Interview: Matthew Weiner Takes on an Era, the Ad Industry and TV
Matthew Weiner, resting comfortably in a brown leather armchair, shifts his weight toward a silver tray holding crystal tumblers and a bottle of Johnnie Walker. He turns the bottle to hide the label. "You don't want any brands in the shot, do you?" he asks the photographer.
Ad Age's cover shoot -- in the penthouse of Manhattan's Gramercy Park Hotel -- and this interview mark the end of a TV series in which Mr. Weiner chronicled a period of great change, the '60s and '70s, through the lens of Madison Avenue. It makes sense that this master of detail is hyperaware of brands after spending the past seven years bringing "Mad Men" to life and years before that researching the real adland.
HBO surprised Mr. Weiner, a former "Sopranos" writer, by passing on the "Mad Men" pilot. Ultimately, it was AMC that was willing to take a chance on a show that didn't look like anything else on TV. That bet invigorated the network and gave viewers a taste of an era that was "more adult and dirty and darker than you remember," he says. "It's not 'Leave It To Beaver.'"
Mr. Weiner offered his thoughts on the industry during the period and what it was like producing the show seven years ago, at at time when "advertising was in complete crisis" thanks to the "advent of the Internet and DoubleClick and all sorts of things," he said at the start of the interview. "There was almost this feeling, as I would write to people in the advertising business, that this show was an elegy to the end of their science, the end of their profession."
Advertising Age: What made you want to create a show about advertising?
Mr. Weiner: I liked the cleverness of it, and I'm interested in salesmanship, but what it really was, I liked the period, and this seemed to be the ultimate expression of the period. And it was very much like the job that I had in TV. It was very much a mixture of creative impulse, disrespect for authority, and getting paid probably too much to do the art that's a little bit far from the art you really want to do. So this whole compromise of business versus art, that was interesting to me.
Advertising Age: Were you ever pressured to make the show more accessible to the masses?
Mr. Weiner: It's an extremely diverse audience. So I felt like getting the message out there was the point, and that the show should be for everybody. And yeah, there was some feeling, it's too slow, it's too this, or whatever. It feels normal to me. I'm not going out of my way to make it weird or original or unusual. So if you're trying to imitate reality, that's what reality feels like to me.
Advertising Age: And you were trying to imitate reality?
Mr. Weiner: Yeah. I wanted the people to behave properly, and most importantly, I wanted them to have problems that I identified with. And it takes a lot of money, and we managed to do it for very little. I can't afford to turn a city street into a 1968 city street, but I can turn a room into a 1968 room, and it needs detail. I want to see receipts; I want to see the drawers filled with things. I don't want to see a Fuji Apple, which didn't exist.
Advertising Age: How has the creative process, in creating the show, changed since '07, and maybe since back when you were working on "The Sopranos," back when you started?
Mr. Weiner: The creative process doesn't change, and despite the public's desire for it to be otherwise, is an extremely collaborative form, where a bunch of really smart people sit in the room. It's very high pressure, because you're being expected to produce ideas, you're being expected to share your life, you're being expected to solve story problems. The only thing that happened to me is I became a little bit less impatient, realizing that the outline did not have to be perfected before I wrote the first draft.
Advertising Age: Can you talk a little bit about the research process?
Mr. Weiner: I asked for research. I was like, we want to do a story about Saturday morning cartoons for Peggy. We want to do a story about children's cereal. There was a big children's cereal crisis. It was almost as bad as cigarettes. One-third of that box that you buy is spent on advertising that's aimed at your children.
Advertising Age: How did you know what to look for?
Mr. Weiner: You start with newspapers and documentaries. When I was doing the pilot, everything that was written about advertising other than Ogilvy's book was out of print. I run into people in a certain age range, and like 100 percent of them worked in advertising. It was obviously a huge, huge employer, more than now. They all educated me. And what you want is, again, confirmation of your instincts. And then they would sort of want to tell me their story, and the stories overlapped so much that I ended up hearing ... I'm not kidding ... maybe over six years, probably about 50 people, women telling me stories of sexism, telling me about being raped, telling me about the story we did for Joan, about if you sleep with the right guy, you're going to advance. I know it's obviously a trope or whatever, but they would actually say, "I'm Joan." Or "I'm Don."
Advertising Age: Was there one individual in particular who really inspired you?
Mr. Weiner: I can tell you right now, George Lois has nothing to do with this show. George Lois has just outlived all of the talented people, as far as I'm concerned, so he's got the biggest mouth.
I was really interested in David Ogilvy. His past is very detailed, and at the same time, unsubstantiated, and that whole self-invention that goes with having an eye on the culture. Don does research, market research. Don talks to individuals. That to me is from reading Ogilvy's book. Don is about standing out, but Don is not a faddist. Don knows who to steal from.
Advertising Age: What was shocking to you about the industry as you learned more about it?
Mr. Weiner: You know what was shocking to me? How late African-Americans came into the game, and how they're still not there. There were black agencies, and I could've focused on that segregated aspect, which I didn't, but it never happened. And it still hasn't happened. And there are pioneers, and there are obviously plenty of talented African-Americans. And they were just allowed to do their own thing. All of my feelings about how white it was, and how male it was, were understatements.
Advertising Age: Mad Men is rich for product placement, with all of the brands that appear in campaigns. Talk to me about paid product placement.
Mr. Weiner: I wanted to do it, because I felt that I was entitled to it. I said, I'll do it if they will meet my demands, which is they can't advertise during the episode in which they are placed, because they always want to do it. [But] there's been a disappointingly small amount of placement.
When we started off, I had this lipstick, Belle Jolie, in the first season. And I said, can someone talk to Revlon and see if they want to make it a real thing? I'll call [the lipstick] Revlon. I don't have to call it Belle Jolie. And no one wanted to be a part of that. So I made one up. The dynamic between the ad agencies and the clients is such a gatekeeper and so conservative, and so fear-driven, that I had become a wildcard. And it's just not worth it to them.
I'm not going to let you ruin my show for a pittance that's going to go to the network.
Advertising Age: Were you surprised that the show became such a success?
Mr. Weiner: Oh my God, yes. It took seven years to get on the air from when I wrote it. I never thought it would go past the pilot. And then it happened. And I don't know if I really have absorbed what happened until very recently. I'm so superstitious that I always thought if I acknowledged the success of it, that it would go away.
Advertising Age: Do you think it would be easier to sell in today's world given how TV has changed and how the media has changed? Would HBO pick it up today?
Mr. Weiner: I couldn't believe HBO was not interested in it. I never understood that. I was just always sort of mystified, because David Chase had given it to them, and there were so many things going for it. But they also were so star-oriented, and I think that there's more of a tendency to give new people a chance now.
Whoever has that attitude out there right now, who admits their ignorance, who knows they're taking a risk, who has nothing to lose, that's where the next hit comes from. Honestly, the biggest thing going against the show, besides the fact that I was a nobody, the hero was married, and there was all that smoking, was the fact that they thought no one outside of the United States would be interested in the story, because it was so American. And they were completely wrong. Of the biggest hits of the last 15 years, every one of them looks bad on paper in some way.
Advertising Age: What are your favorite moments from the show?
Mr. Weiner: There are certain episodes that really are original and only can be done on the show, like the episode called "Maidenform" that's kind of about the way other people see you versus how you see yourself. And you almost get a moment in the show where you get a glimpse of what it means to be seen. I love the episode Scott Hornbacher directed, called "The Doorway." This was the season six premiere. Don's reading The Inferno, and his life has returned to the way it was. There are a lot of profound things said in that episode, about our relationship to death, and how it influences our life.
Advertising Age: So now that it's wrapping up, are you more cynical, or less cynical, when it comes to the advertising industry, Madison Avenue?
Mr. Weiner: I do feel a little bit disappointed sometimes that it's so derivative, advertising. But I don't work with their clients. But I do find that a lot of times that innovation is not rewarded. You can only be as bold as the client will let you be, or your boss will let you be. Its conservatism is still troubling to me. But I don't work in an ad agency; I don't know. All I know is that it's probably still dominated by white men. I did make that criticism early on.
Advertising Age: What would a future agency look like? You allude to the growing influence of media. Is Mad Men set in a media agency?
Mr. Weiner: I think the next generation is less racist, less sexist. I think advertising is a meritocracy. I think it's an honorable profession.
The media thing has been interesting because we addressed that in the show, but that that was the transition right at the beginning of [filming] the show, in 2007.
Advertising Age: Who was Harry's character based on?
Mr. Weiner: Harry is based on a conglomeration of people, but Bob Levenson is the person who really has given Harry all of his details. He's the reason that we realized Harry would have to learn Yiddish. (laughter)
Advertising Age: What's next? Do you know?
Mr. Weiner: I don't. So my next thing will come wherever this came from. It wasn't just about trying to write this world of like the 60s and advertising and like that. It was about where I was in my life. So I'm about to be another place in my life. I'm working on a number of things.
This interview has been edited and condensed.