Mad Men, the sex- and cocktail-fueled paean to the early wizards of branding, recently returned to AMC for a third season, and the second season is out on DVD. The show, set in the offices of fictional Sterling Cooper during the 1960s, owes its portrayal of period ads and agencies to consultants Josh Weltman and Bob Levinson, both veterans of BBDO and other top shops. Editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan asked Weltman about the days before ads got ADD.
As you look back over period ads, what surprises you most?
The time taken to craft a commercial or ad campaign. Commercials from that time were 60 seconds or longer and felt as if they're in three acts: 20 seconds to lay out a problem or premise, another 20 or 30 selling a product or solution, and 10 or 15 about the company in general. Today, people seem to like a long, sustained setup followed by a smart quick-sell line or payoff. It's a completely different rhythm and feel.
Ad campaigns also built slowly over time. I believe the first ad in DDB's famous Volkswagen campaign ran in 1959. The campaign maintained the same basic selling proposition -- small, smart, alternative car -- until the mid-'70s. That's a 15-year campaign with one agency, one message, one look, one tone of voice. The average agency-client relationship nowadays lasts something like three years.
Advertising is viewed -- at least by outsiders -- as a fun, glamorous industry. Does that have its origins in the Mad Men era?
An ad agency is like taking all the forces at work in Hollywood and cramming them into a phone booth. Creatives are talent. Account people are agents. Clients and media are the studio and distributors. But instead of doing deals over the phone, all the players are down the hall or in your office, trying to get the work done while protecting their own interests. If everyone's putting the work first, it's fun. If they're not, it isn't. Interesting things happen whenever people with money, power, and determination get together with people who are ambitious, talented, and creative. I'm not sure when it first happened. But I think it was way before the '60s.
I think of advertising from that period as being squeaky clean and upbeat. But there was apparently plenty of sex and irony. Were audiences growing more sophisticated -- or just the creatives?
"Does she or doesn't she?" is pretty rude. "I dreamed I was wanted in my Maidenform bra" is much sexier than anything in a general-audience magazine today. There was an adult world in the '60s. It seemed more complex and nuanced. For a long time, the market has been infatuated with the idea of endless adolescence. I think it's kind of shortsighted, thin, and weak.
On the show, one character lobbies to create a television department. Why did it take so long for people to realize the power of TV advertising?
TV had been around for 20 years at the time the show is set. But it was still growing and undefined, like online media is today. In the past few years, I've seen lots of agencies struggle with what new media means to them. Should they build a new department, buy a small new-media company? We wanted to show what happens, who steps up, when a new medium enters the agency.
What can contemporary ad agencies learn from watching the show?
Every idea sounds better when you're dressed sharp. Slow down. Have a drink. Seduce, don't sell.
Let's pretend Sterling Cooper is real and just landed General Motors or AIG as a client. What would the agency do?
The economy is in the crapper, and Sterling Cooper lands AIG and General Motors. Open a bottle of everything.