April 13, 2010
 

Mad Men: He Says, She Says

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By Wendy McHale, Publisher

I have the opportunity speak and share my experiences each semester in one of Kurt Brokaw's weekly classes, "All About Advertising" at the New School University in Greenwich Village. You should register for it!

For 2.5 hours, Kurt and I have a stimulating and informative conversation about Madison Avenue in front of a captive audience, his students! And with every encounter, I walk away having learned something I didn't know before I visited the classroom!

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Often times we agree on issues of the day. Sometimes we don't! It's made for a terrific relationship in the class and publishing the Journal.

One of the things we talked about today around the water cooler was the new show Mad Men, which debuted last night on AMC. I liked it, he didn't. However, he beat me to the punch in writing up his review on why he didn't! It's published below!

Okay Kurt, you got me! Mine will come next week!

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For the next 13 weeks, during the life of the program's run, the MadAve Journal plans to cover at least two opposing views of what worked or didn't in "Mad Men". Who knows, if the program is successful, it may spawn a new series titled, "Mad Women"!

What did YOU think about it? After you read Kurt's review, scroll back up and vote and tell us why:

Click on MAD MEN SURVEY to vote and then click on MAD MEN RESULTS to review responses!

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If you were home July 19 and watched the first Thursday night episode of AMC's new 13-chapter recreation of agency/marketer life in 1965, you may never have gotten over its first scene. The agency creative director, whose name is Don Draper (:perhaps a tribute to Draper Daniels, the creative head of Leo Burnett during the era) is deep in conversation with a black waiter in an upscale restaurant.

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The waiter smokes Old Golds and Don (played rather woodenly by Jon Hamm, who acts more like a pressed suit than a creative director), is desperately trying to think up a new campaign for Lucky Strikes. He's asking the waiter why he smokes Old Golds and not Luckies, and the waiter is patiently explaining that Old Golds were given out as wartime samples. "I love smoking," smiles the waiter, and Don notes it down with his pen. "I Love Smoking" is about the only verbatim Don writes down, which is why it's not surprising that he walks into the client presentation without an idea in his head. It doesn't appear Don has much of a staff, or perhaps any staff, in this huge agency, though he has a good-size office with a well-stocked bar. No writers, art directors or producers are shown creating advertising on anything.

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Don is quick to dismiss the research findings of the agency's bespeckled, foreign-born female research director, who defensively reminds him she holds a doctorate. She's modeled on Dr. Herta Herzog, probably the most notable woman agency research director of the period, who worked closely with Marion Harper at Interpublic as well as Mary Wells. The research director has a long motivational study revealing smokers' closely linked attitudes about death and smoking, and Don tosses it in his wastebasket.

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Between the time Don shares his running-on-empty idea pool with his in-town mistress, and that night when he steps off the train in Ossining to tussle the hair of his sleeping children and his patient, faithful wife who's waited up for him, the Lucky account has almost been lost but then shored up by the creative director's sudden epiphany with his junior account exec.

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This sourpuss 26-year-old doesn't seem to do any more work than Don, but at least he doesn't sit there stone silent in the presentation to Lucky Strike management. While the tobacco CEO (played by stage veteran John Cullum) sputters and mutters over Don's inability to even get to his feet, the kid does some deft extrapolation of the research data he's pulled out of Don's wastebasket. He tells us advertising should make us happy, like smoking, which leads Don to ask the client how Luckies are made. Nobody--not Don, not the account lad, not the agency president, not even the client's son sitting there-- seems to know how cigarettes are made. Cullum explains the process including how tobacco is toasted, and this magically triggers a USP in Don's mind. "It's Toasted," he writes in chalk on the agency conference room blackboard, and the client team just about keels over in awe. (In fact Lucky used that theme as a replacement campaign for the long-lived "LSMFT--Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco" campaign of mid-century.)

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Are you taking notes on this? Most of the glowing, laudatory reviews of "Mad Men" are praising how Matthew Weiner's attention to smoking, drinking, cheating and fast talking hucksterism accurately defines the mid-60s time frame that this series starts in. Don't you believe it. In 1964 I was a writer at Benton & Bowles on P&G, Heublein, Texaco and American Motors, and that was after stints at J. Walter Thompson and McCann Erickson. I have deep familiarity with the period and with top-ten Mad Ave agencies, and you can be sure dapper Don Draper and his bone-headed screw-ups wouldn't have lasted a week on most accounts. They're cardboard inventions and "Mad Men" in its first outing is a carnival of deceit.

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If you want to watch the real deal on how both agencies and marketers were in fact beginning to be dominated by the media at mid-century, there's one scene in George Clooney's superb "Good Night, And Good Luck" that should rivet your attention. Ed Murrow (David Straihairn) is called into the office of his CBS network boss Bill Paley (Frank Langella) and told that his award-winning news show is being pulled off prime time and shoved into a Sunday afternoon slot. Murrow is stunned. Why? he asks. Paley quietly and evenly explains that audience ratings are down, that Alcoa aluminum (one of the largest sponsors) is withdrawing, that his CBS affiliate managers frankly find the news broadcast depressing, and that CBS viewers want lighter, more uplifting entertainment programming. Langella plays Paley as a reasonable, responsive, bottom-line and profit-oriented network chieftain, and he'll chill you to the bone. He's about a thousand times more believable than Roger Sterling (played by John Slattery), the CEO of "Mad Men's" ad agency, who apparently didn't even speak with his creative director before the Lucky Strike presentation. Imagine--the president walks into a major presentation with a Looney Tunes creative director who hasn't prepared a single ad to show. Is Matthew Weiner serious?

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In 1964 Madison Avenue's creative revolution was just beginning. Whether you were with Norman B. Norman doing Ajax White Tornadoes at Norman, Craig & Kummel--in virtually the same offices where Tim McHale used to work at Tribal DDB--or down below 42nd Street where the dynamic young Carl Nichols was building Cunningham & Walsh into a brilliant package goods agency at 260 Madison Avenue, you were excited about the process of creation and all the possibilities of advertising in a television era. People routinely put in 60 and 70 hour weeks, and putting in nights and weekends wasn't uncommon.
At Grey, the motto was "if you can't come in on Sunday, don't bother coming in on Monday" and a lot of us lived and breathed advertising. None of these "Mad Men" ever break a sweat, except with whoever they're bedding down.

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Maybe some veterans smoked and drank too much, but then the corporate cultures of that time tolerated, supported and even cheerleaded chain smoking and drinking in the office. A number of extraordinary young women in addition to Mary Wells, like Phyllis Robinson, Jean Wade Rindlaub, Margot Sherman, Janet Wolff, Paula Green Jane Trahey and Nancy Sutton were demonstrating that "the girls" could break through glass ceilings and outthink, outwork, and even outdrink their male counterparts. All the women in "Mad Men's" ad world are supplicants who are told to act like supplicants. The "Mad Men" themselves are really a bunch of Matchstick Men, like the empty con artists in Ridley Scott's keen satire.

And from the evidence of the first hour of "Mad Men," the con is coming from both sides of the camera.

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