The Anthropology of Mad Men and Women

By Robert J. Morais

In season four of Mad Men, Pete Campbell and Don Draper read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by famed anthropologist Ruth Benedict in preparation for a pitch to Japanese Honda executives. Given their mining of anthropology for insight, a look at the show through an anthropological lens seems fitting. Client creative meetings, often dramatized in Mad Men, contain the defining attitudes, behaviors, and symbols of agency life, all of which we can decode when season five of Mad Men premiers March 25.

As anthropologist Helen Schwartzman says of meetings in general, advertising meetings are "sense makers" that enhance community and identity within an organization. These meetings contain the essence of agency-client relationships: conflicting objectives, displays of status, showcasing of insight and talent, control without appearing controlling, demonstration of passion without being combative, persuasion without browbeating. Executives who attend creative meetings must have a command of unwritten rules, understand subtle verbal and nonverbal behavior, comprehend and navigate the delicate client-agency balance of power, exhibit the craft of negotiation, and impress their superiors.

That these meetings still occur in the digital age, where creative work can be viewed and discussed online, is actually not surprising. Face-to-face meetings persist because direct interaction better connects executives emotionally as well as intellectually. For agency professionals, these meetings are ideal venues to sell creative work and enhance client relationships. For clients, the conference room setting is a superior opportunity for personal performance and a space to demonstrate the power they have over their agencies. Here are some observations regarding creative meetings based on participant observation along with Mad Men examples:

Status and Role: When senior agency executives select positions to the far left or right of the center of a conference table, they do so to stress their separateness from other agency staff and to occupy a perch from which to offer commentary. Their distance from the fray is a vantage point from which they can make big-picture statements that demonstrate a mastery of the business context of the creative work. Seating is also important for agency managers to assess and respond to client reactions, including nonverbal reactions to the work. Senior agency executives usually place themselves within the direct sight line of senior clients. Where Mad Men (and women) situate themselves around a meeting table in life and in the show matters.

Rules of Engagement: One of the more egregious meeting sins occurs when an agency representative, especially a junior one, deviates from the previously agreed upon agency position during a client meeting. The consequences can be severe. During season one, Pete, then a junior account manager, pitched his own concept for Bethlehem Steel after Don's idea failed to impress the client. Don summarily fired Pete (but later reinstated him). Conversely, in season four, Don, an agency principal, improvised a creative solution for Life cereal while in a client meeting and won accolades.

Reading the Room: Just before a creative meeting, a well-known ad executive was asked by one of his colleagues how he thought the agency should conduct the meeting. His reply: "Read the room." His meaning: assess client reactions as ideas are presented and adjust the agency recommendation to match what the client will accept. During client meetings, agency executives do not watch their colleagues present; they watch their clients. They scan faces for confusion, comprehension, and delight. They study body language. They pay close attention to client reactions to specific graphics and copy. Notice how Roger Sterling and Don Draper watch the faces of clients in meetings. A real-life agency creative director described how he visualizes a conference room swaying as arguments veer side to side. He prepares his arguments and chooses a position based on where the room lands. Don Draper's professional integrity and digging in notwithstanding, most advertising executives read and respond to their clients' desires, whether they admit it or not.

Impression Management and Impressing Management: Presentations by agencies in creative meetings are "social dramas" in anthropologist Victor Turner's terms. As a creative director said, "The spotlight is on you. You have the chance to convince someone that something you have created is worth the world seeing." Sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term "impression management," which certainly is evident during creative meetings. Agencies attempt to impress clients with an understanding of the client's business, their devotion to the brand, and their passion for the creative work, even though they "fold" when the client pushes back hard. At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the enthusiasm for brands is palpable -- except in those rare cases when Don decides to throw a client out of a meeting, as he did with swimwear manufacturer Jantzen, or reject tobacco accounts, as he did in a New York Times piece, both during season four. This is where Mad Men deviates from the real world; such behavior in the advertising industry has always been as rare as senior women copywriters were in 1961.

Rites of Passage: Creative meetings are a rite of passage when creative work transitions from development to client-approval. This passage is hailed with almost as much jubilation as traditional rites like weddings and bar mitzvahs. Meeting participants are transformed as well. It is not only the storyboard that is evaluated in creative meetings, it is also the people who created or contributed to the work. Extending the argument from anthropologist Clifford Geertz that cocks in Bali symbolize men and from marketing professor Arthur Kover that advertising storyboards represent copywriters, all of the agency and client executives who display their imagination, intellect, experience, and professionalism in a creative meeting are as judged as the advertising ideas. We often witness the merriment of Mad Men in the alcohol-drenched celebrations following successful client meetings.

Mad Men depicts advertising agency life as it was decades ago. The practice of creative meetings, like our culture, has evolved. But the aims, conflicts, displays, and compromises in advertising meetings are not markedly different than they were in the 1960s.

Robert J. Morais is a principal at Weinman Schnee Morais, a marketing research firm in New York with clients in health and wellness, household, food, beverage, industrial manufacturing, business-to-business, and other categories. He holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and has worked for 30 years in the advertising and marketing research industries. His publications encompass anthropology, advertising, and marketing research, and include "Refocusing Focus Groups" (2010) and the forthcoming book, "Advertising and Anthropology: Ethnographic Practice and Cultural Perspectives," co-authored with Timothy de Waal Malefyt, to be published in September. Morais has been interviewed by the "New York Times," "Brandweek," CBS Radio, and the American Marketing Association and he is a frequent guest speaker at conferences and universities.