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Jane Maas, trailblazing woman in advertising’s era of ‘Mad Men,’ dies at 86

Jane Maas, one of the first women to reach the top ranks of the advertising industry, died Nov. 16 at 86.
Jane Maas, one of the first women to reach the top ranks of the advertising industry, died Nov. 16 at 86. (Family photo)

No finance, no cars, no liquor. Those were among the advertising accounts off-limits to female copywriters when Jane Maas was navigating the boozy, smoke-filled offices of New York’s Madison Avenue in the 1960s.

Male bosses “figured we didn’t know how to balance our checkbooks,” she recalled years later. “They figured we didn’t know how to drive a car.” And alcohol, she added, was “what they used to seduce us, so that was clearly out.” Products more suitable for women, according to the prevailing view of the day, included dish soap and toilet cleaner.

Mrs. Maas, perhaps best known for midwifing the “I Love New York” campaign in the 1970s, died Nov. 16 at 86. She became one of the first women to reach the top ranks of the advertising industry in the era dramatized in “Mad Men,” Matthew Weiner’s long-running cable TV series.

Advertising Age, the industry trade publication, included Mrs. Maas among the 100 most influential women in advertising and described her as a “real-life Peggy Olson,” the “Mad Men” character portrayed by Elisabeth Moss who starts the show as a secretary and becomes one of her firm’s creative minds.

Mrs. Maas, who recalled witnessing even more drinking, more sex and more sexism in her office places than “Mad Men” depicted, had a similarly dramatic trajectory. Ever clad in high heels, a hat and a brassiere that she said made her breasts into “javelins,” she trekked across the most venerable names in New York advertising.

She started out at Ogilvy & Mather in the 1960s, rising from junior copywriter to creative director. In 1976, she became senior vice president at Wells, Rich, Greene, where she worked on the New York tourism campaign that featured graphic designer Milton Glaser’s iconic heart. It was credited with helping to revive the city after its near miss with bankruptcy and its worsening reputation for crime.

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“Lots of men say they are the father of ‘I Love New York,’ ” she once wrote. “But I am its only mother.”

In 1982, her appointment as president of Muller Jordan Weiss made her one of the first women to lead a major New York advertising firm. In 1989, she became president of the New York office of Earle Palmer Brown, where she retired as chairwoman.

Mrs. Maas chronicled her career in two books. The first, “Adventures of an Advertising Woman” (1986), was an apparent riposte to “Confessions of an Advertising Man” (1963) by David Ogilvy, the founder of the firm where she got her start. The second, “Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond” (2012), was the spicier of Mrs. Maas’s two accounts.

If the boss “wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask what mattered more: your self-respect or your career,” she wrote, recalling the injustices to which women were subjected, and the indignities to which some submitted. The worst offenders among the men were senior executives, she reported, because they had offices outfitted with doors and couches.

As for the drinking, she recalled that her colleagues did not indulge in shots in the office during the morning — one of the few departures from reality that she found in “Mad Men.” She did, however, encounter an executive who once steered her toward Scotch instead of Perrier because the Scotch, he said, was cheaper.

Women, she recalled, were expected to quit their jobs when they became pregnant. And the sight of a woman in a position of authority rarely failed to surprise. At a meeting with American Express, the client assumed she was a secretary.

Mrs. Maas acknowledged a certain irony to her career: As she pursued the professional success made possible by the growing feminist movement, she contributed to advertisements that perpetuated certain sexist stereotypes. Among those ads was one for Maxim coffee, in which the actress Patricia Neal declared that “I use Maxim because I think it’s excellent. But — more important — my husband thinks so, too.”

“I look at that commercial,” Mrs. Maas told Advertising Age years later, and think, “Did I really write that drivel?”

Jane Anne Brown was born in Jersey City on March 14, 1932. Her father was a school principal, and her mother was a homemaker. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1953 from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., and a master’s degree in English literature from Cornell University in 1955.

She began her career after working as an assistant on the television show “Name That Tune,” where she first became acquainted with the power of advertising.

Her early clients at Ogilvy & Mather included Dove soap, Johnson Wax cleaning products and Drano drain cleaner. At Wells, Rich, Greene, she worked on accounts including Procter & Gamble in addition to the “I Love New York” campaign, which lives on decades later in souvenir T-shirts and mugs.

Mrs. Maas later struck out on her own as the personal advertising representative for Leona Helmsley, the New York hotel magnate known as the “Queen of Mean.”

“Don’t believe everything you’ve read” about her, Mrs. Maas warned. “She was worse than that.” She described her time with Helmsley, who was convicted of federal income-tax evasion after boasting that “only the little people pay taxes,” as “the most miserable, abject, cravenly seven months I’ve had in my whole life.”

Mrs. Maas did consulting work into her 80s. Her professional books, besides her memoirs, include the influential guide “How to Advertise” (1976), written with her colleague Kenneth Roman, who later served as chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather.

Her more personal writings included a novel, “The Christmas Angel” (2013), and the book “Christmas in Wales: A Homecoming” (1994) about her efforts to trace her family history, which she co-authored with her husband, Michael Maas.

He died in 2002 after more than four decades of marriage. Survivors include two children, Kate Maas and Jennifer Maas Jones, both of Charleston, S.C.; a sister; and a granddaughter. Kate Maas said that her mother died at her home in Mount Pleasant, S.C., and that the cause was lung cancer.

Mrs. Maas recalled a degree of deception within the advertising world, particularly for working mothers struggling to balance work and children in a business environment that had no tolerance for competing demands. When a child was sick or the nanny failed to show, a woman was better off saying a migraine had kept her home from work.

But men also engaged in artifice, Mrs. Maas recalled. One of her colleagues was known for his ability to down four or five martinis in succession. “Don’t give me away,” he pleaded of her, when she once sipped from his glass, only to find that it contained water.

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