Many of you don’t know that I am a second generation ad brat. My dad had a very successful ad agency, Lawrence C. Gumbinner (Lawrence was my uncle, my dad’s older brother). Subsequently, it merged with the New York office of North Advertising of Chicago to become Gumbinner-North. Interpublic bought them in the early seventies. In the late sixties, it was the twentieth largest agency in the world. It was started in 1927 and over the years there were many stories I heard over the dining room table.
None of those stories were better than those about Florence St. George. She was hired in the mid-fifties as I recall and was one of the first female account executives at any agency, anywhere.. There were other women who achieved more fame and notoriety, like Franchellie “Frankie” Cadwell, but most of them were writers. Florence preceded Frankie by a bunch of years. And she was an account person, no easy task in those days.
Florence was smart, a great advertising person and a trail blazer. She had a tough exterior, but could be very feminine – when it worked for her. She exuded executive. Her stories were fascinating.
I don’t know much about her history, but Florence was the Director of Advertising of Hartz Mountain pet foods. Somehow, she ended up running that account and others at my dad’s agency. To my knowledge, she was, as far as I know, the first female account executive. If you put some of the characters in Mad Men into skirts, they would be Florence. And while in Mad Men, Peggy the female writer, is often the victim, Florence was never a victim of anything.
One of my favorite stories about Florence St. George was what she had to go through when she had to entertain. The stories in Mad Men about dining and drinking are not an exaggeration. But for a woman account person it was different and much tougher. In those days, women did not take men out, not in business, not their personal lives. Never. But, after all, Florence was an account executive and was expected to entertain her clients, all of whom were men.
For those of you who are Mad Men fans, you see them out wining and dining clients. That was very much the style of those days. Clients actually wanted to visit their agencies - it got them out of their offices, brought them to New York (or wherever), and they knew that they would be taken out well. It was, as I said, expected.
In the late fifties and early sixties, credit cards barely existed. Fine restaurants all had "house" charges for their best customers. When Florence joined the Gumbinner Agency she visited all the local good restaurants and opened a house charge account. She instructed the restaurants never to present a bill to her table. Rather, they should add 20% tip and simply bill her company. At the fine restaurants of those days it was not an issue; all of them did it. The agency paid her bills to them immediately. (In that manner, it was a much kinder, gentler time.)
However, for a woman to take out a man, even a client, wasn’t without its problems. Clients, obviously all men, were actually embarrassed by having a woman pick up the tab. Florence told me that some clients initially refused to dine with her (all did, eventually), others actually argued with the maitre d’ about the bill. If the restaurants demurred, she never went back. But most restaurants honored her wishes despite the protestations of her male guests. Florence could drink martini’s with the best of them and she prevailed and earned her client’s respect.
It was that way even when she went out for drinks with the boys from the office after work. She was never expected to pay, even if the subject was legitimately business. So anywhere she went she had to have charge privileges. That was long before it was acceptable for women to go “Dutch” with a man. I don’t think that started happening until well into the women’s movement of the seventies.
So, here's to Florence. For her, it was really very much like Mad Women.