Many of us at M2W® are big fans of AMC’s Mad Men, a popular show that depicts life inside (and outside) of a New York-based ad agency in the 1960’s.  While we love to watch the storylines unfold and witness what life must have been like for female executives in the 60’s ad world, we can’t help but wonder, has the industry really changed all that much from the scenes we see on TV?

We asked some of today’s top female ad executives to share their thoughts on how the industry has changed since the days of Mad Men and how those changes have helped brands better connect with consumers—not just female consumers, but all consumers.

Q:  How are the ad agencies of today different than the one we see each week on Mad Men?

Sophie KellySophie Kelly, Partner and Managing Director, StrawberryFrog:
The advancement of women in executive roles in advertising today versus the 1960s reflects the cultural changes in America.  In the Mad Men era of the early 1960s, women made up less than 33% of the workforce. There were few female role models in the business and political worlds, and not a single female CEO of a major US corporation. The same was true in advertising; there were few women employed in non-secretarial positions and the few that did had to claw their way through the glass ceiling like Peggy Olson.  As one of those very few female junior copywriter’s at JWT in the early 60s recounts, ‘I had to wear a hat and gloves to distinguish myself from the secretarial pool. I never took that hat off, even in the bathroom.”

Obviously, our cultural situation is radically different now.  There are more women in the US workforce than men, the number of women in graduate school exceed the number of men and we have women running for president and running major Fortune 500 companies like Indira Nooiye the CEO of Pepsi Co, one of our clients at StrawberryFrog.  Women today are not just consumers of advertising, like they were in the Mad Men days. 66% of women today are part of the working world of commerce. Women are not just consuming products, they are creating them.

In terms of advertising, the industry reflects the same cultural changes.  We have a greater number of women executives and clients at the highest level.  Male advertisers in the Mad Men age often patronized their female target or put her under pressures of the male concept and ideal of beauty, femininity and motherhood. Today, we have a situation of women speaking and marketing to fellow women.  In fact, you could say the tables have turned in advertising. If you take the 2010 Super Bowl spots as an example, many of the commercials could be said to be offensive to men, as many of them featured men, masculinity and male behavior as the butt of the jokes.

Another big change since Mad Men is the arrival of the digital era, which turned the tables in favor of consumers.  Mad Men need to listen to their consumers now. Brands are no longer just controlled by marketers and advertisers; consumers in social media and the digital space can ‘talk back’ to brands and challenge the advertisers.  For example, our client’s product is Pampers and the large and influential mom blogging community.  If Don Draper were around today, he would be unable to sit in his ivory tower and dictate product messaging. He’d be held accountable to his women consumers and have to engage in a dialogue with them.

Helayne SpivakHelayne Spivak, EVP, Chief Creative officer, Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness:
My Top 10 list:
1-Madison Avenue is in Soho.
2-Casual Fridays killed the impeccably dressed executive.
3-Men’s hair product has gotten much better.
4-Ash trays now make great candy dishes.
5-Admin’s salaries do not cover one-bedroom apartments.
6-Women certainly WILL worry their pretty little heads about it.
7-Men who look like John Hamm do not run advertising agencies.  (Well, not since Alex Bogusky left the business last week)
8-Getting pregnant is not a bad career move.
9-Office parties are able to be viewed on youtube.
10-Clients no longer have the final say on work.  (Oh wait, that hasn’t changed at all)

Kathy DelaneyKathy Delaney, Chief Creative Officer of North America, SapientNitro:
The advertising industry in 2010 consists of many more women in positions of authority and power than was the rule in the 60’s shown on Mad Men.  Also, with all of the technology and connectivity we have in the office space now, there is a lot more productivity and less wastefulness–and a lot less affairs and 3-hour martini lunches.

Sharon NapierSharon Napier, CEO, Partners + Napier:

  • Women have a seat at the table. We’re not just the secretaries or mistresses anymore, we’re agency leaders.  We have very senior clients who are women. Still not enough, but we’re getting there!
  • Getting ahead and being successful takes listening, collaborating, and open-mindedness. Good ideas aren’t shot down by scotch-wielding executives reclining on office couches. Peggy shows us that great ideas can, and often do, come from the most unexpected places.

  • There are much fewer drinks had, if any. Creative directors and account executives aren’t reaching for the mini-bar every time a challenge presents itself.
  • Today, power isn’t measured by the size of your office or by the looks of your secretary. It’s measured by the creativity of your ideas, the strength of your relationships, and the client results you drive. You have to be accountable.
  • We’re still style conscious like Joan Holloway and think guys like Don Draper are dreamy. It’s just that our clothes are feminine and professional, and men are our coworkers and teammates, not the gatekeepers to our careers.

Q:  How have changes in the industry actually improved the way brands market to consumers—not only female consumers, but all consumers?

Sophie Kelly: The Mad Men era was hierarchical, traditional and linear in its approach to developing communication.  It was the era of the one-way ‘broadcast’ messaging, where advertisers would ‘interrogate the product until it confesses’ its ‘unique selling point’ and then push it out to consumers.  That hyper-rational, one-way relationship with consumers is gone.

Unlike the 1960’s when there were few choices and limited media channels, consumers today have 1,000s of brands to choose from and 3,000 messages targeted at them every day.  These days it is about finding a belief or a point of view that brands can stand for and putting that to market in a way that starts a movement amongst consumers. A movement that consumers want to associate themselves with, that spreads the advocacy for that brand.  It’s all about listening to and engaging with your consumers in a way that aligns them to your brand values.  Social media is a huge force in media today and we need to connect with consumers about more than just product superiority claims. In fact, peer-to-peer recommendations and brand advocacy are greater influences on brand choices than traditional advertising. Nobody wants to talk about your ‘superior dryness’; consumers are adopting brands and products because they find the brand’s asserted point of view in line with a way of living or views on the world, which they hold as ideal.  You need to create content that people want to engage with and share in popular culture. And you have to live these brand values in the real world; in the digital age people can uncover the truth about your brand in an instant.

This shift from rational to emotional messaging is very relevant to the way men and women process information and arrive at a decision. Men try to find the answer and make a decision. Women are far more about an emotional attachment. As Faith Popcorn once said “ Women don’t buy brands. They join them”. Perhaps that makes women more equipped to create breakthrough and relevant content and experiences for today’s consumers.

Helayne Spivak: When it was acknowledged that women were not simply the legal companions of men (a/k/a wives) a lot of thinking changed.  If not all women were the same, perhaps not all men were the same.  Maybe you have to have insight into how people think before you waste time and marketing to mass stereotypes.  I think we’ve learned that by trying talk to everyone, you talk to no one.  But, when you talk to one person with clear understanding of what he or she needs, you reach exactly who you need to reach.

Kathy Delaney: The influx of technology has changed the way offices work internally and the way ad agencies speak to and interact with consumers.  In the 60’s, you basically had a couple of choices.  TV, print, outdoor, radio.  Now, between mobile, digital, interactive avenues, there are more ways to reach the right consumers at the right times where they are engaged and interested.  This has changed the terms of engagement entirely.  You are able to pinpoint and have a much more intimate and successful ongoing dialogue with a consumer that is night and day from the communications of the Mad Men era.  Also, in Peggy Olsen’s time, she would’ve been engaged to market women’s products to other women.  But we’ve come a long way since then.

Insights about consumers often come from diverse places – looking like the consumer target on paper doesn’t mean you’ll have the insight to market that brand to the mass consumer.  We have female copywriters working on sporting brands that target young males and we have male strategists working on consumer goods for mothers now.  It’s much more of a meritocracy now than it used to be, with good ideas coming from anywhere.

Sharon Napier: The ad industry attracts a wider pool of smart talent because ideas are the power currency. There are more women, a broader range of backgrounds, ethnicities, sexualities – you name it. This brings broader thinking, which helps drive ideas that are better for consumers.

We actually care about listening to consumers, tapping into our resources, and making sure we know the mindset of the audience.  Assumptions and sweeping generalizations have no place in coming up with brilliant campaigns.

The agencies of the sixties operated in silos, restricting the free flow of ideas. Without the barriers erected by a hierarchical, pecking-order world, we can embrace the fluidity of the idea, allowing us to do great work.