What Happened to the Madness?

If he joined the business today, what would Don Draper, the brilliant creative director of the fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper in the show Mad Men, do? Chances are, if he were catapulted back into advertising agency future in a souped-up DeLorean, he wouldn’t recognize the industry: there’s no cigarettes, no sexism and no three-martini lunches. It’s a lot duller now for the frat boys.

I got into the business on the tail of the Bernbach creative revolution. I was fortunate enough to work with the late Roy Grace and Diane Rothschild, both of whom were at ground zero as the industry changed. I was at a magical agency called Wells, Rich, Greene, which epitomized the creative revolution from the moment when Mary Wells got artist Alexander Calder to paint the fuselage of Braniff Airways planes. We didn’t have labels like “nontraditional.” We just called them ideas.

The creative revolution was mainly about TV and about image. And although at first we didn’t notice it happening, it petered out. Cable killed broadcast TV and advertising was slow to adapt to a more democratized landscape. We lost our mojo because we got fat and lazy, and shoved our commercials down consumer throats by doing the same old, same old. The consumers took control — first with their remote controls and DVRs, and later with their keypads.

To paraphrase Norma Desmond, the mad, decaying heroine of Sunset Boulevard, “The consumer didn’t get bigger — the agencies got smaller.” They clung to traditional solutions in TV commercials, for a long time ignoring the evolution of an interactive, interconnected world around them, at best paying lip service to clients’ needs to integrate their communications and find new ways to reach their customers and measure ROI.

Enter the media agencies.

We are now in the early stages of a new creative revolution, one that’s media driven. Much of the hoopla in the press is on one aspect of the creative media revolution: digital, especially social networking and blogging. This is understandable. Digital is new and social networking, in particular, is growing fast. It’s also good “copy” in terms of media coverage. How the damn thing gets monetized is another matter.

But the revolution is much broader than that, though this is often ignored. It’s in music, gaming, PR, customer services, video, design as media. Everything is media today.

But most importantly, the revolution takes place under the surface, in the less sexy area of technology where media agencies have a big advantage. This technology allows media agencies to pour over what spooks call raw intelligence: data uncontaminated by subjective interpretation and bias. This means better insights on how and where to connect with consumers, how to measure the engagements, how to enhance brand loyalty and how to arrive at meaningful ROI. The first creative revolution was all about connecting brands to culture. This one goes a step further: It’s about elevating advertising from art to science, about understanding engagement in a vastly fragmented world, and going from gut instinct to precise understanding and knowledge. Marketing is closer than ever to addressing John Wanamaker’s lament that “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Technology will not hinder creativity; it will make it more robust and crisp. Ideas will matter more than ever, except they’ll be media-led ideas.

The advertising industry’s version of the Tour de France’s yellow jersey, worn by the leader, is about to change hands from the creatives to the geeks — the knowledge people in the media agencies who understand the core behavior of a brand’s consumer not from a focus group, but from empirical data.

And that’s where I think Draper would want to find himself if he entered advertising today: analyzing consumer data, understanding how consumers behave and coming up with insights and new ways to connect with them.

Thirty years in creative agencies have taught me that what we practice is more than art. A little more science is good for us. It will decommoditize advertising and make it more valuable to our clients. Hopefully, the media agencies won’t repeat the mistake of the first creative revolution by making it a media or a creative thing. Hopefully, they’ll make it an “and.”

And oh, yeah, now that the media agencies are in charge, maybe they’ll bring back some boozing too.

Avi Dan is a marketing consultant specializing in business development who is currently working with media agency MPG. He can be reached at aviforesthills@aol.com.