Season six of “Mad Men” premiered last night, and as usual, it got the attention of people both inside and outside the advertising industry. But if there’s one odd byproduct of the success of “Mad Men,” it’s the excavation of older ad executives proclaiming that the show gets the so-called “Golden Age of Advertising” exactly right — or exactly wrong. And that nothing in today’s advertising world is as good as it used to be.
For one reason or another, these executives aren’t in the trenches anymore — creating ads or working at agencies. But they’re giving interviews and writing books, saying things like, “Look who I used to be! I was huge on the Chesterfield account at Benton & Bowles. I’m the guy who invented the phrase ‘Buy one, get one free!’ We changed the world with advertising back then.”
It’s easy to feel nostalgic for one’s formative years. I’m a product of the ’80s. Huey Lewis & The News, Bryan Adams, Duran Duran — their music was important to me. But back then, the adults didn’t take any of that music seriously, and today kids consider them irrelevant oldies acts.
Likewise, nothing the ad industry produces today really pulls my heartstrings the way it used to. When I got into the business, I was lured by the ads Janet Champ wrote for Nike at Wieden + Kennedy and Goodby Silverstein’s dreamy Norwegian Cruise Line print ads. They made me excited at the idea of making ads. I have no doubt that ad students today don’t view those ads with the same affection. They have newer work that gets them excited. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
We are all the products of whatever seminal work got us excited and interested to work in the ad business. Nothing newer, no matter how cool it is, will have that same spark. But it’s silly to think we’re living in some sort of declining age of advertising. If we can think of an idea, odds are we can make it happen. That’s simply amazing — and it wasn’t always this way.
The advertising business is ridiculously more complicated and faster than ever. Deal with it. We’re not going back to a time when media was highly concentrated, business moved slower, and words and images weren’t instantly transmitted around the world.
Nor is it worth lamenting that there aren’t advertising luminaries like David Ogilvy or Bill Bernbach anymore. We don’t know what they would do in today’s world. It’s like asking what The Beatles would have done had they used a digital recording studio. It doesn’t matter. They did the best they could with the technology they had, and it was revolutionary back then.
What never changes is the range of emotions we feel. Teenagers will always feel the sting of peer pressure alongside a sense of invincibility. New parents will always be stressed. People will always get sick, have sex, get old, die young, get married, get jobs, lose jobs, feel happy to be alive and feel scared for what tomorrow might bring. It’s our mission to take those events and emotions and find ways our clients’ products fit in.
Advertising will always appeal to our desires, our fears, and our primal instincts. The promise of comfort, the appeal of acceptance, the lure of sex or the avoidance of risk — they’re all emotional tools in the advertising toolbox that we’ve used for decades. And now we can use those timeless tools with today’s technology to create wonderful ideas.
I’m actually a bit of a student of advertising history. We’ve come a long way, baby. And in some ways we haven’t. There’s much to learn about our business that’s still applicable. But I believe it’s important to leave some elements of the past, well, in the past — and not lament that things aren’t the same anymore.
So if you ever hear me spend my time lamenting days gone by, please tell me to get off your lawn — or off your pair of Google Glasses.