Mad Memoirs: Ad Men through the pages

Forget industry awards, the real symbol of prestige in adland is writing a book on how to succeed in a notoriously fickle trade. Sam Delaney gets the hard sell

Bill Bernbach – the founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach, the godfather of modern advertising and the original Mad Man – once said: "I warn you against believing that advertising is a science.

Rules are what the artist breaks. The memorable never emerged from a formula." And he was right, which is why the slew of would-be advertising textbooks claiming to contain the elusive magic formula for creativity are largely useless.

The next best thing? An ad memoir by someone who at least managed to find their own formula for consistent success in this strange and unpredictable industry. The first, and perhaps best known, was David Ogilvy's Confessions of An Advertising Man, which was described by Sir Alan Parker as, "The Little Red Book of Mao for my Sixties' ad generation". The latest is the ad legend John Hegarty's On Advertising, out today. The good ones don't bother you with pseudo-science but do contain a wealth of brilliant anecdotes plus the odd insight that might come in handy to the wannabe ad executive.

At the least, they can be like an episode of Mad Men – without the bits where Don goes home and argues with Betty. Here are five of the best.

'A Big Life (In Advertising)' by Mary Wells Lawrence

One woman takes on the male-dominated ad industry of the 1960s – and wins

In 1966, as the star creative of Jack Tinker and Partners, Mary Wells pitched for the role of agency president.

Seeing that its success was built largely on her talent, the agency didn't want to lose her.

The firm offered her a $1m (£610,000) deal but said that the industry wasn't ready for a woman president. She turned down the money, set up her own agency and named herself president.

Wells Rich Greene became the fastest-growing ad agency of all time. She ran it with obsessive industry ("we worked endless hours and I looked upon anyone who left the agency before eight or 9pm as a traitor") mixed with wild flamboyance ("Wells Rich Greene looked more like a rock group than a reliable business. We all had long hair, peacock clothes, amazing irreverent offices... New York humour, untrammelled optimism and we talked hip talk").

She created slogans that entered into the American lexicon: "Flick your Bic", "I Love New York" and "Plop plop, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is".

'Hegarty on Advertising' by John Hegarty

Sober reflections on an unfathomable business by adland's Mr Nice Guy

In the 1980s, Bartle Bogle Hegarty was so young and hip that it was said to have hair-gel dispensers in the loos and everyone was obliged to dress in black (that was when both of those things were still synonymous with being cool). Having cut his teeth at a fledgling Saatchi & Saatchi, Hegarty's own agency was integral to the creation of the slick, yuppified Eighties' aesthetic, as typified by its work for Levi's and Audi.

Despite his starring role in adland's heyday, Hegarty was about the only member of the Soho milieu to shun cocaine and champagne high-jinx; he ran marathons and remains widely regarded as a good bloke. His memoir might not be a whirlwind of hedonistic exposés but it is a fascinating read all the same.

"We had identified that there was a growing mass-fashion look," he writes of his successful re-launch of Levi's 501s in the mid-Eighties. "I had this belief that if we went back to a time when jeans were at the heart of youth rebellion, when music was changing the world and the US was at the centre of that revolution, we could create a campaign that would be sexy, provocative and inspiring."

'Confessions Of An Advertising Man' by David Ogilvy

Prescriptive guide to the art of good advertising by the old king of Madison Avenue

David Ogilvy came to advertising late, aged 38. As he puts it: "I had gone to New York and started an ad agency. Americans thought I was crazy. What could a Scotsman know about advertising? My agency was an immediate and meteoric success."

Campaigns such as "The Man In The Hathaway Shirt" and "The Man From Schweppes Is Here" helped build Ogilvy and Mather into one of post-war America's biggest business successes. The book is forensic and detailed in its advice: setting out what typefaces work best, where coupons should appear and what size pictures should be. They were embraced as steadfast industry rules at the time.

Each of them is explained through entertaining references to his own experience: "It is a mistake to use highfalutin language when you are advertising to uneducated people. I once used the word 'obsolete' in a headline only to discover that 43 per cent of housewives had no idea what it meant. In another headline, I used the word 'ineffable' – only to discover that I didn't know what it meant myself."

'From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor' by Jerry Della Femina

Salacious exposé of New York adland in the late Sixties

Jerry Della Femina saw himself as the archetype of the freewheeling, far-out breed of Sixties' ad men.

The title of his book derives from a slogan he actually suggested for the Japanese technology firm Panasonic, which was a client on his first day at the notoriously stuffy agency, Bates.

"I know why I did these things," he says in the book. "It sets the pace. It really tells people who I am, what I feel."

His prose is manic, hilarious, gossipy and littered with tales of fighting and drug abuse in Madison Avenue's heyday.

"I once had a great kid working for me when I was at Delehanty, a great nut," Della Femina writes.

"He was on everything in the world – speed, acid, grass. It got to the point where if I had to stare into his pupils one more time I would go crazy.

"I mean, he was bad news. but he was a hell of a good writer so I kept him on."

'Up The Agency – The Funny Business Of Advertising' by Peter Mayle

Satirical reflections on adland by an agency man turned best-selling author

Before he wrote the best-selling A Year In Provence, Peter Mayle enjoyed a meteoric career as an advertising copywriter. Aged just 26, he was the head of Papert Koenig Lois in London. "I was earning twice what the prime minister got paid and owned a house on Sloane Square," he has said.

But he quit the ad game in 1975 while at his peak to pursue the good life in France. Fifteen years later he wrote this slim reflection on his time writing ads. His take on the business is often biting, occasionally cynical and relentlessly amusing. "The motivations for starting up an agency are ego and money, probably in that order," he says.

Sam Delaney is the author of 'Get Smashed: The Story of the Men who Made the Adverts that Changed Our Lives' (Sceptre)