'Mad Men': Remembering The Good Old Days

The final seven episodes of “Mad Men” begin on Sunday, April 5. 

Can it really be eight years ago since the folks at AMC came in to see my group (when I was at Magna Global), nervously bringing with them a tape of a new scripted series called “Mad Men”? They were wondering how advertisers would react, and how they should market the show. 

When “Mad Men” debuted in July 2007, original scripted programming had not yet enjoyed widespread success in basic cable. FX was just winding down “The Shield, “and was a year away from “Sons of Anarchy.” USA had some modest success with “Monk,” “The 4400” and “Psych.” TNT was two years into its hit drama, “The Closer.” Lifetime had just debuted “Army Wives.”

And now AMC of all networks, known among ad buyers for old movies and old viewers, was trying to pitch a new, stylish period piece about the ad industry — a subject that had never done well on TV in the past.  It was an expensive, and ultimately brilliant, risk.



No one suspected it would be the iconic series it turned out to be, but I thought it was well worth the effort. My belief has always been that people don’t watch networks, they watch programs. As long as you effectively promote a new show beyond your own air, a good series can find an audience. 

While never a major ratings success, it has had a fiercely loyal audience and a fundamental impact on the medium, becoming the first basic-cable series to win an Emmy for best drama. It paved the way for other groundbreaking AMC series “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead,” not to mention numerous series on other cable networks.  It was also one of the first series to inspire “binge” viewing,

A lot of people have asked me if the ad industry was even remotely similar to how it is portrayed on “Mad Men."

Well, I started working in the media department at Ted Bates & Company in 1979.  Unlike the world of “Mad Men,” media departments were now well established.  There were at least 20 people competing for every entry-level advertising position.

The overall “Mad Men” environment and attitudes, while starting to change, still existed to a large degree.

  • I originally wanted to be an account executive, but was told that Jews had very little chance of getting anywhere in advertising outside of media or copywriting.  They would let us handle the money, but not deal directly with clients or top agency management.
  • Many of the hard-core drinkers were being drummed out of the business, but at business lunches, if you didn't get at least one hard drink, people looked at you like there was something wrong. If we were taken out to lunch on a Friday, we were basically out for the rest of the day.
  • At off-site gatherings, executives freely smoked pot and did other things that today would do a lot more than just raise eyebrows.
  • Women were still treated poorly. Common language used in the workplace would today lead to a non-stop string of sexual harassment lawsuits.

By 1985, much of this had changed. But it changed for good when Ted Bates & Company, then the third-largest ad agency in the U.S., was sold that year for $450 million, and its CEO walked away with a reported $110 million.  A lot of other folks at the company also got a lot of money. 

Clients started saying: “What the heck is going on here?  These guys are making too much money.” Commissions clients paid to agencies started to change, agency margins started to fall, many of the great ad agencies started to merge or be sold, media departments started to spin-off into separate agencies, and giant advertising holding companies were formed.  The fun, to a large degree, was over. 

While the early 1980s, when I started my career, were nothing like the early 1960s portrayed in “Mad Men,” the environment I experienced when I started out makes me believe the advertising world it portrays on TV was not far off the mark. 

The good old days were not good for everyone, but it certainly makes for good television. I’d love to see what happens to Don Draper and his crowd (both at work and at home) during the 1970s and 1980s.

2 comments about "'Mad Men': Remembering The Good Old Days".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, March 25, 2015 at 10:44 a.m.

    Steve, I was there, as a very young man, at BBDO, which is the prototype for some, if not much, of what one saw on this show during its first few seasons. I must say that, while the general outlook and "atmosphere" was similar, many of the scenarios depicted in the show were so far from reality as to be laughable. Setting the hard drinking and womanizing aside----this too, is wildly exaggerated-----the way the "creative" genius interacted with the clients and various agency people resembled science fiction rather than reality. For example, in one sequence, Don, takes it upon himself to make a media recommendation to a client to "sponsor"a controversial episode of the TV show, "The Defenders", that every advertiser has bailed out on due to its "controversial" subject matter. What was the basis of Don's recommendation? The telecast would reach a lot of viewers....not that the client would earn plaudits for taking such a laudable but risky stand. Brilliant, Don, simply brilliant! And, of course, there was the time when the head secretary got promoted to assistant network time buyer. One of her main duties was to read every script of every upcoming network show---including the daytime soaps----to make sure that "her" advertisers' ads were not compromised by airing in the wrong environment. Read every script---assuming that the networks would allow this----her and what army? I enjoyed "Mad Men"for a couple of seasons but as the producers turned it into a soap opera and got rid of characters in absurd ways----like the British "partner" who killed himself after he was found stealing $4000 to pay off a tax liability-----I gave up on the series.

  2. Barbara Lippert from, March 26, 2015 at 12:11 p.m.

    Great piece, Steve! Had no idea that even in the late 70s, Jews were not account people! Pete is perfect, then!

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