Mad About Mad Men

Accoding to nycgo, legendary creative George Lois is the one ad man in America not secretly in love with Don Draper.
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I’ve been accused of being the inspiration for the lead of Mad Men (ugh!), the TV show [on AMC] about an ad agency in the ’60s that depicts the exploits of cultural buffoons. So here’s what a day in the life of a real Mad Man was like.
I would arrive at my ad agency [Papert Koenig Lois] in the exquisite Seagram building each morning at 5:45 (I kid you not) dressed in custom-made Meledandri suits, cooler than any suit ever seen on that “fashionable” show. I enjoyed the quiet and solitude of that time of day, joyfully creating and polishing ad campaigns as the creative head of the maverick group I founded the first week of 1960. The rest of my gung-ho gang would begin to show up for work starting at about 7am. Every day at noon, I would have a power lunch on the ground floor of this great Mies building at the most exciting restaurant in town, the Four Seasons (which was one of my first accounts). Here, my fellow creatives and I worked through lunch while dining like royalty.

Hmmm…sounds a lot like the fictional characters we see on Mad Men. But Lois thinks those characters are depicting hacks. He writes, “Mad Men deals with the non-talents and phonies in the traditional world of advertising back then (they still exist, in droves).”
Cheryl Berman, for one, does not agree. This is her take:

In one episode when Sterling Cooper is pitching the business for the new Kodak Wheel, Don makes a speech in which he actually renames the product. “It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called the Carousel.” That’s the most brilliant copywriting I’ve ever come across on a television show.

Matters of taste are painfully subjective. But let’s look a bit deeper into the reality of the Creative Revolution’s impact, not the TV depiction.
When Michael Troiano of Scalable Intimacy came out of school he had the good fortune to work with Lois.

What I Learned from George
I learned a lot from George… about how to sell, about what clients really want, about how to protect the integrity of an original thought, about the value of creating a personal brand, and about the personal price of believing you’re as good as the world thinks you are, especially when you are very good indeed.
But the most important thing I learned was that advertising that doesn’t get your attention “ain’t worth shit.” That advertising boils down to getting people’s attention long enough to communicate a simple, compelling thought in a way they will never forget.

Allow me to add that it’s incredibly difficult to get someone’s attention with an ad, a TV show, a song, a publicity stunt and so on. That’s why real ad men and women are worth their weight in gold. Brands vying for attention in a fractured and competitive marketplace need talented communicators to help them tell a compelling story. I’m far from the first to say it’s a job that’s rarely done well. Hence, our industry’s poor reputation and the incessant wrestling for control between client and agency.
I think Mad Men’s impact on today’s agency business is mostly positive. Once you get past the racism, sexism and homophobia in the show what’s left is a romanticized but real depiction of creativity’s impact on business and the larger consumer culture. It’s kind of sad, but not at all unexpected, that someone from outside the ad business (but deep inside the storytelling business) would deliver this gift.

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About David Burn

Native Nebraskan in the Pacific Northwest. Brand builder at Bonehook. Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. Contributor to The Content Strategist. Believer in Gossage, Bernbach and Clow. Doer of the things written about herein.

  • http://scalableintimacy.com Michael Troiano

    Excellent piece, David. I agree with all of it… especially the observation that whomever is writing Don’s pitches and copy is better than 95% of “real” ad men producing the work I see elsewhere.