Matthew Weiner's No Madman

NEW YORK On AMC’s Mad Men, which premiered July 19, people drink alcohol in the morning, men wear suits and ties, and women are treated without much regard.

Welcome to advertising circa 1960. Matthew Weiner, 42, executive producer and creator of the show—written on spec after he’d quit a successful sitcom to focus on his own work—was a writer and executive producer on HBO’s The Sopranos.

He talks about the hard-living lifestyle of the ad executive, the agency he uses as a model, and how he’s already figured out that the best ideas are the ones the client likes.

Q: What kind of research did you do for Mad Men?
A: I talked to some people who are in advertising now, [and then] tried to do research with people who were in the advertising business at that time. I found that, with the exception of very few people, most of the guys who had the job that my hero has in the show are dead. They were very hard-living people. I also think that people’s memories aren’t so great. What I got out of these things is that I had gotten most of it right.

Who’s harder to write about, gangsters or advertising people?
I’d say it’s pretty similar. Most people lie almost all the time.

Some Italian-Americans protested their portrayal on The Sopranos. Will any advertising people do the same after they see Mad Men?
I don’t think so. Like doctors watching ER, they’ll say [their work] is not that simple. But there’s a lot of glamour even though it’s negative and I think that advertising people like to see themselves as darkly glamorous people. We also do things on the show that are very much related to the creative process. It’s not Bewitched. Campaigns fail. Ideas are bad. Good ideas, as we know, are not the biggest commodity in a lot of businesses. I’ve tried to keep the reality that the good ideas are the ones the client likes. And what’s bad about [my characters] is not that they’re in advertising.

What is the bad thing about them?
The men of that period had a different code and a lot of it is sexist and racist and selfish. They’re hardcore about their business—although I don’t know if that’s changed much, either.

The show’s set in the early ’60s, right before the creative revolution swept through the industry. What agency is the straight-laced, white-shoe Sterling Cooper based on?
I’d like to think it’s most like BBDO, from what my research tells me. They [didn’t] have that much television and the creative revolution seems to have been fueled by a kind of subversive streak from mostly immigrant-background advertising people—Jews, Italians, Germans—but these agencies didn’t have a lot of them in 1960. They did by 1962 and 1963, but there was a certain meat-and-potatoes dignity about what [these agencies] did. Also, they had tremendous concerns about government regulation. That was a big issue then …
if you think back on it, it’s not like they’re just dinosaurs who are sticking to an old code; they just had different concerns. By the way, the most conservative clients stayed with them through the creative revolution, so there was money to be made. There was a niche, but it was reverse.

Will there be actual ads from those days? If so, will those ads play a role in the show?
We do have real products in the show, but the use of finished ads from the period are so legally complicated that we have not been able to figure a way to put them on the air.

What are the legal complications?
Ownership. Ownership of music, ownership of copy and the fact that they revert back to the client. So, until someone knows the show—and I have a show with a lot of drinking and smoking and … extramarital affairs, racism, sexism—until there’s an audience, you can’t just say to somebody, “Can we run an Alka-Seltzer ad in the middle of this?”

Your show is set in the past. Any advice for the advertising world’s future?
I think that advertising will hopefully become less noisy and more niche oriented.

What demographic do you fit into?
I’m a 42-year-old, white male who makes over $100,000 a year. I think I’m a desirable audience and I’m not looking for a car to make me look tougher—but I do love beer. The truth is, I’m a materialist and an avid consumer, so I’d say whatever they’re doing they should keep it up because I keep buying things.

How do you get past a creative block?
I’m a horrible procrastinator, so I usually have to wait for the gun barrel to be right up against my head to get something done, which is something I’m working on because on the show the gun is always there. A creative block is usually caused by a lack of confidence, and one thing I did to get over it is that I began dictating a lot of my work.

Yes, and the act of not having to look at the computer and see what I just wrote really helps me overcome the voice in my brain that says, “What you’re doing is bad.”

Who’s had the greatest influence on your career?
My wife has always encouraged me financially, emotionally and intellectually to pursue my dreams. She’s never forced me to take a terrible job and has always told me what a lot of people believe: If you can write, you can write your way out of anything.

If you did run an old ad, would they pay you or would you pay them?
I would expect they would want us to pay them. Also, the show takes place almost 50 years ago, so legally the whole thing is very gray. But we’re using ads from the presidential campaign, which was also a key moment in advertising that is very much related to the creative revolution. All the watchwords of creative advertising at that time and traditional advertising were suddenly being applied to a presidential candidate and that was new.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?
Not taking a lucrative deal to stay on Becker [a CBS series launched in 1998, on which Weiner was co-producer and a writer] after my contract expired. I worked there for three years and had realized that it was not what I wanted to do. One thing [I wanted to do] was write Mad Men. I did it on spec. I could have pitched it and tried to get someone to pay me to write it, and I just said, “You know what, I want to write this the way I want to write it and I don’t want to have to explain it to anybody.” That required some financial and business bravery. [And saying no to Becker] really made people perceive me differently. It also made me have to really push to not take no for an answer on what I wanted to do.

What’s the dumbest business decision you’ve ever made?
I’d say 90 percent of the time what I do that’s dumb is send an e-mail without reading it. Impulse late-night e-mailing is usually the dumbest business decision you can make. When you get an e-mail that makes you angry and you write back, the expression of your anger is usually magnified by 300 or 400 percent and you have no idea of it until you see it the next day. It’s the equivalent of calling somebody [when you’re] drunk.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in television?
Find something that you have to say and find your own voice, which requires a lot of writing for free. I always tell people at any stage in their career, “Give yourself a development deal.”

What does that mean?
That means take some of your hard-earned money and try and live on it while you write something that matters to you. If you do that, no matter what happens with the product, you will be a different person afterwards.

Which show are you most proud of?
The Sopranos, without a doubt. It was very satisfying to be able to work on something that was that deep and that dramatic and unapologetically intelligent, and still had an audience.

What’s your dream assignment?
Being able to write and direct and control a work that is challenging and meaningful to me. It sounds vague, but that’s really it. [Mad Men is a] period drama about an era that I am personally obsessed with—and I’m living in that world. If anyone ever saw The Apartment and liked that movie and thought, “Wow, I’d love to work with those actors and those sets and tell a story like that,” that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s my dream.

What was your most recent creative coup?
Writing Mad Men on spec got me my job on The Sopranos. I can’t imagine being in a darker, more solitary business place than when I was writing that pilot. And then two years later, it put me on the show that basically was my favorite show in the history of television.