Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Adventures In Advertising: What Really Went On During A Big Budget Shoot In The Seventies

This is a wonderful advertising story about a six week shoot.  It is very much about working hard, playing hard and solving problems.  These kind of adventures just don’t happen anymore which is what makes this story worth sharing. 

I worked at the old Kenyon & Eckhardt (which became part of FCB and subsequently Interpublic).  We handled Helena Rubinstein Cosmetics (no longer in the U.S.), which was a well-known and major brand.  We had hired Katherine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives) as spokesperson.  The client, along with about eight agency people – two writers, two art directors, a producer, a casting person, the account lead (me) and a junior account person – went for a six week “shoot”, both print and television. It was to be a full year’s work.  It took place in and around Los Angeles.  Ms Ross determined the length of the shoot. 

Ms. Ross was a major star in those days and she signed the contract reluctantly, not sure she really wanted to be a spokesperson; she actually rarely wore makeup. But she agreed to do it and she was gorgeous.   She insisted that her significant other, Conrad Hall (Oscar winning cinematographer) be the cameraman, both for TV and print. We did not object since Connie had a background in commercials. There was also a director and the usual crews for television and print. 

We booked into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and had a contest to see who could rent the most absurd car.  There were, of course, Mercedes and Rolls, there was a Jaguar and then there was me – I rented a Volkswagen Beetle because I knew that everyone else would get exotic cars. The client marketing director was also in on it and an MG sports car.  I won the contest, but I can’t remember the prize, but it was ridiculous and inexpensive.  It was fun and helped the whole group bond.  By the end of the second day, everyone returned their car and got a normal rental.  Because I was the senior account person on the shoot, I had a lovely suite so we could have meetings in it. (Imagine today being able to book a suite at that kind of hotel.)

We spent the first week prepping Katherine and Conrad, going over the scripts as well as scouting many locations.  Then the shoot began.  The first week was an easy, fun week with lots of good restaurants and a decent amount of time at the pool.

Katherine Ross broke the cardinal rule of shoots and insisted we shoot as many commercials and print ads as possible in her Malibu home, despite Connie Hall’s admonition to her not to do it.  We agreed because it was convenient for her and saved us a lot of time and money on location travels and location rentals.  Every morning at about 6 or 7AM we would drive to Malibu and join the dozens of production people who invaded her home.  The first day, when she saw all the people in her home, her furniture moved and all the cables and lights inside, she actually cried.  Conrad calmed her down; he was also clear in telling her that he had warned her. We offered to find other locations but she said no.  The shoot in her home covered a year’s worth of commercials – probably eight or nine spots in different locations; we even rented extra furniture. The home part lasted for three weeks, at least.  We would shoot for twelve hours and then return to Beverly Hills.  I think the thing she hated most was the catering truck parked near her house and the crew eating food on her grounds, which were right on the beach in Malibu.

We worked very long hours and it was hard work.  But we also played very hard.

At the end of every shoot day, despite being exhausted, we would clean up and go for a dinner at a famous restaurant.  There was no Zagat in those days, but we ate well and often expensively. During the six weeks we were there, we got to all the good restaurants  – The Brown Derby, Scandia, Perino’s, Chasen’s, Lawry’s, even the Playboy Club – you get the point.  On weekend’s we would go to Ships for breakfast in Westwood (Ships had toasters on every table, which made it fun).  All those places (except Lowry’s) are gone now, but the memories remain (all of those places can be Googled).

On the weekends we all did different things – often paid for by the production company. (I am sure it was built into their bid) It included at least two people going to Catalina Island, many went to Disney, Knotts Berry Farm, San Diego and other hijinks.  The client was a willing participant.  Money was never an issue at all.  I think I flew home for the weekend once or twice, because I had small children.

There was lots of drinking and other vices.  But there was also a lot of bonding.  As a result, we all worked together very well.  Everyone participated in ideas and suggestions.

Once during the shoot, I had to do a one day turnaround back to New York to handle an issue with another account I ran; I took the red eye home and returned the next evening.  We flew first class in those days.  I even had something called an airline credit card which was good to buy tickets on most airlines; the bill went right to the agency.  That is typical of how account people operated in those days.

One of the best memories I have is when we were shooting a print ad someplace way out in the Valley at a home with a swimming pool (I think it was for waterproof lipstick and Katherine Ross was to demo the Rubinstein waterproof product). The reason we shot in the Valley was because it was January or February and we rented a pool in Beverly Hills, but when we checked it out the day before, they had not cleaned the pool so it was unusable.  The location we found at the last minute was about forty minutes from Beverly Hills so we had to drive first to Malibu and then to the meet up place and then 45 minutes to the Valley.  Katherine insisted on riding in the Winnebago, which was her changing room and refuge which was rented, per her contract. It turned out to be a bad idea. Because there were so many people and cars, we agreed to meet someplace in Beverly Hills.

When we met up with Katherine in the Winnebago, the entire caravan of cars (at least a dozen) followed the Winnebago up through Mulholland Drive, which is very twisty.  The Winnebago driver was a lunatic and drove way too fast.  I was in the second car and I remember seeing Katherine’s horrified face looking out of the small back window, as her driver careened down the road.  She was looking out the back window of the Winnebago with horror on her face as if to beg for help to slow the driver down.  For anyone who knows Mulholland drive, it is narrow and and it was impossible to pass the Winnebago to get in front to slow the driver down.  There were no cell phones in those days.  At any rate, the drive took 45 minutes, including a short drive into the Valley on the 405.  When we arrived at our destination, she stepped out of the van, was ashen and gasping for fresh air.  After about a minute, she took one look around and whoopsed.  We cancelled that day’s shoot and I drove her home.    Looking back at that day it was awful for Katherine Ross, but it was actually a very funny incident.  I am sure we spent a bunch of time that day at the Beverly Wilshire pool but it took two days looking or a more convenient location that had to be appropriate for both a Hollywood star and the product.)
When the shoot was over, all of us, including Katherine Ross and Conrad Hall went to a well-known Italian restaurant for dinner to celebrate.  I don’t think she had much fun, but she was a good sport.  I do know that she confessed that she was glad the shoot was over. I don’t remember how much the dinner was, but it was picked up by the production company and had to cost several thousand dollars, expensive now, but a fortune then.

The shoot was successful and everyone worked their tails off.  Most of us went back to the office to edit, but as soon as the editing was done and the print ads selected, almost everyone took a week off to recover.  Imagine doing that today.

Everyone in advertising has their own stories of insanity on shoots that took place in the seventies and eighties.
Those were different days, but these kinds of experiences are what kept the group bonded, the work great and the people committed to their agencies and their businesses.  Advertising could be really fun in those days.

I would love to hear your stories.


  1. I don’t have a captivating story like that, Paul, but I do remember my first shoot as an account executive on Myers’s Rum after five years as a media planner. The lucky bastards on the last shoot went to Virgin Gorda for a week. The only travel I got to enjoy was a cab ride to a photography studio on Park Avenue South.

    This was a ‘product as hero’ magazine campaign shoot, just a hand holding a cocktail made with Myers’s. Two things struck me. First, how boring it was. There was nothing for someone of my lowly status to do. I sure wasn’t in a position to give the photographer or creative director, an agency veteran and SVP, any instructions.

    Secondly the expense…and waste. The shot showed just a few inches of the model’s jacket sleeve. So the creative team bought three or four $2,000 sports jackets. One of the cocktails featured a single orange slice perched on the glass rim. Apparently, that required a BUSHEL of oranges on set. This made my head spin…

    Long after the shoot was completed, guess who had to defend the expenses to the product manager?

    1. Ed, my wife was a wardrobe stylist. She told me that she was often instructed to buy expensive wardrobe so that the agency people (and often a complicit client) could take it home at the end of the shoot. She thought it was a disgrace. I alluded to this in my September 18 post about the causes of the diminishment of the creative department. There were many abuses.

  2. "She told me that she was often instructed to buy expensive wardrobe so that the agency people (and often a complicit client) could take it home at the end of the shoot."

    Commonplace, in my experience. In fact, in advance of every casting meeting, one of my clients would always remind me: "Make sure you bring the comp cards."

  3. Literally my second day as an Assistant AE was a :15 TV shoot. I was so excited: here was going to be the glamour! We were shooting at a school uptown, and it was the longest, most boring 12 hours of my life. I quickly learned that most shoots are primarily hurry up and wait.

    I did however have a few wonderful memorable shoots in my career. We spent 10 days in Iceland shooting for a pharmaceutical product. When the weather didn't cooperate for the final big outdoor day, we had 2 days off to play. Got to go to the famous hot springs, went horseback riding, to Vik (famous for woolens), to the famous waterfalls. It was the middle of summer so the sun never set.

    We brought 6 NYC actors with us and hired 4 people in Iceland, and spent all the meals, etc. with the talent.

    Lots of LA shoots where we got to stay at first class hotels and eat at famous restaurants next to celebs like Gene Simmons and others.

    I never got to fly first class (even to Budapest!) but always had great accommodations and meals.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

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