Kings of Madison Avenue

Advertising has a complicated relationship with Mad Men. On the one hand, the show elevated the grubby hucksterism of failed artists and others to something actually aspirational. It told people in advertising that they had style. Had brains. Had balls. Were not just second-rate writers and artists and businessmen who either lacked the talent or the courage to succeed. No, it said, people in advertising were cool. Were rich. And got to do things you and I can’t do.

Which is the other hand of the relationship. The people in Mad Men, the men certainly, are by and large despicable. They are bullies. They are liars. They are sloppy and self-involved and selfish and immoral. And the fact that they are all fine with all of this doesn’t make any of it more palatable.

And many of us in advertising were too. Sure, our mouths hung open when Ken Cosgrove chased down a secretary to ascertain (and report back on) the color of her underwear. Or when Don Draper ended the Pilot in bed with a different woman than he started the episode with. Or, or or… But we still watched. Not just because it was outrageous, or stylish, or so well built. But because it was so smart about the business. From Don Draper saying “You are the product. You, feeling something – that’s what sells” to Roger Sterling saying “Being with a client is like being in a marriage: sometimes you get into it for the wrong reasons and eventually they hit you in the face” and beyond. There was a lot about the inside baseball of advertising – of that intersection of art and commerce – that Mad Men got right, and we reveled in it.

And that revelry somehow made it personal for us. It became personal for Jesse Mclean too. So personal that it drove him to write Kings of Madison Avenue. Why?

Because, as he writes early in the book, “as a fan of Mad Men, I sought out a single volume that would combine all of [my] questions and concerns but also celebrate the show and augment the viewing experience, a book that looked behind the scenes at the forces that conspired to create the show, and the people who brought it to life; a book that assessed the literary and cinematic antecedents that helped inspire this amazing show. I looked high and low, but I couldn’t find the book I wanted. So I wrote it.”

He starts with some background – of the long path the show walked from inception to execution, and with biographies of the key actors. And then he features an episode-by-episode breakdown of the series. (The fact that the book was published in 2009 means it only covers the first two seasons, saving it from being the kind of massive tome used best as a doorstop).

It’s here that Kings of Madison Avenue opens up, for Mclean uses each episode as a springboard into an essay about some aspect of it that interests him. It could be feminism. It could be alcohol. It could be anything. He follows each with a quotation from the episode that is emblematic of it, like this exchange between Don and Roger:

Don: Let me ask you something – What do women want?

Roger: Who cares?

Then a sort of “signature moment” is pulled out for deeper discussion. In one, it’s the introduction of saccharin. In another, it’s Betty and Francine cackling about the new divorcee in the neighborhood. And finally, there’s a cocktail of note – with recipes so you can enjoy them at home.

All of which is interspersed with essays on some of the mid-century effluvia that MadMen swims in and that most viewers are clueless about. Like Delbert Mann’s Lover Come Back (p. 87) or Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (p. 42) or Richard YatesRevolutionary Road (p. 171).

Mclean then wraps up Kings of Madison Avenue with a pair of appendices that solidify his status as a fan of Mad Men (if the preceding 200 odd pages hadn’t). One lays out an itinerary for doing a Mad Men tour of New York City (drop your bags at The Roosevelt, grab lunch at P.J. Clarke’s, spend an afternoon at MoMA). And one describes in detail his preparations for a Mad Men viewing party – with period eats, drinks and clothes. Remember those?

But here’s the thing. Mclean isn’t an advertising person. So why did the show hit him on such a personal level? It could simply be, as he writes in the book’s opening essay, because it was so well put together. So well written. And so obliquely relevant to our own times.

And yet, think for a moment, how different a world greeted Mad Men when it debuted than the world we inhabit now. That world, where Matt Weiner’s thesis – What if you have everything you want and still feel empty – was fascinating and ripe for the exploring. Right up until the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008. When car companies teetered on the edge of extinction. When housing prices cratered. When unemployment rose, and rose, and rose again. Remember those days? Or maybe you remember the economy that shrank in 2020 during a global pandemic and street protests.

Of course, none of those things makes Kings of Madison Avenue less valuable. None of it makes Mad Men less valuable either. But it does cast them in a different light.

In the episode “5G”, Don Draper says “I have a life and it only goes in one direction… forward.” In subsequent episodes we saw how true that was for him, and the price he paid for it. In the ensuing years since Mad Men debuted, we have seen how true it was for all of us, and the price we have paid for it as well.

Kings of Madison Avenue by Jesse McLean was published by ECW Press on 09/01/2009 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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