Tales of a gonzo Mad Ave. man

Feb 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

“Here it comes again.”
Jon Mandel is staring out the window of his 27th floor office at the small white single-engine plane that is flying low, circling and circling near the glass and steel towers of midtown. It buzzes the Citicorp skyscraper. In post-Sept. 11 Manhattan, this is a disquieting sight.
So Mr. Mandel calls 911. After one more tight circuit, the plane, as suddenly as it appeared, vanishes into the northwestern sky. “Where were we?” he says. “Oh yes, morals.”
Having done his civic duty to keep Manhattan safe, Mr. Mandel-before setting the record straight about that deliciously dishy, oh-so-scandalous Hot Tub Story-proceeds to finish telling an inquisitive visitor about the careful campaign to bring hard-liquor advertising to network television.
On the face of it, it is most fitting that Mr. Mandel, co-managing director and chief negotiating officer of MediaCom, is the Madison Avenue executive most closely associated with NBC’s watershed decision to accept advertising for “distilled spirits,” as his client Guinness-UDV and the other purveyors of vodka, scotch, and bourbon et al prefer to call the hard stuff.
After all, just as surely as there is a branch of the fourth estate known as gonzo journalism, so too is there a segment of the advertising business that is, shall we say, somewhat less than buttoned down. And Mr. Mandel, who is to advertising what Hunter S. Thompson is to journalism, is currently its most famous practitioner.
When NBC made its announcement last December that it would accept spirits ads, few realized the months-long effort Mr. Mandel spearheaded behind the scenes to make the deal possible. First and foremost was massaging Washington lawmakers so NBC wouldn’t take a major hit from them when the announcement was made.
Fight the good fight
“We’ve done a lot of work in Congress,” he says, specifying all the briefings and input on The Issue that our public servants have had and, for the most part, little Congressional opposition has emerged. Yes, Mr. Mandel concedes, “There are a few senators and congressmen that just emotionally believe that this stuff shouldn’t be allowed, which is ironic because if it’s legal to sell, it should be legal to market.”
Mr. Mandel, it is well known on the Avenue and Broadcast Row both, is not one to shrink from commentary, just as he’s not one to back down from an argument or to mask his opinions in bafflegab or politesse. So of the congressional opponents of distilled spirits advertising, he says straight out: “They tend to be from places that have a large beer contingent, so are they trying to protect America or the beer companies?”
Mr. Mandel believes that advertising works, and the corollary to that is that banning distilled-spirits ads locks in what he calls “share of mouth” for beer and wine advertisers. Plus, he says, hard-liquor ads have been airing since the mid-1990s on local cable, radio and local broadcast stations.
Currently, he says, liquor ads appear on over 500 television stations, 4,000 radio stations and on cable systems that cover more than 85 percent of the country. Now he says, “We’re running on a network, which is nothing, after all, but an amalgamation of all those stations we’ve been running on. All of a sudden it’s a problem?”
The problem, say many liquor-ad opponents, is the effect of those ads on the young and impressionable. Replies Mr. Mandel: “Forget morals. It’s just Marketing 101 that you wouldn’t sell whiskey to a 20-year-old. They don’t drink it, they won’t drink it; it’s not their palate.”
True, but not so long ago, for sophisticated denizens of Madison Avenue, even for the up-and-coming 20-somethings, the three-martini lunch was all but mandatory. When he was just 24 years old and only a few years out of Vassar, from which he’d graduated in the first co-ed class, Mr. Mandel was made the first head of the new network group at Grey Advertising. All his colleagues then were in their 50s, he recalls, and they all had favorite libations, such as see-throughs, which was what they called vodka martinis, and their own particular Manhattan hangouts, where they were assured of getting the best tables and the royal treatment. “Any negotiation at the end of the day is some kind of seduction,” Mr. Mandel says. “I got this reputation as a partier because I would drink with the grown-ups.”
That reputation persists and its glow extends to the 450 people at MediaCom who are the very ones that “tend to close” the annual upfront parties. “Because the people we tend to attract here are big personalities,” he says, “in a social situation, they are going to go to the edge.” And sometimes right over.
“I have done some things that I probably wouldn’t want my mother or my [teenage] daughter to know,” says Mr. Mandel. Though, he points out, “Some of these stories have a way of growing into urban legends.”
The Hot Tub Story is one.
Cut to …
The National Association of Television Program Executives conference in New Orleans in 1992.
It’s 2 a.m. in a Bourbon Street bar where the Starcom people have been drinking since they skipped out of the convention to get lunch. After someone there points out that Starcom has booked a triplex suite complete with a kitchen at the top of the Le Meridien hotel, someone else troops off to buy beignet mix. Starcom’s media director pays the bar band to pack up and provide the musical entertainment at the private soiree. Eventually, 50 or 60 people march down Bourbon Street, heading for the hotel. Says the media director to Mr. Mandel: “Every hotel has a house dick. This one’s worst nightmare is about to begin.”
Fade out … fade in.
In the Starcom penthouse suite there just happens to be a huge, bubbling hot tub. “What a great idea!” Mr. Mandel says to the rollicking assemblage. “We should all get in.” Which is just what he and one attractive young lady do.
They weren’t naked, he points out, underclothing was involved, and they were simply sipping wine and talking when …
“The door comes flying off the hinges! … All these people in chairs sit around the hot tub [watching]. And that turned into this story about all these things that were going on. They just weren’t.”
Well, not that particular thing anyway. Of course, John Muszynski did throw Mr. Mandel’s clothes out the window. But Mike Shaw rescued them, only to shove them right into the toilet. (Messrs. Muszynski and Shaw are now chief broadcast investment officer at Starcom and ad sales president at ABC, respectively.)
“I put on my pants and shirt, which are now soaking wet,” says Mr. Mandel. “I go down to the kitchen.”
Where there ensued a full-on food fight involving the beignet powder.
“I get covered in the stuff, and my clothes turn into papier-mache,” Mr. Mandel says. “It was a bizarre scene. It has since blown up into I was naked, I walked down Canal Street in my underwear … I had sex with the person in the hot tub … I’ve heard all kinds of versions.”
Which aren’t true, he says. But what is true is that the very next day, when Mr. Mandel offered to pay his share of any damage to the Starcom suite, he was told by the media director, “`Don’t worry. We plan for it, so we budget for it.’ So why am I the guy with the reputation instead of him?”
Telling it like it is
Not only is Mr. Mandel a candid man, he is generous in his praise for the people who have worked for him (many of whom are now in senior positions at networks and agencies), and fearless with his comments about senior media executives “with agendas,” as he puts it, whom most of his peers would fear to publicly dispute. For example, “Joey Abruzzese [president of ad sales] at CBS was saying when he wanted to defend me to Mel [Karmazin, Viacom’s chief operating officer] that I’m an equal opportunity basher.”
Mr. Mandel has led agency teams that have come up with startlingly clever innovations, including the brilliant ploy of adding commercials after the introduction of the players in the Super Bowl but before the kickoff, when absolutely everyone in America is riveted to
the TV, and the artistically avant-garde scheme to paint over Manhattan’s manhole covers with Pepsi Cola’s new logo (New York agreed, Pepsi did not). In conversations that touch on any number of sensitive subjects, he bristles only once, clearly displeased at being called a ladies’ man.
He is not a ladies’ man, he says with a steely glint, calling himself a “raging feminist” because of his Vassar education. “I think the reputation of ladies’ man is because I have always had a high percentage of women working for me. Most of my friends are women. After all, I did go to Vassar, so by definition all of my college friends are women. My best friend since third grade is a female violinist.”
Mr. Mandel ticks off a number of his industry firsts: first person to put a woman on a beer account, first person to put a woman on an automotive account, first person to have a woman as a VP of the national broadcast group, first person to give a woman who had just given birth a part-time work week. “So if that makes me a ladies’ man, then I’m kind of proud about that.”
More than one senior media executive who just happens to be female agrees with Mr. Mandel’s self-assessment. “When you think of what feminists are, they’re advocates of equality between the sexes,” says Lynn Picard, senior advertising sales executive at Lifetime Television, cable’s top-rated network for women. “Jon’s always been very supportive of women, especially on his team.”
But feminists are said to burn bras too, Ms. Picard says with a sly laugh. “I wonder what Jon has burned over the years. … We do `Intimate Portraits’ on Lifetime. Think of feminist week: You’ve got Gloria Steinem, Marlo Thomas, Jane Fonda. We should probably do an `Intimate Portrait’ of Mandel too.”
It’s a jibe worthy of Mr. Mandel, who on another occasion is happily introducing a curious acquaintance to his local hangout and his own favorite drink-icy vodka poured over pineapple chunks that have been marinated in vodka for one entire week. It is a deceptively potent cocktail, but Mr. Mandel, ever the ad man, can’t resist a playful spin. “It’s good and it’s good for you,” he says deadpan, “because it’s got vitamin C in it, and vodka comes from a grain, and you’re supposed to eat seven grains a day.”
Really? Another please, bartender.