Mad Men returned this week after a 17-month hiatus and it is good to have the show back. The hour-long drama has characters and story lines that are deeply compelling. Mad Men has left an indelible imprint on the advertising industry, similar to what The West Wing did for presidential politics.
Because I’m a fan of advertising and its history, it’s almost impossible for me not to think about the show each time I’m in Manhattan, especially when I visit agencies like Y&R at 285 Madison Avenue. It was here that the real Don Draper, Draper Daniels, toiled as a copywriter a half century ago. When I visit former industry haunts like Keen’s Steakhouse, I think about the industry giants that came before me. I know many of them by name because I’ve read the books that inspired Matthew Weiner to create Mad Men. From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-Line Dispatches from the Advertising War by Jerry Della Femina and Ogilvy on Advertising are on my bookshelf.
The very last vestiges of the era are now fading into history, though. Most of the original Mad Men are gone, driven to an early grave by some of the same products that they marketed. The ones that somehow survived it all are living legends. These Mad Men of yore will sometimes complain about the quality of today’s advertising and its obsession with technology. Like the fine arts, much of the world’s creativity energy has been funneled into new industries like software and gaming. But when you go back and look at the advertising of that era, it’s clear that much of it would not work as well today. The proliferation of ads and the fragmentation of media make it far more difficult to cram a message down the throats of the masses like you could in the 1960’s—no matter how well written it may be.
The aging Mad Men will often say that their times were wilder and more fun. That may be true, although anyone who lived through the dot com startup boom and the advent of digital media knows that fun was not confined to the 1960’s. In some ways it was more extravagant, what with the industry boondoggles to the Caribbean, publisher-sponsored ski houses in Lake Tahoe and web site launch parties in Las Vegas. I fully expect that someday a writer will tell the story of that era in an entertaining way, too.
However, the Mad Men are right in the sense that agencies are more sedate and professional now, especially compared to the workplace shenanigans that Della Femina describes in his book. Agency-sponsored inter-office hookups and open drug use would certainly not pass muster with HR today. The flipside of this institutionalized debauchery is that agencies are now safer and more diversified places to work. And while still not statistically likely, it is at least possible that someone other than white males can get the top jobs at agencies.
Advertising’s creative revolution is now just a memory. We have spent the last decade transforming advertising into a technology business, a relentless process will continue until all media is targeted, dynamic and electronic. Fittingly, next year Y&R will pack up its offices on Madison Avenue and move uptown to Columbus Circle. While 285 Madison will forever be connected to the Mad Men era, the building’s nest of small offices had long ago stopped serving its workforce properly.
It’s time to turn the page and write advertising’s next chapter.