsh apart was their emphasis on mentorship – and fostering a strong internal creative culture. Many of the senior management stayed with the company for over 25 years. My Grandfather was one of them.

In the 1920’s Robert R. Newell started work as a copywriter at his uncle’s agency (Newell-Emmett). After the restructure to Cunningham & Walsh he became Copy Chief for several years, then Director of Creative Services until 1955 when he turned Executive Vice President. Other roles he played at C&W included Director of Client Services (I must get it from him) and Chairman of the Board. He gained the nickname “The Hatchet Man of Madison Avenue”–hopefully coined for a ruthless intolerance of time wasters, rather than poor copywriting.

Robert R. Newell was a true Mad Man of Madison Ave – cocktails and golf played high on his social calendar. A heavy career smoker, he died of a heart attack in 1977.

While my own advertising story is less iconic, I often turn to his background for inspiration and wonder what it would have been like to have worked by his side.

Retrospective: Gwyned Filling

LIFE Article: The Private Life of Gwyned Filling

One response to “Before Mad Men: Women Pioneers on Madison Ave

  1. Do you have any information on a female copywriter named Harriet. Don’t remember her last name but I believe her father ran or owned an agency in the 60s Harriet was good friend and worked with Tony Palladino who was a big art director at that time and in large demand.

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