The Three-Martini Lunch Is Alive and Well on AMC

Cable Network Sets Ad-Industry Drama 'Mad Men' in (Quietly) Swinging '60s

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Matt Weiner, creator of AMC's upcoming "Mad Men," thinks the show will do for advertising what "The Sopranos" did for the mob. If by that he means it'll make people think of today's ad world as a lot less glamorous than that of yesteryear -- just as Tony and Co. made today's mob seem like a much more prosaic bunch than their predecessors -- then he's probably about right.
Admen or 'Mad Men'? (From l.) Aaron Staton ('Ken') and Rich Sommer ('Harry').
Admen or 'Mad Men'? (From l.) Aaron Staton ('Ken') and Rich Sommer ('Harry'). Credit: Craig Blankenhorn

The show depicts the '60s as a time when clients were rich, colorful characters who entrusted their images entirely to dashing, debonair Mad Ave. executives -- and never mentioned ROI. The ad executives repaid said clients by spending most of their time smoking, joking, drinking, smoking some more and eyeing the leggy ladies in the typing pool. It's not all good times -- certainly not if you're a woman, Jew, or an Italian, all of whom are subject to blatant discrimination -- but the "Mad Men" ad world sure looks a lot jauntier and sexier than today's version.

Reality check
For ad vets who worked through the '60s, there are bound to be scenes that seem exaggerated or just plain inaccurate re-creations of Mad Ave. as they actually lived it. And the fact that the chronicler of their swingin' heyday is a 42-year-old sitcom writer with no ad experience -- who happens to have an Emmy on his shelf for his work on "The Sopranos" -- may also trigger the alarm bells.

But Mr. Weiner, who conceived the show while working on CBS's "Becker" in 2000, knew what he was signing himself up for once he plunged into researching the drama full-time. And after months of compiling anecdotes from in-person interviews, combing through the books of David Ogilvy, and studying the films and TV series from the period, he seemed to have a pretty firm grasp on his subject matter.

"I have not run into anyone who has not been surprised at my age once I've talked to them about the show," he said last week after a screening and panel discussion for the program at media hotspot Michael's in Midtown Manhattan. "There were guys who thought I was some 82-year-old writing a show about advertising before they talked to me."

Even Jerry Della Femina, the famed Manhattan ad exec-turned-restauranteur, allowed that the show touches on many of his memories of breaking into the industry as a copywriter. In a panel at the Michael's event, he recalled visiting country clubs where everyone was holding a cigarette but none of them were lit; it was just to get the brand out there. On other occasions, "I had clients who, the first thing they did when they came into the reception was they'd look at the ashtray, poke around and see if the cigarette butts in there were their butts."

Down to the last stapler
A recent trip to the Hollywood set of "Mad Men" proved such situations could be recreated down to the smallest detail. From the moment you stepped on the lot, you'd swear you'd walked into a fully functioning agency in the heart of the '60s -- complete with the seemingly real name of Sterling Cooper. Cream-colored walls surround an ashtray-adorned reception area; authentic rotary phones, staplers and ink pads sit atop executives' desks; period-perfect costumes include olive suits and Coke-bottle glasses.

But the show is just as much about the lives of its characters as it is an authentic chronicle of a line of work rarely documented by Hollywood ("Bewitched" and "Thirtysomething" notwithstanding, of course). At the time of Ad Age's visit, actors Rich Sommer (Harry the media buyer), Michael Gladis (Dick the copywriter), Aaron Staton (Ken the junior account exec) and Vincent Kartheiser (Pete the rising star) were filming a scene in which Mr. Kartheiser's character brandishes a 22-caliber rifle in his own office. "Boys will be boys, right?" he says to his pals.
Behind the scenes: (From l.) Show creator Matt Weiner and Charlie Collier, AMC president.
Behind the scenes: (From l.) Show creator Matt Weiner and Charlie Collier, AMC president. Credit: Stephanie Diani

Such behavior would hardly fly in the corridors of JWT and Ogilvy today, yet Fred Danzig, a longtime Ad Age editor who joined in 1962, said it was the norm back then. After all, 1960 was the year "the pill" became legal, Vicodin hit the market and, as AMC President Charlie Collier put it, "three-martini lunches weren't just on the menu; they were frequently ordered."

"There were all sorts of characters," Mr. Danzig said. "The sex and drinking -- a lot of that is hindsight. At the time, when there were such charges being raised, it was complete and utter denial. It could be they were denying it because they were after the accounts and didn't want connotations of '60s hippies intruding on any relationships with clients. So they were trying to be buttoned-down in terms of their image."

'Ring the bell'
A glimpse at the writers-room storyboard in Mr. Weiner's offices revealed some key phrases used to inform the series. "Bill early, pay late," read one memo, while another note said, "'Ring the bell' is to admen as 'The Aristocrats' is to comics,'" referring to the time-honored tradition of dismissing a stale campaign pitch with the ding of a buzzer.

It's not often advertisers can get behind a show directly related to their field. Among the first to get onboard was Jack Daniels, which, in a deal brokered by Universal McCann/Magna Global Entertainment, is featured in virtually every possible "Mad Men" touch point. Vintage 1960s campaigns are shown as part of the Sterling Cooper wall décor, and characters are seen consuming the Tennessee whiskey in various scenes. There are also "Mad Men Legends" vignettes before each commercial break that focus on advertising history at the time, and one stars Ted Simmons, who's been an account executive at Jack Daniels for the past 50 years.

Mr. Simmons takes part in 30-second spots that will begin airing three weeks before the start of the series; they also feature other ad legends such as JWT CEO Bob Jeffrey, Omnicom co-founder John Bernbach and Cliff Freeman, better known as the guy who penned "Where's the beef?" for Wendy's.

The show will make its debut July 19 and will air with limited commercial breaks -- two three-minute pods during the entire hour.

Mr. Sommer, best known for his supporting role in last summer's hit "The Devil Wears Prada," has become more fascinated as he explores the psychological elements of his character. "The show's not about advertising. It's about why people have chosen this profession, what might drive that masochistic urge," he said.
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