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The Real Mad Men & Women of Washington

The AMC drama "Mad Men," which is set at an early 1960s Madison Avenue advertising firm, returns for its second season on Sunday, July 27. Here, six Washington-area ad executives, and big fans of the show, sit through a photo shoot dressed in period costume while discussing their attire. Video by Frank Ahrens/The Washington Post
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008

Ah, early 1960s corporate America. Sharp suits with pocket squares. Brylcreem. Smoking in the office, a decanter of good Scotch on every executive's sideboard and multi-martini lunches. A great time to be alive.

Assuming you were a white, Protestant, heterosexual man.

Such is the deliciously vile approach of "Mad Men," and it's why Washington's advertising industry latched onto the show last summer, watching with a mix of misty nostalgia and slack-jawed horror. Today, the show's main character -- handsome Don Draper, an adman irresistible to clients and women alike -- would be a dinosaur, albeit a stylish one.

What else has changed in advertising since 1960?

The Mad Men and Women of Washington said today's niche-driven ad industry must work harder than ever to reach all types of consumers; advertisers are no longer satisfied with mass-market campaigns aimed solely at white, traditional families. Although casual racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny in the show is not nearly as visible in today's agencies, neither has it disappeared, they said. Mostly, today's ad execs said they can't get by on a slicked-back hair and a slick pitch.

"I think Don Draper existed in the Camelot days of advertising, when a strong personality and a dashing rock-star approach to the business got you pretty far," said Chuck Husak, creative director of August, Lang & Husak in Bethesda. "Today, ad people are being called on to be much more accountable and responsible with their recommendations than they ever were."

In 1960, the ad industry was a Gotham-based priesthood. Advertisers bowed before the adman's implied knowledge of consumer desire, bolstered by his expertly delivered rap, peppered with trendy pseudo-psychology.

Today, improved consumer research -- including instant and deep feedback on the Internet -- has sapped much of the priesthood's power. Advertisers and consumers are both savvier, the Washington ad execs said.

New York remains the center of the U.S. ad industry, dwarfing Washington and other vibrant but smaller regional markets. Washington-agency clients include the military, defense companies, policy-advocacy groups and, because of the area's diversity, big consumer companies seeking targeted audiences, such as gay and minority buyers. Clients include the National Guard, the Navy, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, National Geographic and NPR, among others.

Washington's ad clients generally don't have big bucks to blow like their New York brethren, Husak said.

He recalled a recent TV ad by a New York agency, a slickly produced bit in which a robotic woman is revealed to have a keg of beer inside her.

"They get away with that kind of un-conceptual tripe because the execution is so polished," Husak said. "In D.C., no one has $700,000 to throw at a non-starter idea like that."

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