The 'Mad Men' - then and now

As the sixth season of the 'Mad Men' airs tonight on Sky Atlantic we spoke to some of advertising's real "mad men" to get their take on how the advertising industry has changed in the decades since the industry's "golden age".

Mad Men: season six starts on Sky Atlantic
Mad Men: season six starts on Sky Atlantic

'Mad Men' is set in the 1960s against a backdrop of historic moments in the American century – from the dawn of the space race, to the death of JKF and now, in season six, the Vietnam War.

Into that the writers have woven a narrative that in parts tells of the start of advertising creative revolution, which has given way in later decades to the rise of the marketing holding companies and the rise of technology.

In 'Mad Men' we often see creative director Don Draper weave his magic, but, according to George Parker one of the industry's few remaining "mad men", who has spent over 40 years on Madison Avenue, at agencies including Ogilvy, "clients have got smarter and fall less and less for the smoke and mirrors branding mantra".

The advertising industry has changed drastically since the days of 'Mad Men', and this goes beyond the disappearance of smoking and drinking in meetings.

Parker argues that in today’s climate brands demand more for their money, and clients have less trust in advertising agencies. "Everybody is so insecure now, that’s the problem," he says.

As an example, Parker talks about Avis’s classic "try harder" campaign, which acknowledged the brand's second place in the sector, behind Hertz. The campaign ran because Avis’s CEO trusted the ad agency’s assurances that the strategy would work.

That simply wouldn’t happen today, argues Parker who is the author of the book 'Confessions of a Mad Man'.

"I cannot think of a single agency today that would get that implicit respect from a client," Parker says. "The campaign would be researched today and people would say no way."

Parker is also critical about the impact the digital revolution has had on advertising and has little time for social media despite being a long-time blogger. He calls social "another crutch agencies can rely on".

He claims ad agencies get too caught up in the new world of digital media, forgetting the industry’s fundamental rule that David Ogilvy himself taught him – "The business of advertising is selling".

This, combined with the power of the holding companies, or the "big dumb holding companies" as Parker calls them, taking big percentages of advertising agency’s profits, has left the industry radically altered.

However, while he maintains that advertising's glory days are over, Keith Reinhard, another of the original mad men, has a more optimistic outlook of the industry, and believes today is a glory day of its own – one to rival the golden age of the 1960s.

Reinhard, who is chairman emeritus of DBB Worldwide, one of the agencies that inspired 'Mad Men', was responsible for the first McDonald’s campaign and was a torchbearer of the creative revolution.

He maintains that although advertising in the 60s did have a sense of glory, this has not been lost in the current climate. "I think during the days of 'Mad Men' there was a feeling that the advertising industry was really sexy and maybe it had more respect," he says. "But look at the hype of this show about advertising. This demonstrates the still great appeal the advertising business has."

With so many classic ads, such as the iconic Volkswagen’s "lemon" and "think small" campaigns, being created in the time 'Mad Men' is set, it can be easy to see why the 60s may be held with such high regard in terms of advertising.

60s ads not all good
However, Reinhard points out, "A lot of bad ads were created at that time too that we don’t remember and that we shouldn’t remember."

And while it might have been easier for ads to stand out back in the 60s, our modern era makes it more difficult. "People are so bombarded with content at the moment, the amount of content now compared to those days is exponential" Reinhard says.

Although it is hard to say what may be remembered in years to come, he points to the famous 1984 ad created long after the so-called golden days that will be remembered indefinitely, and praised the recent Old Spice campaigns and DDB’s current work in Dubai for Glad Bags.

However, he says that for advertising to reach its true potential, the creative revolution and the digital disruption need to be placed together. "We need to fall in love with ideas again and stop obsessing with technology and what it can do."

Looking forward
Looking forward, and representing the modern era of ad or mad men, Matt Eastwood, DDB New York chief creative officer, says the most important change in the industry is that ad campaigns no longer just interrupt, but have to actively engage with its audience. 

Of course, he agrees the industry has change much, but he maintains it is not as many worlds apart as some watching 'Mad Men' might be led to believe

"In the '60s, agency life was depicted as a life of parties and you would be remiss to feel that the good ol' days are over if you watch a few episodes of 'Mad Men', but what may not come through is that advertising was a lot of work back then too."

He says that the fundamental "culturally fun environment with creative minds hasn’t changed". What he says has happened is that there has been "a 360 social transformation that has engulfed agencies and marketers in a sea of change".

He also points out that the Volkswagen ads still retain the brand personality first reflected in the "lemon" campaign.

However, he holds the same sentiment reflected by Reinhard and Parker – that the industry still needs to come to terms with the digital revolution, and place less focus on using Facebook or Twitter just because everyone now does it.

"Did you know that Apple doesn’t have a Facebook page or Twitter account? Interesting no?" He points out, underscoring how Apple continues to "think different".

Looking towards the future of advertising he highlights the still great importance of the idea, and say, "Once the dust settles, I’m looking forward to the big idea being the focus again."