Mad Men: One Week and 45 Years Later

Last Sunday night, Mad Men came to a long-awaited and satisfying end. Copywriters across the world sighed deeply, knowing that their go-to pop culture reference for explaining their career choices to the in-laws had disappeared into the night. And across the industry, writers everywhere have spent the last week thinking about one question.

What’s really changed since the era of Don Draper?

Mad Men made its small screen debut in June 2007. A few weeks later, I joined “New Media” agency in Salford Quays as a Junior Copywriter. As the on-screen careers of Don, Peggy and the rest proceeded through the 1960s, via JFK, civil rights and the moon landings, my own career progressed through the noughties and whatever we call this decade, via Google Penguin, Twitter and content mills.

And as any copywriter can attest, comparing now to then has been irresistible. Especially as we’re led to an inescapable conclusion.

Things haven’t changed as much as we all pretend.

45 Years on – How Has Copywriting Changed?

Compare :

“Creating successful advertising is a craft, part inspiration but mostly know-how and hard work.”


“[Copywriting is] a skilled trade, a white-collar trade, but trade it is. [Copywriters] solve problems for others in exchange for money.”

One of those quotes is from a contemporary of Don Draper, and the other from a highly successful current copywriter with a Twitter account and a smartphone. And despite the gulf of years separating David Ogilvy from Andy Maslen, their point remains the same. Copywriting remains a trade, a craft, a combination of hard work and skill designed to create words that sell.

Words that sell.

That’s how I describe my service to customers. That’s probably how you describe your service to your clients. Three simple words that haven’t changed in a century of mass media advertising.

Andrew,” you’re spluttering at the screen. “That man in the gif is using a typewriter. You’ve not seen a typewriter since your mum typed up a school essay for you in 1996. Are you honestly saying nothing has changed in 45 years?

Well, dear reader. I’m not saying that. That’d be stupid. All I’m saying is that as much as we pretend the new digital age is as different to the 60s as the 60s were to the pre-telephone world, the underlying concept of what marketers do has’t changed. We still entice people to buy products.

But while the concept is the same, the execution has changed. The billboards, print ads and TV spots of Madison Avenue have been supplemented with the websites, Tweets, blogs and viral videos of the Silicon Roundabout. But all the addition of new digital media to the marketing landscape has done is increase the opportunities for skilled copywriters. Digital copywriter has entered the lexicon.

Now, more than ever, businesses of all sizes need copywriters to put their messages across in increasingly crowded marketplaces. A company that could get by with a brochure and a sign even 20 years ago, now needs a website, a Facebook page (with regular posts), articles to generate backlinks and a brochure and sign.

The landscape has changed. The work remains the same.

If the work hasn’t changed, then how about the social issues surrounding advertising? Surely we’ve moved on from the sexism of the sixties?

Peggy Olson for a New Millennium – is Advertising Still a (Mad) Men’s Club?

Mad Men sets out its stall very early on. We’re introduced to Peggy Olson – secretary turned junior copywriter – and her struggles to be taken seriously. “Hmmm,” we think to ourselves, “isn’t it good that times have changed?

And on the face of it, times they have-a-changed.

Two thirds of the “Pro” members of the Professional Copywriters’ Network are women. Ask people on Twitter about copywriters they respect, and you’ll hear names like Sarah Turner, Sally Ormond, Kate Toon and Vikki Ross. My first head of copy was a very talented young woman. So clearly we’re beyond the days of women being overlooked in the advertising industry?

Perhaps not.

A survey of 433 copywriters (many of whom appeared to be functioning alcoholics) was asked to name the copywriters they rated. Included were Andy Maslen (good writer), David Ogilvy (dead writer) and Dave Trott (dead good writer).

And eight other blokes.

11 names, all of them men. Women are clearly a huge part of this industry, but apparently we don’t rate them.

So is it any wonder that clients are giving briefs like this?

Screen-Shot-2015-05-13-at-11.31.10-300x205If I can write copy for wedding dresses, bridal makeup artists and lovely high heels (and I have), then women can write about lager, football and eight-bladed swivel-hipped razors.

So why are there still examples of clients only wanting to work with men?

Clearly there’s still a way to go until we leave Mad Men’s gender attitudes behind. But if we compare today to the world of the Sterling-Cooper gang, can we predict anything about the way the industry will progress?

End of an Era – What’s Next?

If Mad Men has taught me one thing, it’s that if you’re good enough at your job you can leave for weeks at a time to drink whisky, join hippie communes and get beaten in the face with a phone book by WW2 veterans.

If it’s taught me two things, then the second, more important lesson is that people don’t change.

People want their needs met. They want to be spoken to by other people that understand them. They want to be reassured that they’re on the right track. Good copy has always done that. Good copy will always need to do that. 1960, 2015, 2050 – words that sell will still need to speak to a reader’s needs, wishes and fears.

It’s like the great man said.

Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK.

You are OK.

Thanks for the advice, Don. It was a great journey while it lasted.  But there’s still road ahead of us, even if we have to travel it without the sage advice of a TV show.

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