Opinion: Perspective - Why Mad Men shows adland at its best and worst

By Claire Beale, claire.beale@haymarket.com, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 29 February 2008 12:00AM

You can't have missed all the hype around the launch of Mad Men but just in case, here's the lowdown.

It's the new series by The Sopranos' producer/writer Matthew Weiner and it's set in a Madison Avenue ad agency at the turn of the 60s.

Sterling Cooper - such a wonderfully believable name for a New York agency that I can't believe there wasn't exactly such a company - is a totem for advertising at its most adrenaline-injected: the highs and lows of pitching, client servicing, creative production.

But Sterling Cooper is also an access point to the society and culture of America's early 60s: sexist, cigarette smoke-wreathed, alcohol-fuelled, racially insensitive. Watching the first episode takes your breath away if you're at all sensitive to political correctness. A bit like Life On Mars last year, you end up thinking: "How did they ever think that was OK?"

But that's also very much part of the fun of it and why Mad Men is such joy, the shamelessness of it all. Entertainment Weekly described the series as being set in a period where "play is part of work, sexual banter isn't yet harassment, and America is free of self-doubt, guilt and counter-cultural confusion".

Of course, America has plunged way too far the other way in the intervening five decades, with its law-enforced PC-ness, but even through more balanced UK eyes, Mad Men's gender and racial bias is all at once painful and laughable.

Some memorable lines from the first episode: A smoking gynaecologist on prescribing the pill warns: "Easy women don't find husbands." A new secretary is introduced to her manual typewriter by a colleague who consoles "try not to be overwhelmed by the technology. It looks complicated but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use." One adman to another before an important client meeting: "Shall we drink before the meeting or after? Or both?"

Was London's adland of the early 60s as good and as bad? From the memories in our feature on page 22, The Way We Were, it seems so. And reading John Salmon, Robin Wight, Tony Brignull and the rest, you can't help but think we've lost something special as the industry has matured.

Even so, I have just been asked by Radio 4 to suggest some females from British advertising in the 60s who might be prepared to go up against Sir Alan Parker in a live debate on adland back then. Fay Weldon has said no. Hmm.

The truth is that women who made it in advertising in the 60s are extremely thin on the ground. None of us here could think of more than a couple of suitable candidates. Read our piece on sexism in advertising today (page 13) and it's clear how much has changed. But also how much there is still to change.

Anyway, catch Mad Men on BBC4 next Sunday, 2 March and wallow.

Welcome another new agency. For every independent that's being snapped up before April's Capital Gains Tax change, thankfully there seems to be a new start-up to fill the gap. This week its AnalogFolk. A provocative name, and though I've got a real (bad) thing about the word Folk, it's a name to make you think. The six founders - of online/offline/media/creative provenance - are chasing a new, and rather enticing, model.

"Value exchange", "creative collaboration", "super producers", "open framework" are their buzz phrases. Basically they want to create consumer-facing communications products, products that have a life and a value beyond simply being a marketing vehicle, but that do the marketing job just as effectively/more effectively because of that. Think Monopoly Live as the nearest example.

AnalogFolk has a line in its launch PR release that talks about defining a brand by actively creating culture, rather than simply reflecting it. And doesn't that sound right for now.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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