Mad Men remain in real world

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With champagne toasts on a rooftop overlooking the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, John D. Wren and Maurice Levy celebrated the US$35 billion merger between their two advertising companies, Omnicom Group and Publicis Groupe.

The trans-Atlantic deal was the largest ever in the industry, uniting the world's second- and third-largest advertising groups to create a new global leader that would dethrone their archrival, Mr Martin Sorrell's WPP.

About nine months later, the "merger of equals" was called off over irreconcilable differences between Wren and Levy, and clashes regarding who would ultimately be in charge.

The implosion of the deal showed that "Don Draper's not dead", Mr Sorrell told a Bloomberg News reporter at the time, a reference to the arrogant, self-aggrandising protagonist of AMC's Mad Men TV series.

"Ego and power is still important in our industry."

The year was 2014, but the drama was straight out of Mad Men, which chronicles the New York advertising world in the 1960s.

The programme - which began the last half of its seventh and final season yesterday - captures the industry during a pivotal period of transformation. It was an era marked by the dominance of the creative executive, embodied by Draper; the formation of advertising conglomerates; the rise of television; the slow beginnings of increased opportunities for women and minorities; and the advent of innovative technologies such as the copy machine and the computer.

Fifty years later, several of those themes continue to resonate in Madison Avenue. And while Draper would not recognise much of today's advertising business - which is increasingly driven by technology and data and a new generation of Math Men - big personalities at the very top continue to reign.

"It is something they could write up until the current day," Mr Sorrell said about Mad Men, of which he, like many in advertising, is a fan. "It is a shame they are going to finish it."

There was much trepidation in the advertising industry when Mad Men made its debut in 2007, with people working in the business worried about how an outsider would depict an era known for larger-than-life executives, three-martini lunches and routine womanising.

Matthew Weiner, the series creator, said he had long been fascinated by the forces driving the giants of American business and found that Madison Avenue in the 1960s provided a window into broader stories of wealth and power, ego, racism and sexism in the country.

To understand the inner workings of agency life, he studied David Ogilvy's advertising bible, Confessions Of An Advertising Man, and read newspaper stories from the era, including the advertising column in The New York Times. He also consulted friends who had worked in the industry.

He said he was a student of ad campaigns from the period and was particularly interested in the influence that TV commercials had. He pointed to a 1961 Pepsi campaign that introduced the slogan "For those who think young".

It exemplified advertising's influence in creating the phenomenon of youth-obsessed consumerism that remains so prevalent, he said. It also provided the framework for the first episode of the second season, during which executives at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency argue about how best to cater to clients trying to appeal to the members of "the Pepsi generation", who do not drink coffee like their parents.

The more research Weiner did, he said, the more fascinated he became not only with the ad campaigns, but also with the business operations and the personalities driving them.

"There are egos battling it out and it has nothing to do with the business," he said. "It is not just a factory that makes advertising."

He added that his understanding of the inner workings of the business became clear when he learnt more about the government's crackdown on the tobacco industry's claims about the health benefits of its product. Regulatory scrutiny led to the rise of the Marlboro Man, which linked tobacco to manliness and bypassed any need to give medical testimonials. That provided a backdrop for the pilot, which follows Draper on his quest to keep Sterling Cooper's most important account, Lucky Strike cigarettes, with the agency.

"That was my crisis point in the series," Weiner said. "The idea, very simply, is: What would happen to the business?"

What followed, both in the fictional land of Mad Men and also on 1960s Madison Avenue, was a period of change during which boutique agencies transformed into much larger groups, which then merged, went public and formed the basis of the major advertising conglomerates that exist today.

"It's a fascinating business because the clients leave and you've got to close shop," Weiner said.

He noted that the entire journey - the clashes that resulted after the mergers, conflicts between clients, the need to make balance sheets look successful - made for great storytelling. At the same time, the business of not only creating the ads but also buying advertising time emerged as a powerful and profitable sector.

Along with the rise of media buying came new research and technologies to help agencies determine the most efficient strategies for buying commercial time. That shift provided the storyline for an episode in the seventh season, in which a giant computer is installed in the agency's office. In a complaint that continues to echo through some quarters of Madison Avenue, Draper grumbles that the computer is replacing humans and creativity.

And while the overt sexism and racism of the period have faded, characters such as Peggy Olson, the striving female copywriter who must outwork her male colleagues to gain respect, persist.

Josh Weltman, a business consultant and co-producer of Mad Men, said that a version of Olson could still be found in every ad agency. She is the junior employee, working hard, wanting her ideas to be taken seriously and trying to work her way up in a culture of meritocracy.

"If you stay later than everybody, if you work harder than everybody, there is opportunity," he said.

A hallmark of the era that has all but disappeared is the three-martini lunch. Weltman recalled working at an ad agency in 1989, when the company sent out a memo that it no longer would expense liquor at lunch. A veteran copywriter marched into his office, shook his head and asked who would buy the work sober.

Still, Mr Sorrell said, despite many changes and the nostalgia engendered by Mad Men for its era, there is still plenty of drama in the advertising world, particularly with global and digital expansion.

"I think the changes that we have seen are far more dramatic and far more fast-paced and far more interesting than what was the case then," he said.

 
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