Elly McDonald


Mad Men I have known


The most flagrantly exhibitionist piece I will ever write

When the TV series Mad Men was at its peak popularity, people kept telling me I should watch it.

“You’d love it,” they’d say. “It’s so you.”

I would smile tightly and think, why would I watch a fictionalised account of ad agency culture in the ‘60s? I lived ad agencies in the ‘90s.

This is the third of a trio of kiss’n’tell blog posts about my sexcapades from my 30s, the decade I took up residence in London’s ad agency “village”.

Worry not. I won’t get (too) explicit. In fact I plan to keep this one short, mostly because sex in London ad agencies was kind of Groundhog Day. [Plan failed.]

I possibly should have known better. When I was 18 and newly-arrived in Sydney (from Melbourne, Australia, where I’d spent my teens), the creative director of a trendy ad agency asked me out to dinner. We ate at a Vietnamese restaurant on Oxford Street. It’s still there, apparently, now billing itself as a Chinese restaurant, still called Tin Hong.

I had two favourite dishes at Tin Hong: a duck dish, and the Vietnamese Baby Quail in Lemon Sauce. On this occasion I ordered the quail.

My date was coked up, sweating and hyper like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. I didn’t recognise that was what was going on – I was still too naïve for that. I just thought he was an agitated type.

Agitated-type dates make me nervous. Actually, all dates make me nervous. But this guy was freaking me out. At a certain point as I raised a baby quail dripping lemon sauce to my lips, using chopsticks, I lost focus momentarily and the quail dropped down my cleavage. It was lodged in my bra. I had to reach in and fish it out. I had lemon sauce seeping through my emerald green silk shirt and my date’s eyes were spinning in his head.

He offered to take my shirt home to have it dry-cleaned for me. He insisted. That would have involved removing said shirt. It would have involved seeing him again. It was a surreal episode and I should have taken note: advertising agency guys?  Steer clear.

Within a few short years I was on a date again with an ad agency partner, another oh so hip, international award-winning creative boutique. I thought we were doing job interviews. It wasn’t till a few dates in that he announced his interest in me was personal, not professional.

Well of course. Lust in ad agencies is by definition unprofessional. RFOL.

I had a few more dating encounters with ad agency personnel before I made the move to London. I don’t know why I kept encountering them. Karma. One told me I was shallow and materialistic when I said I didn’t fancy dating a man with a messy house. (Curiously, many years later an ad agency creative told me I was shallow and materialistic when I said I didn’t care for my then-sex partner’s house being like a display home, no trace on display of anything personal. My then sex-partner was COO – Chief Operating Officer – of global operations for a household name advertising agencies brand. He was so seldom home his home wasn’t home. And yeah, I was shallow and materialistic.)

How did I get to London and London’s Adland?

I took a plane. No, really. For my 31stbirthday, I booked a 12-week trip around Western Europe, Britain, Ireland and coastal USA, courtesy of a financial windfall (another story altogether). On the first flight leg out, from Sydney to Rome, the week of my birthday, I was seated next to THE most attractive, charming man I’d ever met. He was so charming and so attractive I was fantasising knee-tremblers in the toilets before we’d even reached Singapore. I was mentally choreographing the gymnastics required to join the Mile High Club.

I was certain my friends had got together and hired a gigolo as my birthday gift.

This man turned out to work in London advertising. He knew the London ad man whose Merc had famously been torched in recent race riots, Brixton or Birmingham, I don’t recall.

I wanted to see him again. I did see him again. The Basil Street Hotel, Knightsbridge, during the Chelsea Flower Show 1992. Possibly my favourite night, ever. (Guests in adjacent rooms complained.)

That night he admitted his girlfriend was temporarily in Barcelona, attending the Barcelona Olympics. She worked in London advertising, too. It was clear where my destiny lay – not with him, and I never met her, but in the hub of the Village. (I did meet him a few more times. By then I was in agency senior marketing roles. We met at conferences and seminars. I made a point of draping myself seductively over him, to demonstrate my sales technique, to him and his friends; and I kneeled by his knees and gazed seductively up, fingertips gently hovering above his thigh. That worked – his boss, observing from across a hotel conference foyer, subsequently interviewed me for jobs based on the technique I demonstrated then. He laughed that I was tough enough to cope with his boys.)

When I first entered London ad agencies, as an admin temp, I was immediately struck – in my first ascending ride in an agency lift – by how supernaturally good-looking ad folks were. Seriously. All advertising agency agency CEOs and chairmen were demi-gods. There was one whose eyes were emeralds. One with sapphire eyes.

Somehow – not interesting, not a story for now – I found myself working on an industrywide project to promote client spend with advertising and media agencies during the early ‘90s recession. I supported CEOs, chairmen, managing directors and marketing directors of advertising agencies and senior clients, divided into eight working groups (subcommittees) and one steering committee. I came to know everyone senior in London advertising 1993-1999. I had fun flirting. I fell in love with tailored coats, and sharp minds.

My agency colleagues told me the social life and sexual partying was nothing on ad agencies in the 1980s. I believed them. But there was still a lot of lunching and laughing. And lurching.

I met someone I really liked, early on. He really liked me too. For a few years we lunched together regularly. He told me we could lunch on weekends, not just week days. But this was someone who told me in our first ever conversation that meeting his wife was the best day of his life. So an affair was out of the question. (Do I regret that? Yes. Absolutely. But it was the right choice.)

I met someone else I really liked, who liked me too. We floated around in a romantic haze for some months. But he was married also, and he loved his wife and kids. So an affair was not on. (Do I regret that? Desperately. But still: the right choice.)

I put up with clients, colleagues and contacts making passes at me almost constantly. Sometimes I succumbed. Hey, it was lonely.

By and large, the ad guys were not nice. There was a notorious group of senior agency and client men who hunted as a pack. I wore rings on my left hand ring finger to deflect them.

There was an ad agency chairman whose job interview technique with women was to buy them dinner and/or take them dancing – he really did do that for hiring purposes, though in my case, no. In my case it was definitely sex. I must say he was fun. I liked his private men’s club.

We met seated next to each other at an industry function dinner, alongside another agency chairman, this one a man who’d been married four times. He collected prestige cars, as well. He said replacing cars was cheaper than replacing women. He was not alone among his peers in scoring four marriages and counting. (The record for number of times married by an ad agency chairman I met was I think five. Five marriages, his current marriage being with a director at his agency.)

There was another man acclaimed as an alpha womaniser. He was single. Just what I needed. We had a liaison that spanned a few years. I didn’t like him much, and I didn’t like myself for being with him. He’d been married once. It broke up on the honeymoon. She left him for a “minor pop star”. I can only imagine – based on grounded guesses – why a bride might jump from the frying pan to the fire.

He was married again in the last years I knew him, but this time the wife lived in New York. She worked in advertising. She divorced him within 18 months.

In retrospect, I was perhaps unfair to that man. I stayed overnights at his home. He visited me at my home. He took me out evenings to fancy restaurants. He thought I looked sexy in the decidedly un-cute uniform I was required to wear in my last job in London. He offered to father my child when I thought I must have a child or die.

Best of all, when we found ourselves both in Beijing at the same time, he invited me to move from my middle-range tourist group travel hotel to his suite in his hotel, then the newest and most glamorous hotel in Beijing.

There was a lounge room overlooking the city with floor to ceiling glass windows. The view with the city lights at night was amazing. [Trigger warning: stop reading now if sensitive.] We tried sex against a couch back and the couch rolled over. Crouching tiger, hidden dragon.

Possibly second favourite funny stuff night of my life.

(There’s competition, from, of all things, a pop star. No really I AM NOT GOING TO WRITE ABOUT THAT)


Me at about when I met the dancing, dining, men’s club lover – 1997. With couch.

Author: Elly McDonald

Australian-born, with English mother, has lived in several Australian cities and in London. Travelled widely. Way way back when, published widely as a poet and short story writer. For the first 20 years of my working life I worked as an entertainment journalist, publicist, PR consultant and in advertising and media agencies. In the second 20 years, I worked in marketing roles at non-profit organisations then retrained as a teacher, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees. Also did miserable McJobs, and a long, happy stint at an art gallery.

2 thoughts on “Mad Men I have known

  1. I enjoyed reading your escapades of earlier life. You have certainly traveled widely and had broad experience in areas of life and business that I regard as crazy but probably necessary as “the universe is unfolding as it should”. I love the way you can look back with humour and no recrimination. Helps me look back with less cringe. Good on you. BTW I’m not missing the footy, a break is good after so many years. Same with drinking. I have been AF 130 days and it’s just a good break after so many years of lifestyle with alcohol. Love your stories and thoughts, I hope they continue.


    • Hi Carey, I had an attack of discretion and changed the settings on that one to Private 😉 It surely is strange times. I hope you stay upbeat and well throughout. Very best to you xx


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