Ginny Bahr, JWT’s longest-serving employee, has been walking the ad agency’s Madison Avenue and Lexington Avenue halls for 63 years — 57 of them in high heels.
“JWT used to have a dress code where you had to wear a skirt,” Bahr told Business Insider in 2012 over a cup of decaf in JWT’s sprawling cafeteria in its New York headquarters. “I’ve been here for 60 years, and three years ago I wore my first pair of pants to work.”
Although broken metatarsals from almost six decades of wearing pumps has slowed her gait, Bahr (who takes the phrase “a lady never reveals her age” seriously) presses on enthusiastically in her career.
First day at work
Bahr’s first day of work as a secretary pre-dated the “Mad Men” era of advertising. (She had never heard of the show until her niece asked for “Mad Men” DVDs for Christmas). Bahr began typing correspondences for an executive in the PR department on Dec. 17, 1951. “I had just finished business school across the street and wanted an income before Christmas,” she said.
Since then, she has worked in almost every department and on every account, including Ford, Pan Am, Rolex, and Shell Oil.
Oh, and former JWT president Stanley Resor threw her the yellow rose in his lapel twice.
“I always got the men, which was very nice,” she said.
Sex in the office
Call her naive, but Bahr — who blushes at questions about sex in the office, a popular inquiry since people have realised she’s a real live Mad Woman — states emphatically that “all that stuff went on without my knowing it,” and then, trailing off, “maybe it happened on the trips to Chicago … “
Sex and advertising went hand in hand during the 1950s and on through the era of free love. Sources told BI about a hotel rented by the hour near Young & Rubicam in the ’60s that was a revolving door of Y&R employees during long lunch breaks.
Jerry Della Femina’s agency had a frat house mentality, going so far as to hold a sex contest at the end of every year in which employees went to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant to vote on the person they wanted to sleep with. The winning couple got a weekend at the Plaza Hotel. Second place was rewarded with one night at the Plaza, and third got a romantic evening on supervisor Ron Travisano’s office couch. (This contest went on for 15 years).
JWT, however, had a less raucous vibe. Jane Maas, who was a prominent copywriter at Ogilvy during the 60s, told BI that the rumour on Madison Avenue was that Helen Lansdowne Resor, a JWT advertising exec and creative force to be reckoned with, took all of the doors off the offices to prevent inappropriate canoodling. Resor also happened to be married to the agency’s president.
Bahr said she didn’t realise people had office affairs until the 1990s, when she was already into her 60s. “Just because they were married doesn’t mean they were pure,” she now realises.
Instead of having inappropriate dalliances, Bahr, who never married, was active in JWT’s now-disbanded choir, chaired its blood drive, and knitted with “the girls” in the old building’s cafeteria, which served $US3 hot meals — about the cost of the Starbucks coffee that she drank with BI.
Some stereotypes did hold. Whenever representatives from Lark cigarettes, a client, came in, committees would put packages of the product around the office, which would become even more smoke-filled than usual.
Bahr has experienced the evolution of the advertising industry: most bosses now sit in open areas with the rest of the staff; secretaries are now executive assistants; and female copywriters (who used to wear “fancy hats and gloves to stand apart from the secretaries”) are now more prevalent.
“We were of a different class”
Now an expense report processor, Bahr has outlasted most colleagues from the early part of her career, although she still gets to work on the Johnson & Johnson account to see familiar faces.
When Bahr walked from the cafeteria back to her desk, she stopped to greet young colleagues passing by.
“There are always so many new people here,” she said. “You get emails that all these new people get hired and you never see who they are — it’s different from how it was.”
Bahr looks back fondly on the warmer and more intimate “Mad Men” era, even though she was not aware of its more salacious underbelly at the time.
“I think it must have been those time buyers!” Bahr speculated. “Or maybe the media people were more ‘active’.”
But in her mind, the secretaries were pure. “We were of a different class, I think,” she said.