After a 17-month hiatus, millions of fans of the popular TV series, Mad Men, finally have another reason to linger at the water cooler. This Sunday, March 25, the two-hour premier of the fifth season comes with high expectations and a lot of pressure. Have the show and its producers jumped the shark? The retro-drama about an ad firm set on Madison Avenue in the 1960s has racked up 17 Emmys and four Golden Globes, and last year its creator, Matthew Weiner, renegotiated a contract with American Movie Channel (AMC) and Lionsgate for $30 million to create three more seasons.
Jon Hamm, who stars as Don Draper, the firm’s hard-charging creative director, is now reportedly earning eight figures for the three-year deal he signed last year, making him one of the top-earning actors on cable television.
According to Miller Tabak & Company, Lionsgate gets about $2.71 million from AMC for each episode, which costs about $2.84 million to produce. In April 2011, Barron's reported that “the Mad Men series should generate $100 million of DVD and iTunes revenue for its seven-year run, which should total 88 episodes; this equates to $1.14 million per episode, taking the profitability up to $1.01 million per episode.” When the international syndication sales are added in, make that $1.7 million of profit per episode – not including Netflix revenue, which is another $71 million annually.
Mad Men has attracted a devoted audience because it delivers a hefty dose of American social and cultural realism through its depiction of people at work – and at play – at a time when sexism and racism were rampant. Because political correctness was not on the radar, smoking, drinking, sex on the job, and other taboo behaviors were common. For some who worked in advertising back then, that’s precisely part of the appeal.
“For people under age 40 – and they’re the bulk of the show’s audience, not older people watching it out of nostalgia – the setting is so distant and foreign it might as well be medieval,” says Jane Maas, a former advertising creative director best-known for the “I Love New York” campaign. She adds that what younger people “ask me about more than anything else is, How did you guys manage without cell phones?”
There’s also a fascination with the advertising world itself which, “next to show business, seems one of the most romantic professions around,” says Maas, whose latest book is Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ‘60s and Beyond (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's).
Here’s what Mad Men reveals about the world of work, for better or worse, according to Maas.
Drinking in the Office
“The drinking on Mad Men is a little bit exaggerated. We did not drink in the morning. And I don’t remember any senior male executives having liquor out on credenzas and tables in such a visible way. Most of the senior guys kept a bottle or two or three in their closets, and if we were working late, it was usual to pour a scotch.”
The 3-Martini Lunch
“We got away with it because our clients were having three-martini lunches, too. But the women didn’t always go out for lunch every day like the men did. There was a concern about being able to produce top-notch work in the afternoon.”
Tools of the Trade
“On Mad Men the secretaries all have big IBM Selectric typewriters, which, if you made a typo, allowed you to back up and correct it. That was a big improvement over carbon paper or manual typewriters! Now I don’t know how we ever managed without computers. Just getting visuals to illustrate a storyboard, for example – today you can find anything you want on Google Images.”
The ‘Right’ Levels of Staffing
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to where we were in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the advertising business, in marketing and in communications. Management is too accustomed today to understanding that they can do what they need to do with fewer people.”
Why Working at an Ad Agency Today Is Harder
“Clients are paying less, so the management teams ask fewer people to do more. That makes it harder on everybody. The agencies are scared to lose clients. It used to be that clients and agencies stayed together for 10 or 20 years, or even 30 or 40 years. Now, the first thing clients do if there’s a little drop in their sales is change agencies.”
Stress at Work in a Tough Economy
“The creative output suffers when creative people work non-stop and don’t have enough time to do the essential reflective thinking. David Ogilvy used to say, ‘Immerse yourself in the research, then immerse yourself in a bottle of wine.’ I don’t think creative people these days have much time to do either.”
Today's Best Ad Campaign
“MasterCard’s Priceless campaign, now in its 13th year and just as fresh as the day it started, is one of my favorites. Those smart marketers pre-empted a positioning that any credit card could take: It isn’t the ‘thing’ you buy with the credit card, it’s the experience. It isn’t the tickets to the baseball game, the popcorn or the hotdog you buy – it’s the experience of taking your 11-year-old son to the game. That’s what resonates. That’s what strikes a chord with people.”
The Importance of Selling the Product
“We’re trying too hard now to entertain, to be likable. In advertising, our business is to sell the product, to build the brand. When I hear people say, ‘Did you see that terrific commercial, the one with the monkey? I have no idea what it was for – maybe a soap,’ I think: They just threw a million dollars down the tubes.”
Learning the Ropes at Work in 2012
“Young women especially want to know today, ‘What’s the best thing I can do to break in? How can I move up?’ I tell them: Learn to write a lucid paragraph. If you can put together a cohesive sentence, it’s worth its weight in gold.”
“It hadn’t been invented yet – it wasn’t in our vocabulary. The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your advancement … your life.”
The Dress Code
“Every once in a while Mad Men watchers think that when Joan Harris, the show’s officer manager, rubs her shoulder, it’s because her husband roughed her up a little the night before. But all women of that era know it was her bra straps digging into her shoulder. Our underpinnings were terribly uncomfortable! Not to mention the shoes – the high heels we wore were horrible and we wore them all the time. And when we traveled, we had to keep our hats clamped firmly on our heads, even during 10- or 11-hour flights in a prop plane.”