The real life Mad Men

New York in the Sixties was the heyday of modern advertising. But what's it like in London today?

Champagne for breakfast? Not any more, insist the real-life advertising gurus whose industry is portrayed as a flashy, fast-talking festival of hedonism in the new television series Mad Men. But sharp suits, drugs in the boardroom and affairs everywhere? Still more fact than fiction, say industry insiders.

"We broke the rules and we did some mad things," remembers Lord Bell, who co-founded Saatchi and Saatchi and was an ad man during the Sixties heyday portrayed by the BBC Four drama. "We lived in a world of glamour and wanted to be glamorous. We wanted fast cars and flash birds to compete with each other."

The star of Mad Men is New York executive Don Draper "the biggest ad man (and ladies man) in the business" according to the BBC blurb. "What you are, what you want, what you love doesn't matter. It's all about how you sell it."

Those who worked with the British equivalents of Draper in the Sixties are now pillars of the Establishment. Sir John Hegarty, chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says: "Was it as sexist as that? No. Was it as mad as that? Yes."

And now? Modern advertising is still packed with larger-than-life characters who hold court in swanky offices. The big names still have acolytes driven by adrenaline, espresso and other helpful substances. Even the same heavy-framed glasses are part of the uniform for today's ad men (and women too, which is perhaps the biggest change). Brylcreem and fountain pens have morphed into shaved heads and BlackBerrys, and status symbols are still essential – the more eccentric the better.

Tony Davidson, the executive creative director at Weiden and Kennedy says the absurdity and creativity of the business remain the same. "I love advertising and I hate it. We make sense out of nonsense."

But Mark Lund, chief executive of DLKW agency and chairman of the Advertising Association, insists there has been great change. "Clearly in the 1960s it was a homophobic, sexist and racist world, but that certainly isn't happening now." Many addictions have been kicked, he says. "It is a far less macho world now. Nobody even drinks any more."

Before tonight's episode of Mad Men, IoS columnist Peter York will present The Rise and Fall of the Ad Man, tracing the history of the UK's advertising industry's, interviewing key figures such as Sir Frank Lowe and Sir Martin Sorrell.

Lord Bell recalls of the Sixties: "We would compete for who could drank the most champagne. That's how we lived. You can belittle it, you can criticise it and you can say it's ridiculous. You can tell us off for breaking the rules. But bugger it."

Then, in September 1987, fresh from winning the General Election for Margaret Thatcher, Saatchi and Saatchi tried to buy the Midland Bank. The talks never came to anything, but in the eyes of the City the ad men had overstepped their mark. It was time to clip the wings of the agencies.

"The Establishment decided it was time their reach narrowed," says Lord Bell.

Recession stopped some of the excesses. Globalisation meant clients wanted simpler campaigns that would work everywhere, which some ad men thought limited their creativity. "We sold our souls," says Lord Bell. "The pack leaders floated their companies and went global."

Mad Men is a guilty pleasure for the modern counterparts, and a window into a world that has gone. "Of course it's a stereotype but that's often the point with drama," says Sir John Hegarty. "Reality can be exceedingly dull. And anyone working in advertising should appreciate that. Just like any creative industry, we exaggerate to make a point."

Robin Wight, chairman of Engine advertising agency, began his career in the late 1960s and said the show does hark back to the realities of the time, even with its portrayal of sexism and racism. "Maybe we were all swimming in the same sea and didn't notice that we were polluted by the water we were in," he says. "What we see in Mad Men is the last song of the old guard, a kind of Martini chorus."

As for whether there are any real Don Drapers gulping down cocktails and winking at their secretaries now, Mr Wight says: "I think HR would have drummed them out years ago. The litigation would have been horrendous."