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30th Anniversary Issue / Jerry Della Femina: (M)Adman

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I came from a poor family in Coney Island. I learned to write by reading the Post. This was my education. I had a learning disability, so I didn’t get a chance to go to school. I was a messenger and I saw these people on Madison Avenue with their feet up on the desk, and I thought, That’s a good job.

I came into advertising in 1961. I had been turned down for jobs on the Ford account in the late fifties as “not their type.” If it hadn’t been for Bill Bernbach, I would now be sitting in some luncheonette, continuing my life as a messenger. Grey Advertising and Doyle Dane Bernbach opened it up. They brought in a whole group of hot young creative people, Jewish and Italian. The Jews were all copywriters, Italians were all art directors. I broke the mold. The first Italian copywriter.

Actually, I was hard-core unemployable. I could never really work for anybody -- and so in 1967 I started my own agency and became, as my assistant told me, a publicity slut. I became far better known than I should have been. I was the first advertising person who people could identify with. I write a book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor. It’s out three weeks, and they tell me it’s dead. The next morning, I do the Today show and I have nothing to lose. So I lose it. I just go crazy. The book makes the best-seller list, which is all I wanted in my life.

Eventually, I sold the agency to the English for a lot more than it was worth. I did all right, but it was not the way to leave the advertising business, to take the money and run. So I want to come back, but in the meantime I’ve got to do something. So I go to East Hampton and start the restaurants. Eight months later, someone from Newsweek is sitting in my restaurant, calls me over, and says, “I love this food; I want to give you my account.” I’ve got the Newsweek account, and I start putting it back together.

I’m dealing with kids in their twenties now. My job is to be as immature as they are. I hear too many people screaming and crying about what a terrible business it’s become. That’s because they’re not in it any more. Or if they’re in it, they’re not as important as they were. It’s a different generation now. Most of the people in advertising now -- mention Bill Bernbach to them, they don’t know. It’s really silly to believe that ten days after you leave the business, anyone is going to care about you. I am a temporary amusement.

Interviewed by Michael Gross


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