Why Advertising Execs Are All the Rage on Small Screen

'Mad Men' Sets off Flurry of Ad-Related TV Shows, Placement Opportunities

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If real life were like TV, then we'd all be lawyers, doctors or cops. But leading men and women of the small screen may have a new career path to consider: ad-agency executive.
AMC's 'Mad Men' made ad shops appealing to viewers.
AMC's 'Mad Men' made ad shops appealing to viewers.

The success of "Mad Men" on Rainbow Media's AMC seems to have whetted the industry's appetite for stories about chasing after the big account, spit-balling creative concepts among office mates and the often-outlandish behavior that goes along with life lived inside an ad agency. Two networks, TNT and NBC, currently have shows in the works.

Natural fit for product placement
But it's not just novelty that's driving the development of shows set in ad agencies. They also serve as a natural platform for product placement. After all, what could be more integral to a story than a creative director or planner talking about the attributes of a real can of soda, a mobile phone or box of diapers?

"It's not rocket science to think if that you do a show about an agency that you could weave brands into it, so obviously, yes, I think we would see brands woven into these programs," said Brian Terkelsen, an exec VP at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest who oversees entertainment marketing.

Time Warner's TNT has been developing "Truth in Advertising" since 2005, said Michael Wright, a senior VP who oversees development of original programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies. The drama, expected to air in 2009, focuses on two ad executives who find their friendship often put to the test as they maneuver their way through the halls of fictional Chicago ad agency Rothman, Greene & Mohr.

"The truth is we live in a culture where we are constantly selling and being sold," said Mr. Wright, who added: "That's a fascinating cultural trend and it's very unique, very resonant in our lives, and I haven't seen it on TV."

NBC eyes 'E'
Meanwhile, backers of a show called "E," based on the wickedly humorous Matt Beaumont novel that relies on a string of e-mail to tell the tale of a fictional London ad firm and its efforts to capture a vaunted Coca-Cola account, continue to work to bring that program to NBC. The program's operating premise will make use of two different products from real-life marketers, which could be announced in the near future, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Michael Wright
Michael Wright

For a TV network, the subject matter is a happy circumstance, said Turner's Mr. Wright. "If your career is hinging on your ability to come up with something creative, clever and effective in 48 hours, that's a great storytelling device," he said. Some of the creative people involved with "Truth in Advertising" are former ad executives, he said, and the network is just beginning to consider how best to bring potential marketers into the show.

"Mad Men" made use of Brown-Forman's Jack Daniel's liquor, which was woven into the fifth, sixth and ninth episodes of the show's first season. Under an arrangement struck by Interpublic's Magna Global Entertainment and Universal McCann, Jack Daniel's also received customized on-air vignettes and "billboards," as well as placement on AMC's website.

Ad dramas have something else going for them: They stand apart from most of the stuff that rides the airwaves these days, particularly procedural crime shows. Programs centered on the ad business could offer viewers "a peek under the hood of an industry we don't highlight very much," said MediaVest's Mr. Terkelsen.

'Intrigue and competition'
Getting a TV show on the air is fraught with difficulty; even network executives concede that 80% of programs launched ultimately get the ax. Shows about ad people may not fare any better. "Mad Men," set at a time when traditional ad agencies had much more power than they do now, works in part because it evokes the past, said Bill Hilary, president of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global Entertainment. Still, he said, agency life is "filled with intrigue and competition," and that makes it as viable a genre as any to explore.

The emerging interest in ad dramas comes after decades of TV networks largely ignoring the industry -- an odd dynamic given that advertising pays for much of what is on the air each year.

In the past, characters who worked at ad agencies led careers that went largely unexamined. Does anyone remember any of the accounts Darrin Stephens handled while toiling at McMann and Tate on "Bewitched" or any campaigns by Michael Steadman and Elliot Weston on "Thirtysomething"? Did Kip and Henry come up with anything clever while working for a New York ad firm on the 1980s sitcom "Bosom Buddies"? This time around, there's little doubt that viewers will know which brands the fictional agencies are working for and striving to win.
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