To people outside the advertising industry, our world was McMahon and Tate. What they knew of our profession was from watching "Bewitched" and seeing Darrin Stephens conjure up brilliant ideas and pitch them to clients as Larry Tate slapped them on the back and cheered Darrin on. Larry was no empty suit.
Oh, and "Bewitched" also taught that successful admen often marry witches, and wacky hi-jinks ensue.
But now people have a new compass on TV to give some insight into our profession: "Mad Men" on AMC.
The time is 1960. The WASPy agency Sterling Cooper predates the creative revolution of McMahon and Tate. Our main character is Don Draper, a brilliant adman who conjures ideas the old fashioned way: in thick fogs of cigarette smoke, bottomless tumblers of amber booze and tumbles between the sheets with women who cannot refuse his amorous pitches.
Don Draper doesn't need his wife to twitch her nose; he sweats out his ideas, dammit.
He's a man of mystery with a past as murky as beef stew in a black onyx bowl. He's married to a beautiful woman and has two perfect children but his soul and conscience are MIA. Despite his flaws, Don is a corporate riser because he gets the job done dealing with the weasels that populate his working life and charming clients endlessly.
These are the glory days of the agency business with big, fat 15% media commissions and clients who not only seek the agency's counsel, they heed it and are grateful. It's the days of account people so powerful they can hip-pocket a hunk of business and carry it across town like a wounded bird, safely depositing it in the nest of a new agency.
It is B.C. (before cable). There are three networks, no computers, no mobile phones, no modern-day distractions like 5,000 daily sales messages. The public can be reached easily, and it is not yet cynical or jaded-- people may actually believe what admen have to say. Imagine that.
Admen are the rock stars of the biz world. One-bourbon breakfasts lead to three-martini lunches stumbling into cocktail hours followed by slabs of beef, buttery baked potatoes heaped with gobs of sour cream and a few good belts of whiskey.
Order a couple nightcaps, weave your way home and hit the reset button. Tomorrow's another bender.
The ad world of the early '60s is a good place for a man to be-- provided he's the right color and religion, has the right educational background and is a real man's man (there is a homosexual character in "Mad Men" who's so closeted he probably smells of mothballs). It's a time of narrow minds, open prejudice, open discrimination and sexual harassment galore. Women are objectified and nullified, unless they can type or take dictation. Sad, but true. We've all come a long way, baby.
Sterling Cooper is an old-school ad agency. The Mad Men deride and mock the early Volkswagen Beetle ads being put out by the upstarts at Doyle Dane Bernbach. "Cute" and "creative" are code for ads that won't work and ads that won't sell. The Mad Men are miffed by ads that tell truth and poke a little fun at a product. But dinosaurs never see the meteors coming their way-- in fact, some agencies today are still wondering if interactive advertising is just a passing fad.
So why is "Mad Men" such a hit? Because it's a slick period piece/soap opera of a glamorous profession, well written, superbly acted and exquisitely produced. Yes, Virginia, advertising is still considered a glamorous profession to the outside world, and this show is a snapshot of the business in its most sumptuous and exotic time. The creative revolution is underway but the fat cats at Sterling Cooper have yet to feel the ripples. Rumor has it in the new season that will change.
I love "Mad Men" and I hate "Mad Men." It shows our profession in a glorious time as a business and an ugly time of society. But one thing's for sure: people seem to have had a lot more fun back then. I'll wager people were having a lot more fun when you first got into the business, too. Was it our youth, or has society just gotten less fun?
Catch "Mad Men" and vow to yourself that you'll have more fun (without drunk driving or sexual harassment). This is advertising, after all, and if we're not having fun, then who the hell is?
And when your friends, neighbors and relatives who watch "Mad Men" ask you about advertising and the constant drinking, perpetual smoking and incessant sexcapades, nod your head knowingly and tell them it's all true-- except we don't wear hats these days. That would be absolutely mad.