Although not many reading this may remember it, there was a time when big-name product advertising meant picking among Madison Avenue ad firms. The industry--and the time it represented--gave us the term and the show Mad Men.

My marketing firm, Mabbly, wouldn't have fit in with the Mad Men era not only because we're not on Madison Avenue (we're in Chicago) but because we do to primarily digital advertising. Even so, because I'm in the industry, I pay close attention to what marketers and brands are doing to reach consumers.

And it's the marketing understatement of the century to say times have changed. We all know that and we know how things are different.

In the last decade alone marketing and brand managers have had to navigate the explosion of instant celebrity--Honey Boo Boo and Kardashian Effect anyone? And social whiplash. Michael Vick and Chic-Fil-A are examples. The decade before that it was the personal blog explosion and social media. Plus a host of things I'm leaving out.

Ask any marketer or advertising executive that is dealing with these changes and they'll tell you the thing they can't replace and can't over-value is direct brand engagement with the target market. Not Facebook ad engagement. Or direct mail. But the literally put-your-product-in-the-hands-of-your-ideal-buyer type of engagement.

Just last week I was talking to a high-level marketing and community outreach staffer for a top three athletic and sneaker company who was telling me of her company's plans to support new flagship store openings in New York with branded fitness expos at those stores. She told me, paraphrasing, 'we've got to literally touch our customers--get them in a place where they can see, smell and feel our product--the ads are great but it's not enough anymore. Everybody has those.'

In other words, the big companies are returning to old-school, so-called sweat equity marketing tactics like pounding the pavement and holding product shows--tactics which pre-date even Mad Men Camelot days. Call it car dealer marketing--it's important to get customers in the car for a test drive.

But the really smart players are blending this old-is-new, in-person marketing with their corporate marketing spending. And that is kind of new.

Major American brand players such as Microsoft, Target, Staples and Sports Authority have invested in charitable and community-focused back-to-school campaigns. "By doing so, not only do they leverage community good will, they win the new marketing game by putting their products directly in the hands of target consumers", says Brad Hettich, President of

Through Education Funding Partners - a marketing firm which connects national brands to school districts--Microsoft, as an example, was able to deploy a marketing campaign giving away their products at schools nationwide. It's not only good for the schools and students (free products), it's the smart, new way to get customers using your products.

It won't replace the millions of dollars these companies spend in advertising--some of them, I'm sure, still use Madison Avenue firms. But more and more companies are finding that threading the needle of community and cause engagement with the need for in-person marketing is highly effective. And, frankly, inexpensive by comparison.

That multiplier effect for forward-thinking brands means we'll see more and more brands such as Sports Authority, to name another example, giving away custom t-shirts at a high school football game--which they did.

It's understandable that some of these brands may not want to hold big press events around their new outreach. Doing so could invite cynicism around their motives and to really work, it must be genuine. And, to be fair, almost all big national brands take their community commitments very seriously.

But when they can put two and two together and get five, they should. And will.

And schools are the perfect place to look for more of these community branding initiatives because they always need help and marketing research has shown brand loyalty starts early--often in your teen years. For the cost of a t-shirt or a software bundle, corporate leaders may be inspiring a loyal customer for a lifetime.

That's good marketing and great business. Even Don Draper would agree.