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Mad Men? It's Like This...

I have to admit to indulging in a Mad Men viewing marathon via Netflix recently, trying to catch up through all the prior seasons with the current final one of this great AMC TV show. Like Breaking Bad, it's a series I came to late but find thoroughly engaging on a number of levels…not the least of which is the subject around which the series and characters are based: advertising and marketing.

As those of you familiar with the show are aware, "Mad Men" refers to the self-description Madison Avenue advertising agencies gave to themselves back in the late 1950s - early 1960s (and, yes, it was primarily a male-dominated industry, as the show reflects in not-so-subtle ways). While the label obviously referred to the location of most of the big agencies in New York City, it also certainly applied as a descriptor to the behaviors of some of those engaged in this craft, at least as portrayed in the show.

While I wasn't part of that ad scene in terms of either time or place, my career began later in another "Mad" place: Madison, Wisconsin…also sometimes referred to by its fans as MadTown. So, in at least one respect, I guess I was a Mad Man, too.

As a novice copywriter at a small agency in a small market such as Madison, I was getting paid to do something that was my natural gift… write…imagine that! And to ultimately see one's concepts and words executed in print, on radio and TV, outdoor, direct mail and so on…that was icing on the cake. Still is, to be frank. I can so very much relate to Peggy and the other young copywriters on Mad Men in that regard. There was — and still is — a passion for "t
he big idea." (One of the agencies I worked with in Chicago had a neon sign in its reception area that read "Hot Ideas Served Daily." I wanted to work there as soon as I saw that.)

Over time, one generally has other opportunities presented to them, both within one's initial place of employment and beyond. In my case, it was client contact and account management. Watching the account execs on Mad Men brings back memories of lunches, meetings and travel that sometimes worked out well, and sometimes didn't. I added market research skills to the mix, including both quantitative and qualitative research including focus group moderation.
Mad Men shows agencies in the early stages of using such techniques to refine their message; I enjoyed seeing that in the show as it brought some additional realism to the series for me.

Changes of cities also brought new challenges and opportunities including, eventually, lecturing about marketing and sales at the college level. A few students told me at the time that they became marketing majors because of my classes. That was one of the things of which I was most proud during my time in academe.

One of the most challenging — and fun! — projects over the years involved facilitating nine focus groups in four days — including travel time and a middle-of-the-night fire alarm hotel evacuation — working eastward from Los Angeles to Iowa to New York. Whew! We also had participants complete surveys and
brain dominance profiles which, along with the focus group findings, were used to develop highly targeted — and ultimately, highly effective — marketing communications for the client. This "do whatever it takes for the client and the business" working mantra from Mad Men was also one which I learned early on from my mentors. Actually, I probably learned it from my parents and teachers, in different forms, long before I sat behind the office typewriter (yep, had one of those) for the first time trying to come up with creative ad copy.

That's another thing
Mad Men reminded me of: "It's not creative unless it sells." That's not the axiom used in the show, just that there is a real concern and recognition expressed that there's some bottom-line implications to advertising strategy and creative work. Writers, illustrators and graphic artists can occasionally get wrapped up in their own creative brilliance if not given proper direction and a sense of accountability for moving the target audience to action.

I also had the opportunity to experience the frustration that lead character Don Draper of
Mad Men and his associates had on occasion: being part of a small agency competing with a large one for a client's business. Despite having, at least in our view, superior creative and strategic capabilities in some regards, it was and still is often the case that many clients seem to like the supposed safety of body count, i.e., the more people available to them at an agency the better the service. Well, not necessarily. I was part of a team on more than one occasion where Fortune 500 companies brought us in to do things their "big" agency couldn't do…despite the fact that the big agency had much larger staffs than did we. We had no delusions about getting their entire account. But we were able to carve out a niche that was mutually beneficial to the client and our agency.

Along these same lines, I've had the great opportunity to work with some insightful clients who actually preferred dealing with a smaller firm because they knew they weren't paying for staff or big offices that have nothing to do with their account. Performance, of course, is still the key to making that trust work for both parties.

Mad Men accurately show what things were like in New York City during that period of time covered by the show? In some respects, without actually being there, I'd say probably so, at least in part. Is there also a great deal of creative license within the show itself? Of course. The actual inner workings of the ad business would generally be far too mundane to engage viewers for long. Was there or is there personal drama? Of course. Was or is there bad or questionable behavior and choices? Naturally. We're talking human beings in a highly competitive and highly accountable work environment; things can happen.

My career now covers more than 40 years in advertising and marketing, As someone who has seen the good and the bad parts of many aspects of this industry, albeit from a Midwestern perspective, for a long, long time, I'm thankful that the producers and writers of Mad Men have created such a show. It reminds me of things I still enjoy…as well as reminds me of those aspects of the business I thankfully haven't had to deal with in a long time. As the captain of my own ship for more than 25 years, I've generally been able to work with clients who share my sense of business ethics and avoid those that don't.

Best of all, I've met and worked with some incredible people during my career. Above and beyond anything,
that's been the best part of it all. If that makes me a Mad Man, I couldn't be more pleased.