Market Research Or Single Malts?; Mad Men; Real-life ad execs give their take on the hit series

Originally appeared in the National Post, August 18, 2008:

National Post
Mon Aug 18 2008
Page: AL3
Section: Arts & Life
Byline: Brad Frenette
Source: National Post

“I wouldn’t watch a show that’s about modern-day advertising, because it would feature focus group research and data analytics instead of single-malts and martinis,” says David Houghton, VP and creative director of Toronto’s Young and Rubicam ad agency. “Mad Men celebrates the industry at its most chauvinistic and avaricious, and that’s what makes it so cringe-worthy and compelling.”

Indeed, scotch, smoke, sex and sexism were plentiful in the ad agencies that lined Madison Avenue in 1960s Manhattan. For Matthew Weiner, creator of the Emmy-nominated Mad Men, the characters who populated the ad industry in that era serve as a lens for self-reflection. Speaking to The New York Times, Weiner recently explained, “It’s a great way to talk about the image we have of ourselves, vs. who we really are.”

The advertising industry has changed (although by how much is a matter of opinion), and the show has found an audience among the ad people of today. And while the series’ conflicted protagonist Don Draper and his Sterling Cooper cohorts leave some in Canadian advertising pining for the days when modern advertising was born and smoking in the office was just dandy, it leaves others grateful that time has passed.

“I’ve heard lots of semi-fond tales from some of my mentors about the ‘good old days’ when there was sex in offices and the creative department did its best work in the bar down the street,” says Chris Staples, the fortysomething founder of Vancouver’s ReThink agency. But Staples is also quick to point out how things have changed: “I’m so fortunate to be working in a time when our clients care about big ideas — instead of big nights at fancy restaurants or strip clubs.”

For alpha males of the ’60s advertising world, expensive meals and naked ladies were part of the game, but for the “hundreds and thousands of women” that Weiner says came to Madison Avenue to be secretaries, there wasn’t much getting out of the office, or moving up in it. A turning point in Season One of Mad Men occurs when Peggy Olsen, Don Draper’s awkward assistant, gets a spontaneous shot as a copywriter, a rarity in the day. In a sea of misogyny, it’s Weiner’s nod to the role women played in transforming the industry.

Frank Palmer, chairman and CEO of DDB Canada in Vancouver, lived through the transition. A giant in Canadian advertising, with more than 40 years in the business, Palmer recalls the office culture: “[In the 1970s], you’d have a secretary and say: ‘At four o’clock, I’ll have my coffee or tea.’ If I said that to my assistant today, she’d probably tell me to go to hell. It was very sexist at the time. Most of the agency business at that time would have been 70% men, 30% female, and now you’d find it’s the opposite.”

Laurie Young, managing director of Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto, believes both admen and adwomen alike watch Mad Men to catch the “moments in the show that foreshadow how life in the business is now.” And while she’s a fan, she doesn’t hesitate to indicate which era she prefers. “The gender inequality and blatant male chauvinism is a key difference. Which would I rather work in? I’m female. No question that today is where I want to be.”

Sexism aside, Palmer would happily hop into the time machine. In the 1960s, DDB was a shrine on Madison Avenue, and its co-founder William Bernbach a guru. DDB’s “Think Small” Volkswagon ads (named the top advertising campaign of the 20th century by industry magazine Advertising Age) act as a foil to Mad Men’s fictional agency in Season One. Although he considers Don Draper to be “an a–hole,” Palmer recalls the archetype of the ’60s ad exec as “basically a rock star. It was very sexy.” And given the choice, Palmer says he’d return to the time when clients interacted with their agency on campaigns. “It was a lot more fun. You didn’t have all the technology. … Everything wasn’t in a rush.”

Aside from the inspiring nostalgia about the industry, the show is also influencing fashion in ad offices across the country. “I’ve gone back to black suits and white shirts,” says Brett Marchand, executive vice-president of Cossette, who until recently would stalk the office in jeans and a T-shirt. “Today, I’m wearing a narrow lapel, narrow legged, black suit with a white shirt and cufflinks, which you definitely wouldn’t have seen me wearing a year ago. But it’s hip again. If my father saw me, he’d say, ‘Hey, that looks like what I wore to my wedding in 1965.’ ”

Palmer also welcomes the return of that period’s dress. “We all used to come to work in a business suit and tie. And I remember when I used to come to work in a hat. There used to be haberdasheries!” Now, he says, “Executives maybe wear a suit and a blazer. The creative staff, back in the ’50s and ’60s, used to dress smart. Not now. They wear jeans and T-shirts with funny writing on them. They’re a bit sloppy.”

From creatives to account reps to executives, Mad Men has become water-cooler talk, a history lesson and a way to reflect on their industry. Aside from his role at Cossette, Marchand chairs the Institute of Communication Agencies, which is launching its first Ad Week this winter. For the occasion, they are searching for industry leaders and speakers to address Ad Week attendees across the country. “One of the names people are bouncing around as a keynote speaker is Matthew Weiner.” says Marchand. “We would never, ever, put the name of a TV writer in if it wasn’t for what Mad Men has done.”

– For more insights about the show from some modern advertising minds, visit Season Two of Mad Menairs Sundays at 10 p. m. on A; Season One airs Wednesdays at 9 p. m. on Bravo.

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