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The Creative Revolution

AMC’s Mad Men has succeeded in garnering critical acclaim thanks to good writing, acting, and production. If you’ve followed the show into the 7th and now 8th week, you’re one of the millions who either side with Peter Campbell’s all-or-nothing rise to the top attitude (god, he’s a snake) or adore Don Draper’s Machiavellian approach to business (I wish he was my boss). And what’s not to like about Roger Sterling, who has J. Peterman good looks minus the childlike personality. Despite the martinis and expense accounts that allow the Sterling Cooper executives to lavish themselves with frills, things are getting serious and stress has ensued. Problems erupt on the home front when the wives question their husbands’ loyalty, and consider flirting around themselves. Soon, a fresh presidential candidate (Nixon) could become a big ticket client for the firm. But what, if anything, will we learn about the creative revolution from this show?

Thus far, Mad Men has wowed me with its interwoven narratives, multi-layered themes, and representation of the 60s. But all of this happens against the backdrop of advertising, media, and art directors. The creative revolution has been relegated to set dressing. I get the impression that the production team pays more attention to the actors’ hair than the brutal work that goes on in writer’s row or over the art tables. Mad Men shows you enough about the people and players, but what about the work they do? If anything, Mad Men enlivened my curiosity, but since falling asleep during episode 3, I decided to curl up with some books on Thursday nights instead. I’ve read the following each week thereafter.

John Gunther’s tale of Albert D. Lasker, Taken at the Flood, is a sympathetic biography that chronicles a man possessed with succeeding at everything. Starting in the 1890s and moving into the 20th Century, you learn about Lasker the ambitious reporter, who pulled stunts like posing as a telegram delivery boy in order to land interviews. His passion for getting the story and understanding people enabled him to land enormous accounts when he worked for Lord & Thomas advertising. Not only was Lasker a media maverick for his product comparisons and use of celebrity endorsements, but at one time he owned the Chicago Cubs. He partnered with William Wrigley Jr. and suggested that the baking soda / bubble gum tycoon paste his name on the ballpark. How’s that for sponsorship? Lasker also had a hand in politics doing campaign duties for Warren Harding in the 1920 election. He lived and worked before the Mad Men-era 1960s, and established many tried and true advertising methods that folks from that era would master themselves. And if you want to learn about the revolutionary steps advertisers took with cigarettes, flip to chapter 10 to read about the motivation behind Lasker slogans such as “Cigarettes Are Kind to Your Throat” or “I Protect My Precious Voice with Lucky Strikes.” Let’s not overlook the fact that Lasker snatched up Raymond Loewy to design the Lucky packaging.

If Taken at the Flood illustrates an advertising maverick setting the standard up to WWII, George Lois’ tale continues the story through the 1950s and 60s—what he labels as the creative revolution. George, Be Careful: A Greek Florist’s Kid in the Roughhouse World of Advertising depicts the rise of George Lois from his days with CBS to Doyle Dane Bernbach, and then onto his own studio. Lois and Bill Pitts do one thing well—they retain your attention. I read the book in one night, and it’s not just because I share George’s Greek sentiments, but mostly because it’s a good story. Would you ever jump out a window in order to protect your work? Defend your design? Lois nearly did, or at least, made it look like he was going to. For Goodman’s matzos, George’s account executive failed to convince the company’s stakeholders that an ad using Hebrew would sell matzos. After the company officers told him to get off the ledge and they’d run the ad, he tauted, “You make the matzos, I’ll make the ads.” I wonder if the account executives suicide attempt would have gotten the same result. Hell, maybe the matzo executives would have let him jump out the window and splat on the pavement. Many artists and designers possess the “I don’t take any crap” attitude, but to Lois it’s as much about taking pride in the work as demanding respect. In George, Be Careful, the work and the man appear larger than life.

Like a good cookbook, my copy of Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy has Post-It flags sticking out from dozens of pages. Ogilvy wrote it like a recipe for a succulent meal and that’s because at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, Ogilvy had Chef Pitard as a mentor, who inspired “white-hot morale.” Pitard’s hands-on management style taught Ogilvy that no matter what level you work at in an organization, you must work in the pits from time to time. For Pitard, that meant planning the menu. Ordering the goods and produce. And cooking too. For Ogilvy, it meant administrating an agency, managing clients, and writing copy from time to time. Amongst a handful of small- to medium-sized agencies I’ve had the pleasure of working with, all the principals have read Ogilvy’s book. All of them have told me to read it, and finally I’ve gotten a chance to. If Lois gives a personal history of the creative revolution peppered with well told drama, Ogilvy’s chapter titles and content sound like a step by step for starting your own agency: How to Get Clients, How to Keep Clients, How to Build Great Campaigns, How to Write Potent Copy, and so on. This all may sound like an Andrew Carnegie How to Win Friends & Influence People type of book. And it is. There are principles that Ogilvy subscribed to, and in truth, I’ve put some of them into practice over the past four weeks when it comes to developing new clients. And they work. No kidding.

Having read the above titles, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I plan to hunt down James Webb Young’s The Diary of an Ad Men next, but will hit the library instead of paying the $299 for a used copy. When choosing between watching Mad Men on Thursday nights or reading about the issues and influences of practitioners from that era, I feel like the books will always be better. And as always, I look forward to getting recommendations from our Speak Up readers.

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PUBLISHED ON Sep.06.2007 BY Jason A. Tselentis
neal s’s comment is:

Great post, Jason. Mad Men is indeed a must-watch, and it's nice to get some good leads on context.

On Sep.06.2007 at 08:53 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Must watch sounds like AMC sales talk, and I am not trying to up AMC's viewership. I would say that Mad Men delivers a good story, and sympathetic characters. If you want a good follow up to Sopranos, Mad Men looks like a choice selection. However, those hungry for more back story will read some of the above titles, or maybe recommend some new ones.

On Sep.06.2007 at 08:56 PM
felix’s comment is:

I've watched every episode of MadMen (my wife a former copywriter, me, art director). While I agree it would be nice to see more creative process that just doens't sell.

As they said in the 1st episode, "creative is only 10% of what we do. It's window dressing. Don't let all that talk fool you. We make our money in media buys."

On Sep.06.2007 at 09:21 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Yes, Felix. You are correct in that creative doesn't win awards. But people said that gangsters and mafia bad guys wouldn't either---and look how well the Sopranos did. Moreover, you're spot on with the media buys. Lasker, and the book above, did a world of good for future advertising pioneers by raising the percentages at his firm. He earned millions, while still being a student of the game. I enjoyed his quest to learn about 'what advertising really is.' The moment when he becomes partner, and gets a message from a copy writer who claims to 'have the answer' read like a good mystery novel to me. Lasker's story manages to weave the creative into the characters' passions, and I've yet to see Mad Men do that. So far, it just drives them to drink.

On Sep.06.2007 at 10:06 PM
oscar’s comment is:

Mad Men isn't about advertising any more than Newsradio was about radio or Seinfeld about (standup) comedy.

On Sep.06.2007 at 10:28 PM
neal s’s comment is:

OK, I personally consider it must-watch. My mistake for implying you meant something you didn't say.

That said, "good story and sympathetic characters" is really all I meant.

On Sep.06.2007 at 10:33 PM
Michael Bierut’s comment is:

On Mad Men, the guys all vaguely sense that there's a creative revolution happening, but it's down the street at Doyle Dane Bernbach. They have fun dismissing Helmut Krone and Julian Koenig's Volkswagen "Lemon" ad until Don Draper points out that, say what you will, it's all they've been talking about for the last 15 minutes. (The show's accuracy is impressive; they even cover the fact that "Lemon" was the second in the series that began with "Think Small.")

While it's doubtful that any agency in 1960 was ever quite this square, if you read Jerry Della Femina's From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor (also a great book), you get the clear impression that there was a real divide between the cool creative agencies (which usually had a lot of Italians and Jews) and the archtypical uber-WASP places like Sterling Cooper that were all about the martinis.

By the way, in tonight's episode, Don Draper sold a campaign to a reluctant client with the best, most ballsy pitch I've ever heard. If I had a transcript, I'd commit it to memory. Plus, art director Sal Romano told his would-be date that he's working with architects on his new department store account, "mostly signage." I never thought I'd hear the word "signage" in prime time, even on basic cable. I love this show.

On Sep.06.2007 at 11:22 PM
Cactus Jones’s comment is:

>I never thought I'd hear the word "signage" in prime time

My dearly departed business mentor hated bastard words and "signage" was at the top of his list. I don't think the word was made up until the late 1970s.

He also taught me to not take a noun and make it a verb, like prioritize. Can't wait for the show to add that to the script ASAP.

On Sep.07.2007 at 07:46 AM
Michael Bierut’s comment is:

Cactus, I agree that "signage" is anachronistic for 1960, but I appreciate the effort nonetheless.

On Sep.07.2007 at 09:07 AM
agrayspace’s comment is:

I am a big fan of the show. Only being on episode 5, I am slightly dissapointed on the lack of creative as well. The first episode with the "its toasted" pitch was great and really wet my appetite for more. The second episode had a reduced emphasis, with Draper only coming up with the idea in bed and jotting it down. Then it pretty much dissapears in the following. I hate to be so insular, but I want more!

I understand that it might not be what the majority of the public wants, but they already have Two and Half Men and CSI. Mad Men is for us, dammit.

Thanks Jason for the recommended reading.

On Sep.07.2007 at 10:24 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

I'm pleased to see Michael point out the clear ethnic divides between Sterling Cooper and what that staff calls the 'Jews' working in the other offices. In all honesty, when they criticized that VW work using 'Jew' as racial slur, it made me feel quite uncomfortable. Thereafter, I began to detest the characters and see them as villanous. Clearly, my ethnic background colors my opinions. If you put DDB or PKL (Lois' agency after leaving DDB), I'd want them to crush Sterling Cooper in any bidding / pitch war.

On Sep.07.2007 at 10:58 AM
Josh B’s comment is:

I'm with Michael on this. The show definitely has evidence of the creative revolution, but in very subtle ways. It's sort of happening around these characters, rather than to/through them. But it's there, in little snippets of dialogue, or the music on the jukebox, or the encounters with beatnik artists in the village who have nothing but contempt for the "suits".

I don't expect the creative revolution will ever be the prevailing theme of the show, but it's already becoming apparent as one of the more subtextual story arcs that the times they are a changin'. Take for example, the mousy secretray Peggy getting a chance to write copy, and earning some respect from the boys.

And Jason, not to get too political, but I'm not sure it's fair to see the characters as villians because they use "jew" as a slur. Afterall, they all drink and smoke to excess - even the pregnant housewife - the men think the women are dumb; the divorced, single mom is ostracized by the other housewives; the black janitor has to ask permission to ride in the elevator with the white office staff; and the dads slap the kids when they run in the house - kids that aren't even theirs! It's all representative of the time, and ultimately it probably reveals that on the whole, americans haven't changed very much (sadly).

And can I just point out that last night's episode had a hobo in it! He even shows the young Don Draper the secret pictographic code of the hoboes - maybe the seed of Don's career in visual communication? - something Armin linked to from Quips just last month I believe. To quote the Hipster Olympics viral vid, "hoboes are the new unicorns!" Indeed.

On Sep.07.2007 at 01:06 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> something Armin linked to from Quips just last month I believe.

Hobo signs and symbols. One of my favorite pages on the internet.

> I don't expect the creative revolution will ever be the prevailing theme of the show,

So, one could say, the revolution will not be televised? (Couldn't resist).

On Sep.07.2007 at 02:52 PM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

I really like the show. It's good entertainment, and they throw in a reference now and again that I get that I know other folks pipin' in from The Sopranos don't get. It's pretty unfair to throw the whole hopes and dreams of an entire profession onto the back of the first TV show to try and tackle their domain. I imagine its comparable to when ER first came on the air for doctors... light on industry speak, heavy on human drama. A doctor friend of mine actually watches the show to catch all the mistakes. It'll be the same for Madmen.

On Sep.07.2007 at 03:56 PM
felix’s comment is:

...at least the original Italian Stallion didn't wear black t-shirts, drink Martinis and smoke Camel unfiltereds.

On Sep.07.2007 at 04:35 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Funny about ER, Greg, because my mother, who is a nurse, has watched General Hospital and ER and berated some of the procedures and practices, all the while hollering, "I should consult for these people. That must pay better than nursing."

On Sep.07.2007 at 05:02 PM
jameswillisisthebest’s comment is:

This is my first post
just saying HI

On Sep.08.2007 at 06:33 PM
MJS’s comment is:

Thanks for the book recommendations Jason!

On Sep.09.2007 at 11:35 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Cactus Jones says He also taught me to not take a noun and make it a verb, like prioritize.

A useful practice. It's called verbing.

On Sep.09.2007 at 11:53 AM
Scott Stowell’s comment is:

I am in love with Mad Men. But what I love the most about it is that it is steadily curing me of my wistful nostalgia for a world I never experienced. As a graphic designer who grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts in the 1970s, an ad agency in early 1960s Manhattan was about the most glamorous and cool environment I could imagine. I got that idea from Bewitched and Tony Randall movies, but still.

But the show (and that environment) is (was) not all suits and wet bars and brushed-metal lettering on the doors. It's also racist and sexist and anti-Semitic in ways that are truly shocking in their detached brutality. To be anything but an upper-class straight white Protestant man in that world must have been terrifying. So I'll gladly pass on the cool decor to live today.

Meanwhile, the agency/client interactions are great to see--not so much because of the obvious anachronisms, but because they're so familiar. Change those (beautiful, except the crappy US Steel campaign) hand-comped boards to some kind of Keynote presentation--and remove (most of) the talk about hiring hookers for the clients--and you have a pretty normal client meeting now.

That's not to say that the writing and the drama in those situations is not heightened and well-crafted. That come-to-Jesus speech Don gives the Belle Jolie client was truly inspiring--I've already started to think about how to adapt it for my own use. And everyone could use more erudite banter in daily life (I also think that whenever I watch an Aaron Sorkin show).

But I can't wait to see how this old-school agency reacts when the new school starts seeping in. It's 1960, and while Mary Wells is writing copy for those very VW ads over at DDB, these guys are blithely comparing a smart young woman to a performing dog. The new world is coming, and Sterling Cooper is not ready. I just hope Mad Men is around long to show us what happens.

Note: it's Roger Sterling, not "John Sterling." John Slattery plays him.

On Sep.10.2007 at 09:21 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Thanks for the enthusiastic comment, Scott. I for one, am pleased you joined the conversation given your wealth of experience (and knowledge of the show—Roger Sterling's name has been corrected and now I wonder if the writers intended on making his name so close to Rod Sterling's). Mad Men is an excellent study in politics, sexuality, culture, and persuasion. What will be interesting is to see how a changing culture impacts Weiner's characters and the work they do.

On Sep.10.2007 at 09:31 AM
Jenni’s comment is:

I would like to recommend, "No Logo" by Naomi Klein. This book was written in the late 90's, and provides a historical backdrop for anyone interested in learning more about how the workings of advertising contribute to global capitalism. "No Logo" has precise accounts about global clients and their sometimes disastrous mistakes. I think this book provides a brilliant contrast to David Ogilvy's book. Kleins' critical eye about consumer culture is like no other. She has a new book out as well, "Then Shock Doctrine."

On Sep.10.2007 at 03:23 PM
Cactus Jones’s comment is:

Thanks Gunnar. I had no idea it was defined.

I looked up “verbing/verbification” on the wiki

and came across a sweet quote from Calvin & Hobbes...

“Verbing weirds language”

On Sep.10.2007 at 08:31 PM
Chris Risdon’s comment is:

Great to see Mad Men recognized. As a thirty-something graphic designer in NY, who's dad was a suit on Madison Avenue in the late 60's and early 70's it's been amazing to see the attention to detail on so many different levels (according to my father who was doing Proctor & Gamble advertising about 7 years after this show takes place).

Speaking of the pregnant smoking, my favorite moment like this was when the daughter comes in with her friend with a plastic bag (probably from dry cleaning?) over her head. And the mother didn't even flinch and told her to go clean her room or something.

But on the creative process side. It is at least good to see where art directors were on the totem pole - working in the gallows toiling on sketches, while it was the copywriters who where making up the slogans and headlines to sell ads.

My wife couldn't believe how excited I was when I saw them cover the VW campaign accurately like that.

I agree that for folks like us there could be more about the creative process. But it's worked in here and there on the edges.

To plug a book about the advertising "behind the scenes" that is a great read - albeit for the 90s - is Where the Suckers Moon, about the pitch and campaign of the Suburu account by Wieden + Kennedy.

On Sep.10.2007 at 08:37 PM
Jon Dascola’s comment is:

So pardon my ignorance on this post, I only watched the pilot episode last night, but was quite impressed. Don's struggle with the tabacco pitch was great. That's what makes this business so exciting. The creative struggle, coming up with an idea in the 11 hour, all the tension. I thought it was great. The show doesnt need to show the final, polished ads to make the point. Isn't it about the process anyway?

I also sympathized with Don in the meeting with the (forget her name)Department store owner. Right or wrong, how many times have we insisted on knowing better than the client and resisted all urges to tell them what we really think. I know a few times I would have liked to have gone "Draper" on them.

As per the books, Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan is a brilliant book.

Any of the Pentagram publications are great too. (does that even need to be said here?)

On Sep.14.2007 at 09:43 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Thanks, Jon, for the Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This recommendation. I actually have that in my Winter reading pile because the first time I read it wasn't enough. It's hilarious, and down to Earth.

As far as Mad Men, the critique isn't so much about seeing the final art, and you're spot on about how seeing the process is valuable. However, the show addresses the creative process and history for about 15-20% of its broadcast. Would it be the same if they spent more time in the pits, showing how the ads get developed, or demonstrating the squabbles between art directors and copy writers? And will we ever get to see that? Would it be as 'entertaining' as the romance, lies, sexually interplay, etc. that we already see so much of?

On Sep.15.2007 at 12:08 PM
Jon Dascola’s comment is:

Touche Jason. I was satisfied in the "creative amount" during the pilot, but if it only aounts for 15-20% of the show, I could begins to see the disappontment.

What interests me in my (young) career is how the creative process works from firm to firm. I worked as an in-house designer for a large fashion retail company, and I know what's that's all about. Now I work for a small ad agency and I know what's that's about, but what is it like on Madison Ave? Or the designers nirvana of Pentagram? The culture of an agency is what i believe to be the most important factor in the quality of work produced. Hopefully Mad Men captures that "vibe" and excitement.

Pat Fallon recently published "Juicing the Orange" another great read, but my favorite book about the creative lifestyle has to be The Fountainhead.

On Sep.15.2007 at 08:57 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

The Fountainhead? Really. If it's anything like this quick review of Atlas Shrugged, I'll take a rain check.

On Sep.16.2007 at 09:29 PM
Jon Dascola’s comment is:

I believe Mr. Bierut's synopsis does more justice than my own would.

The Other Rand

On Sep.16.2007 at 09:51 PM
Sharon Van Lieu’s comment is:

I like the complexity of Mad Men. I wish there was less emphasis on the baser qualities of humanity. Everyone is out to get something. I find that depressing. (And yes, I have worked in advertising.)

I think the secretaries are positively creepy.


On Sep.18.2007 at 04:15 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Yes, the secretaries are creepy. I sometimes get the impression that they're the ones really running things, like workers bees in a subterranean Metropolis.

On Sep.21.2007 at 04:57 PM
Lyndi Parrett’s comment is:

im an avid viewer of this show - i find it fascinating as hell...how true to life it represents that era - and how far we have come with women in the workfield.

On Oct.03.2007 at 05:05 PM