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Mad Men: How the Web Would Change Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce

Mad Men kicked off its fifth season this week, and while the alcohol and smoke have (largely) cleared the air of the modern agency, many of the same departments, principals, and even clients have survived the last half-century. Placing an internet connection in the hands of Mad Men’s Don Draper is not only a fun thought experiment but also a useful way to articulate some of the major shifts in the industry, as well as follow the trajectory into the future.

Brand advertising in the 1950s and 1960s evolved in part to reproduce the feeling of familiarity consumers once had with product makers. The changes brought on by the industrial revolution triggered a shift in the way people bought products. The local bazaars, markets, and shopkeepers gave way to, first, chartered organizations and then corporations. Mass media helped to deliver a brand personality and relationship with consumers through radio and television before the new product hit the shelves. This model was built on brands as fictionalized narratives, the Marlboro Man and Aunt Jemima. The stuff of Mad Men.

The audiences as defined by the Mad Men of the 1950s and 1960s were borrowed from radio, print or television. The strategy for nearly every campaign Don Draper has whipped up was a variation of the theme: design an ad and place it adjacent to what people are reading or watching. In this sense, the audience, as defined by the Mad Men of the 1950s and 1960s, was in reality not the brand’s audience but borrowed from media. As one of the original Mad Men, Howard Gossage put it, “when advertising talks about its audience, it doesn’t mean its audience, it means somebody else gathered there to watch or read something else.”

This is an important shift because the audiences on Mad Men – the folks in the focus groups – have disappeared and in their place are humans with incredible editorial control over the brand and messages they encounter. NYU’s Jay Rosen has described this transformation as “the people formerly known as the audience.”

The integration of paid (borrowed audiences) to an earned media (adjacent content), and the brand as a content creator would usher in a wave of change through the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Mad Men + Social Web: Three Ways the Agency Would Quickly Change

1) Content Creation

Brands now need to produce both the interesting, compelling, adjacent content to support the promotional copy Don Draper would have recognized. If told, upon discovering the Internet, that he’d need to change his firm to support the adjacent content and the traditional brand creative all at once, Draper likely would have bought a newspaper or launched a television station.

Today, instead of buying up traditional media outlets, brands have been turning themselves into outlets – going by different names: brand journalism, content factories, etc. But the idea is that now the audiences are really people formerly known as the audience, and brands need a way to engage and sustain their interest.

2) Planning

The title “Planner” was just coming into fashion in the 1960s, and Don Draper’s research department was a pre-cursor to the planning teams in most agencies. The social web would have presented a new way to source consumer insights and likely speed up the degree to which insights could be developed into a strategy. With internet-enabled computers tuned to the platforms and networks used by their clients customers, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce planners would find themselves staring down a tsunami of fast-moving data far outpacing the once-per-quarter focus groups.

3) Work Life

You don’t often hear about work on client projects outside the United States on Mad Men; it’s mainly American-made products advertised to American buyers. The web would instantly open up a 24/7 work life as agencies expand their scope to Europe and Asia. And, with clients suddenly the owners of Facebook or YouTube channels, Don and team would find that a crisis could strike anytime, anywhere. The round-the-clock drinking in a web-enabled Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce presents not only a risk to the liver, but now a business liability as community managers miss shifts or respond too aggressively to detractors or spark a crisis themselves.
How else would the web change Sterling Cooper?

Additional Reading from the real Mad Men…

A Master’s Class is Brand Planning: The timeless works of Stephen King

Howard Gossage: The Book of Gossage

David Ogilvy On Advertising