Modern-day Mad Men on the new creative revolution

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2013 - 11:56 AM

How today’s social, political, media and industry trends are affecting advertising.

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Don Draper (Jon Hamm) works on an advertising campaign on AMC’s “Mad Men.”

Midcentury modern meets the Age of Aquarius as “Mad Men,” the lauded, landmark drama, moves into the late 1960s in its sixth-season premiere Sunday.

Expect fewer skinny ties, more wide lapels, longer hair and shorter skirts. But the era’s shifts were more than sartorial: Social mores, politics and pop culture were changing, too. And at the same time — or perhaps because of the times — advertising advanced in those years beyond crass commercialism and into something more like an art form — a “creative revolution,” as it was dubbed. The awakening is best represented by iconic ads for Volkswagen, noted by today’s ad practitioners as well as by “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, who like real-life Madison Avenue mavens is influenced by those transformative times.

Today America is again seeing sweeping societal shifts, bitter political strife and rapid advancements in technology. And as in the late ’60s, the reaction in industry practices, coupled with disruptions in America’s cultural and commercial mosaic, may mean we’re in the midst of another creative revolution.

Or at least a “mini-creative revolution,” said Michael Hart, founder and creative cochair at Mono, a Minneapolis-based agency. “But it’s happening in a different way. We are no longer thinking solely in terms of print ads or television campaigns — it’s all sorts of forms now.”

The multimedia environment is met with a multidiscipline approach, said Michael Caguin, chief creative officer at Colle+McVoy.

“We’ve redefined this again, which is why we are in another revolution,” said Caguin. “It’s not just art directors and copy writers coming up with a concept. The team is much bigger; often software developers, information architects, user-experience designers and content strategists. … Technology is really driving this: The sources of inspiration have always been art, music, literature, film entertainment. But the new one is technology.”

Tech was talked about extensively by Hart, Caguin and Heath Rudduck, chief creative officer at Campbell Mithun. All hold roles similar to Don Draper’s, but like “Mad Men’s” three-martini lunch, the work is different now.

For one thing, today’s fractured audiences often make “media” more “micro” than “mass.”

“We’re creating for a media landscape that has so many tentacles and nuances compared to back then, when the landscape was a smaller and closed one,” said Hart.

“Popular culture was more definable back then: It was everything your parents didn’t want you to be involved in,” laughed Rudduck. “Culture is much more of a conglomerate rock these days; it’s like the amalgamation of many parts. Some of them bubble and grow, some get momentum and some dissipate very rapidly.”

At least culture can still conglomerate. Politics are harder. But brands can hardly avoid the dividing lines. Some, in fact, embrace them.

“There is a politicization of brands,” said Hart. “But there is a lot of awareness and uncertainty about how brands play. You’re a brand that stands for something — people want to align themselves with a brand that has values you associate with. How much of a left-leaning or right-leaning brand are you? Brands today are more political than in Don’s era: We want our brands to mean more, and we’re seeking brands that mean more.”

But there’s risk: Aligning with a candidate or cause can get brands targeted (Target, for example). Some marketers may want to just blend in, but that’s bland to some consumers.

Another aspect of the political process admired by industry insiders is demographic targeting, said Caguin. “I’m impressed by the ability of political organizations to hypertarget people with social media, e-mail outreach and boots on the ground.”

But perhaps the more profound impact, on society and advertising, is “a degree of political mistrust in the broader landscape that has influence on everything we come in touch with,” said Rudduck.

The power of family sentiments is one thing that hasn’t changed — even if the definition of family has. Sure, statistics suggest a nuclear-family meltdown, at least compared to the atomic-age “Mad Men” era. But timeless bonds are more fundamental.

“It doesn’t matter where you are — families are families are families,” said Rudduck. “There’s a truth within family units, and love and nurturing are the things that hold them together. If you can focus on that [in marketing], then you won’t go wrong.” Adds Caguin: “We are more alike than dissimilar.”

What is dramatically dissimilar is the creative process itself. Now it’s more of a culture than a cult of personality. Decisions aren’t Draper-driven, but data-driven.

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