<i>Mad Men</i> Gets It Right

The depiction of an ego-driven world, where play was part of work, sexual banter was not perceived as harassment, and most people smoked, is characteristic of the ad world in the '60s.
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On August 16, 2009, AMC will begin season three for Mad Men, the highly acclaimed drama series based on the world of advertising in the 1960s. As a marketing executive who was active in that era on the client side, I am often asked, "Does Mad Men get it right or wrong?"

Advertising people from the era are divided on the answer to this question. I was beginning my career at the time, and I would have to say "yes, they got it right." The depiction of an ego-driven world, where play was part of work, sexual banter was not perceived as harassment, and most people smoked, is indeed characteristic of the ad world in the '60s. I was an Associate Product Manager on Tang instant breakfast drink when I was invited in 1968 to my first "three martini" lunch. The agency was Y&R, our product was going to the moon -- literally, on an Apollo flight -- and we had the world in our hands. Our television/print media plan reached 90% of the audience we wanted at least five times every month. Tang was "the energy breakfast drink, with more Vitamin C than orange juice." The Astronaut Meal advertising showed how the product was consumed by superhumans in space, before dissolving into a scene that showed how consumers could enjoy it "right here on Earth." The business doubled in size within three years. The advertising business was dazzling. In what other business could you feel personally involved in the moon project -- and drink martinis?!

Forty years later I'm still involved in the advertising business; no longer as a client, but rather as an adman myself. As I reflect on this Mad Men period of time, it turns out some things have changed, and some things have stayed the same. Ideas are still our principal currency, indeed the agency of which I am Chairman has an "Inspirational Dream" to be a "hothouse for world-changing creative ideas." Our mantra is "Nothing Is Impossible." Our aspirations still fly high -- but now without the 80 proof fueled martinis. And we still believe that sans advertising, the glory of commerce would grind to a halt. No market. No competition. No dynamic. No innovation. Advertising underpins the very essence of free enterprise.

"Mad Men" is set during the Cold War, and communism presented a perfect counterpoint. A spirited nothing-can-stop-us capitalist zeitgeist versus a monochromatic state-controlled dictatorship absent consumer choice. (If you were allowed to aspire to a car, you could guarantee it would be a Lada.)

How have things changed? Mad Men could now just as easily be called Mad People, as advertising has enthusiastically welcomed the emergence of women into the business as equal practitioners and leaders. Secondly, work is now very much work, demanding people who are passionate, competitive, and restless. Fun comes later and even the play can be business-applicable! We still create cool environments that staff and clients love coming to, but the legendary lunch is now just that, legendary. Thirdly, we now find ourselves in a world whereby multitasking consumers are bombarded by a dizzying array of media alternatives, and the demand of sorting through this melange represents a formidable and on-going challenge for agency people and clients alike. Complexity entered the business in a big way when the web came alive in 1995.

Ad people need to constantly put themselves on the cutting edge of what's happening in life, and they remain successful because they adapt, they change -- sometimes radically -- in order to adjust to evolving technology and the human response to it. Perhaps one reason for this adaptability is if they don't consistently meet or exceed client expectations, they are likely to get fired in favor of someone who can..

Today, ads no longer shout out at consumers, bludgeoning them into submission. Rather, they are based on ideas that connect with consumers, and reach out wherever people are seeking relevant information and a product or service relationship that is trustworthy and meaningful. Effective advertising is a timeless bridge between companies who make quality products and consumers who have needs to be fulfilled.

In this regard, society needs "Mad People" to set afire a new phase of capitalism! I sense consumers are shifting from a mode of "More!" to one of "Enough!", and advertising has a key role in re-framing the choices we need to make to get to a sustainable place.

The adaptive nature of our industry has never had a greater challenge. A mad, mad world indeed.

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