Mad Men

'Mad Men' Offers Lesson in Agency Branding

What Shops Struggling to Tell Their Own Stories Can Learn From Year One of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce

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NEW YORK ( -- The fourth season of "Mad Men" is about, among other things, a company finding its own story as it wrestles with what it is and what it must become. It began with the ever-stoic Don Draper being pushed into PR opportunities by the other partners hungry for publicity around their star creative and, they hope, new-business magnet for their fledgling agency. And, as the season drew to a close, Don made a big, amoral bet that, having lost longtime cash cow Lucky Strike, his Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce could, overnight, become the anti-tobacco agency on Madison Avenue.

An JWT advertisement from the 1965 issue of Advertising Age
An JWT advertisement from the 1965 issue of Advertising Age

This story arc has a lot to say about advertising, much of it not very positive. Whatever happens, that challenge of creating a unique brand for the agency that Don wrestles with only a bit less than he wrestles with the whiskey is something agencies still wrestle with, 45 years later. In Draper's day, there weren't many ways for an upstart to get its message out there. There was, of course, PR. There was word-of-mouth, gossip and judgments passed along at bars and restaurants and award shows. There was the work and awards. And there were the clients. In the "Mad Men" universe, SCDP is the Lucky Strike agency -- or, it was, until that account was gone in a puff.

'Mad Men' aired its season-four finale last night.
'Mad Men' aired its season-four finale last night.

These days, an agency is both blessed and cursed by what feels like an endless array of communications channels into which it can insert its brand. There's all that older stuff, plus corporate websites, blogs and, sexiest of all these days, social-media channels like Twitter and Facebook. The practice of telling an agency's story has become an always-on, 24-7 process that stacks up next to all those other always-on, 24-7 processes that are also pretty important -- like servicing clients/

An ad from the Nordine Group in a 1965 issue of Ad Age.
An ad from the Nordine Group in a 1965 issue of Ad Age.

But aside from finding the time required to do this volume of work, this should be easy for companies that are in the business of telling brand stories, right? I can tell you after perusing many an agency website that looks like it was designed in 2002, sifting submissions for Ad Age's annual A-List that can't identify measurable results for clients and hearing jargon-laden rebranding ideas, fewer than you'd think have figured it out. Some let their work for clients do the talking. Few take stands, despite the fact that there's no shortage of issues to rally for or against: diversity, agency compensation, ownership of ideas. And social media hasn't made it any better. Too often, Twitter accounts devolve into idle patter about not much of anything other than using social media. As for the offenders, you know who you are -- I think.

All this has made the agency landscape feel too flat and featureless, and that is exacerbating the commoditization of the business -- something that would be coming one way or another, thanks to the demise of the 15% commission and the rise of procurement. If agencies don't stand out, then what do prospective clients have to judge them on but for how much or little they're willing to charge to handle an account?

In Draper's day, that commoditization was just beginning. Sure, margins were fat and the work was less complicated, attested to by the fact that coming up with a tobacco slogan like "It's Toasted" was regarded as a creative achievement. But the shift of Lucky Strike to BBDO was a harbinger, it coming as part of a consolidation that would see both the fee and a long relationship with Roger Sterling's family slashed. Even in those days, forging an agency brand independent of the biggest client, one that actually reflects the values, sensibility and mission of its leaders, wasn't any less important. That simple realization, not its outcome -- Draper's overreaching New York Times ad, so harebrained, hypocritical and shortsighted -- is the great ad-business lesson of this season.

Want to Know What Was Shaking Up the Real 'Mad Men' in 1965?

We took a look in the Ad Age Archives to give you the biggest news on Mad Ave. back in the day.

Tobacco Warnings
While "Mad Men" protagonist Don Draper is fictional, his struggle to create successful advertising for cigarettes amid mounting proof of health risks was a very real one for creatives in 1965. After the surgeon general released a damning report in 1964 confirming that "smoking may be hazardous to your health," the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act was passed in 1965, requiring all cigarette labels to contain "conspicuous and legible" warnings for consumers. Though there was squabbling among politicians and ad men at the time, many cigarette advertisers saw the law as one they could live with. More legislation restricting cigarette marketing would pass in subsequent years, like the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, which required warnings on all print advertising.

Going public

Grey Advertising joined Papert Koenig was only the second U.S. ad agency to go public, after Albert Frank-Guenther Law in 1929. Albert Frank now operates as The Gate, owned by the U.K.'s Media Square. Papert Koenig closed in 1969. FCB is part of Interpublic's DraftFCB; DDB is owned by Omnicom; WPP bought JWT.

And Grey? Grey turned into green when WPP acquired the firm in 2005 for $1,154 a share in cash and WPP stock -- 118 times Grey's split-adjusted IPO price.

Color TV
Though color TV was around for decades prior to 1965, it didn't reach critical mass as an essential for advertisers until that fall, when the big three TV networks made the full push into mostly color or (in the case of NBC) all-color programming. Ad Age covered the color revolution (which shares parallels with the growing popularity of HD programming today) in a "Special Color Section" released in November. It featured stories about pressure on advertisers to take the leap into color, new camera technology, notable color spots and production tips on color-shooting do's and don'ts. One piece, by reporter Maurine Christopher, attributed CBS' reluctance to make the sweeping shift to color programming up until then to "hard-headed" business reasoning and "emotional petulance."

-- Thomas Pardee and Bradley Johnson
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