Almost from the moment the AMC drama Mad Men premiered in July of 2007, two things happened. On the one hand, you had people who were unknown to the general public suddenly elevated to the status of cultural icons. Bernbach. Ogilvy. Koenig. A recognition of them as stars. As geniuses, perhaps, whose insights into the evolving public psyche made them the leaders of a golden age of advertising that still resonates today. And since they were gone and thus could not be feted to their faces, you had a celebration of those who were still around. Not exactly “second-tier” icons, just not the folks that Don and Roger and Peggy were discussing over old-fashioneds and smokes.

And at the same time, you had many of those self-same people, whom the press was crawling over to interview, whose work was being re-discussed and newly lauded –raining down vitriol on the show and Matthew Weiner and anyone associated with either for all the things they were getting wrong about that era, their work, themselves. Vitriol that reached a peak, not surprisingly, with George Lois who called Sterling Cooper the scum of the industry, while pointing out that, of course, he was better looking than Don Draper.

As a result of this friction a cottage industry developed to explain the differences between the show and the reality. Some entries are pure fluff. But some, like Andrew Cracknell’s well-written, well-researched and beautifully produced The Real Mad Men: The Renegades of Madison Avenue and the Golden Age of Advertising provide real insight and valuable understanding.

For example, Cracknell admirably connects the dots on the famous “You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s” ads to reveal the genius behind that well-regarded campaign. And his observations about the functional use of advertising during the 1960s also is illuminating:

“This was the era of constant product innovation, when new variations of medicines, shaving products, hair shampoos, skin creams or foods were flooding the market, to the potential bewilderment of the public. It’s easy to understand that advertising, which was little more than a shouted bulletin board, was often the most efficient way to elevate your pitch above the daily cacophony. And its charisma-free directness was the quickest way to explain the benefits of, say, the previously unheard of product now being sold as hair conditioner.”

But what is fascinating is what happens as Cracknell advances through the book and the years roll by. For one sees things change. Where once you watched people struggling with intuiting the changes in the culture that rising generations were affecting, and you saw those people achieve a certain element of celebrity because of those observations – as the decade wears on, you saw the celebrity that these people achieved increasingly becoming the whole damn point.

Or rather, you saw clients buying new media (television) from unusual people, then accepting insights about that media from unusual people, then approving creative that used those insights and media, from unusual people – until in the end, they were simply buying the unusual people. The unusualness itself began to be taken as an indicator of the effectiveness of the work.

And there is a lopsided logic to this, actually, a logic that followed the selling of the media itself. If you wanted your brand to be successful in the golden age of advertising, you had to be on TV. Why? Because that’s where everyone in America was going. So if you weren’t on TV you wouldn’t be successful. And then, when everyone was on TV, you needed to break through. And how? By being unusual, memorable, outrageous. Because if you weren’t, no one would remember you, and wouldn’t buy your product. But how would you know if the work your agency was showing you was actually going to do the trick? You couldn’t, of course. But if the people presenting it were unusual, memorable, outrageous – swore, threatened to jump out of a window if you didn’t buy the work, drank a lot, were lascivious and well, just plain strange – maybe the ads would be too.

Which explains Jerry Della Femina at the golden age’s end – a man whose insights about marketing are profoundly sound, but who knew that what clients were really buying by that point were the stories of madness that helped legitimize, in their minds, the money they couldn’t believe they were spending in an advertising world they couldn’t understand.

But here’s the thing. At the end of the book, Cracknell points out something that contextualizes this whole conversation in a way that people in advertising need to think very seriously about today:

“…the revolution itself was far from total. The so called ‘creative agencies’ spent approximately only 8 percent of the total US billing through the decade, almost insignificant in commercial terms. Remove DDB from that equation and the figure becomes negligible. Yes, the takeover was total in advertising award shows and internal regard – advertising has always been narcissistic – but the big, old agencies powered on much as they always had.”

Or said another way, if only eight percent of the billing in the decade went through “creative agencies”, there never really was a creative revolution.

And this is important because ever since the Nixon administration, agencies have held up this era as a sort of creative paradise from which we’d been banished and to which we should all be desperately trying to get back to. But it’s not true.

Look, advertising is about aspiration. And for it to be successful it must be based in understanding the reality from which those dreams spring. Which is why advertising agencies need to take a hard look at their own reality if they have any hopes of making dreams come true for their clients, for their clients’ customers and most importantly for themselves. And while we do not believe this was the intention of Andrew Cracknell’s terrific book, we applaud that this is one important lesson we can take out of it.

The Real MadMen: The Renegades of Madison Avenue and the Golden Age of Advertising by Andrew Cracknell was published by Running Press on 02/28/2012 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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