'Mad Men' Touches a Nerve With Real-Life Don Drapers

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The New York Times reports that the last season of Mad Men is echoing in the advertising industry itself, especially at the agency BBDO:

"The unintended and unsponsored 'product placement' appears to have generated some increased awareness" for BBDO, Andrew Robertson, chief executive at BBDO Worldwide in New York, a division of the Omnicom Group, wrote in an e-mail.

"To date," he joked, "this has not resulted in any incremental business."

Mad Men was initially offensive to some advertising people for slighting the innovations of the early 1960s; the New York Public Library's science and business division, with industry support, even mounted a counter-exhibition on "The Real Men and Women of Madison Avenue." Now the industry is mellowing, perhaps because the writers have humanized the agency protagonists, even Pete Campbell. But there's another reason. It speaks to the field's existential insecurity, with the latest wave of firings, but not the series' first. The Times article continues about the loss of the fictitious agency's key client, Lucky Strike:

Watching that unfold "hit me right in the solar plexus," said Carol Cone, a managing director at Edelman in New York, because it brought back memories of a week in 1995 when two large accounts both left an agency in Boston that she owned.

"Your confidence is decimated, and you wonder if you're going to make it," Ms. Cone said. "I certainly could commiserate."

The idea, said Barbara Lippert, the advertising critic for the trade publication Adweek, that "everything could go up in smoke the next day still keeps agency people up at night."

"Despite all the changes in advertising, despite all the technological advances, some things never change," she added. "No matter how big you are, you're still dependent on connections, office politics and the whims of the clients."

Mad Men suggests indirectly that the neuroses of the agency staff owe a lot to the bad behavior of the people paying their salaries.  Most of the clients are banal or positively unattractive personalities, and a number are downright nasty. Lucky Strike's Lee Garner, Sr., was reasonably upstanding for a merchant of death, but his son turned out to be a sexual blackmailer. After the humiliating Christmas party to which Garner invited himself, his victim Roger Sterling was joking about the "Führer's birthday." ("May he live for a thousand years" was Don Draper's rejoinder.) Conrad Hilton—at least the Mad Men version—seemed a likable self-made eccentric, but then became a 24/7 tyrant. The Honda executives made lewd jokes to themselves about Joan. The Jantzen people are portrayed as hypocritical prudes. Key accounts like Clearasil rise and fall through nepotism. The ultimate jerk client may be the would-be jai alai mogul Horace Cook, Jr., a playboy narcissist scorned by his own father. After he refuses to accept Don Draper's gentle discouragement and insists on signing up, we're ready to cheer when an ant farm is broken by a staffer's carelessly tossed jai alai ball and Don declares,"Bill it to the kid."

The more decent clients seem weak, like the stolid Schillings (Utz) and the insecure owners of London Fog. (That company's real former agency head, Richard Gilbert, blasted the series portrayal of the firm as "shameful.") Why does a highly educated and wealthy department store CEO, Rachel Menken, come to an agency where retail experience seems to be limited to Don's stint as a fur salesman? Why not a specialized architectural firm? Don's presentation to her suggests an understanding not necessarily of customers but of the client's insecurities, which seem to have sent a Jewish-owned company to an anti-Semitic agency to begin with. Her aged immigrant father compares it to "a tsarist ministry." When Don presents one of his best original ideas in the series, "Eat Life by the Bowlful" to Life Cereal executives, they balk but shortly thereafter fall in love with the trite (and inadvertently plagiarized from the newcomer Danny Siegel) "Cure for the Common Breakfast" when Don blurts it out during an alcohol-induced panicky stream of consciousness.

It goes without saying that clients started deserting Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce almost as soon as word of Lucky Strike's sudden defection hit the street. One of the first is Glo-Coat, despite the Clio award that the agency's "Billy the Kid" commercial had won. Is it an accident that virtually the only clients who are portrayed as decent human beings are the makers of Topaz pantyhose—a small company, and one of the series' uncommon fictitious ones?

Roger Sterling declared in the first season, "The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them."  Of course the tables are occasionally turned, as when Sterling Cooper resigns its successful Mohawk account in a speculative bid for American Airlines, though the move failed unpredictability when Duck Phillips' contact suddenly lost his job. But the insecurity of the business, exploited deftly by the series' writers at a time when more and more established business relationships are "in review," is what drives the drama.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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