How Mad Men, by Looking Back, Changed the Future of Advertising

It made the industry sexier, but also made us question how far we'd come

"On Stage 9, the wardrobes of the male cast members include white shirts, cuff links, tie clips and hats," Stuart Elliott wrote in his New York Times advertising column in 2006, about a then-unknown cast shooting a pilot. "The female cast members wear long skirts, slips, formidable-looking brassieres and nylon stockings."

Elliott would go on to write many columns about the AMC network's Mad Men—which premiered on July 19, 2007 and which, with much fanfare, draws to a close with the series finale on May 17—and he found silver-haired ad executives to be polarized. "Half of the people I talk to from that era are very hard-core fans of the show and say that it is exactly what it was like then," Elliott, who retired from the Times in 2014 after 23 years, tells Adweek. "And half say the show was completely phony and drummed up for dramatic purposes."

Whether the series got the era right or not, what cannot be denied is that it has had an immeasurable impact on this one. Here, some of the more significant ways Mad Men changed our world.

It made advertising sexy

In 2007, procurement departments increasingly were applying the same cost-cutting measures to ad agencies as they did to their copy paper and coffee vendors. Ad executives, priding themselves as trusted advisors, felt slighted—and it didn't help that viewers were gleefully TiVo-ing past their commercials. "The ad business," Elliott recalls, "was kind of in a funk."

Enter Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Lantern jawed, crisply dressed and pomaded, he made this pronouncement in the first episode: "Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is OK."

Music to the ad industry's ears.

Bob Jeffrey, who served as worldwide CEO of JWT when the show premiered, notes that it helped provide the industry with a pipeline of aspiring talent. "Mad Men reminded people about what the essence of advertising is: It's about ideas, creativity and personality," says Jeffrey, now nonexecutive chairman. "Especially at the beginning of the show, it made it very helpful for recruitment."

The executive also notes that as Mad Men took off, the financial industry crashed, meaning recent grads who would have been Wall Street bound started considering Madison Avenue instead.

Ogilvy & Mather New York also saw an uptick in applicants, according to CEO Lou Aversano. "Our college recruiters heard about Mad Men frequently as a reason that students were getting into advertising, but [now] they see that going down," he says.

Edward Russell, an associate professor of advertising at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, reports that about one-third of students who enroll in its Introduction to Advertising course are fans of the show, while "another 10 percent end up binge-watching from the beginning."

Mad Men has even become a teaching tool in advertising courses. "Every one of us has probably shown the Carousel scene," says Russell, referring to the memorable pitch Don Draper makes to Kodak in the Season 1 finale.

 It made us wonder why there aren't more Peggy Olsons

One of the pleasures of watching Mad Men is how comically appalling some of the behavior is by today's standards, like doctors smoking in examination rooms and women smoking and drinking while pregnant. In one episode, the only concern Betty Draper (played by January Jones) has about her young daughter running around the house with a dry-cleaning bag over her head is that the clothes are now on the closet floor.

Not so easy to laugh off as an artifact, however, is the sexism depicted on the show. Many women in the business love the character Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who emerges from the secretarial pool to become a copywriter, but they say they still face inequities, particularly on the creative side.

A mere 11 percent of 161 inductees into the Creative Hall of Fame of The One Club are women. The American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame? Fewer than 9 percent of 242 inductees are women.

As for the annual Communication Arts Advertising Competition, only 11 percent of creatives who won in 2014 were women, according to an analysis by Karen Mallia of the University of South Carolina and Kasey Windels of Louisiana State University. Female creative directors fared the worst, with just 9 percent of awardees women, up from 1984 (2 percent) and 2004 (3 percent).

"Most people are looking at Mad Men like it is a historical time capsule," says Mallia, who spent two decades at New York agencies as a copywriter and creative director. "But the saddest part is that it's not because the sexist codes go on day and night."

Kat Gordon, founder of The 3% Conference (named for Windels' finding in 2008 about the low percentage of women among Communication Arts' awardees), points out that brand advertisers tend to have far better representation of women in leadership positions than agencies.

"Brands are paying the bill, they know what their customers look like, and they're increasingly getting fatigued with agencies—especially in pitch situations—having all men," says Gordon.

Terri Meyer and Sandy Greenberg, who have worked as a creative duo throughout their careers, formed The Terri & Sandy Solution five years ago following 25 years of award-winning work at large agencies but never garnering offers for chief creative officer positions. "Sexism has become a lot more subtle," says Greenberg. "Maybe we were better off with Peggy Olson knowing that everybody in the office didn't think she should be a writer, but she kept going and proved them wrong. Because today you don't see it, you don't hear it, but it's happening.

Jason Chambers, author of Madison Avenue and the Color Line, which includes a chapter on African-American executives in the industry during the 1960s and earlier, is disappointed that Mad Men never featured a black executive.

"The topic of race could have been worked in in a much more foregrounded kind of way," notes Chambers, adding that racist comments by likeable characters like Roger Sterling intended as laugh lines might have left some viewers nostalgic for a less politically correct era. "Are people looking at Mad Men in the sense of, 'Man, I miss the good old days when we could say what we wanted, when we could be bigots and everyone would leave us alone?'"

It made us want their suits, couches and chairs

The way that Hamm's flare ignited men's interest in fashion and style reminds Esquire fashion director Nick Sullivan of another handsome actor, Sean Connery, who played a rogue with impeccable taste.

"Mad Men probably had a similar effect that the James Bond films had in the early '60s," he says. "They showed a life of consumption and a cleanness of design. The talismanic value of products is always attractive to guys, who like the idea of having the right car or the right clothes."

In collaboration with Janie Bryant, Mad Men's Emmy Award-winning costume designer, the retail chain Banana Republic introduced three separate Mad Men collections for women and men, beginning in 2011. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History recently added items from Mad Men to its permanent collection, including props, costumes and set decor, while the Museum of the Moving Image in New York has on display reproductions of sets from the show, including Don Draper's office.

A recent Washington Post article pointed out that furniture manufacturer Herman Miller has seen sales of classic styles by designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi surge by 60 percent since the show debuted. Design Within Reach, the modernist retailer, had "nearly folded" by 2009, reported the business news site The Street. But today—after doing promotions around Mad Men, including a "Get the Look of Mad Men" sweepstakes in 2010—it enjoys annual growth of better than 20 percent.

It gave a boost to Lucky Strike, gimlets and canapés

Don Draper, as it turns out, had the power to add new life to old, sagging brands. Lucky Strike, the adman's preferred smoke, saw global sales grow 44 percent in the five years following the show's debut, per Ivey Business Review. His favorite liquor, Canadian Club, experienced 4.3 percent annual growth, after suffering sales declines for 17 years prior to the show.

Classic cocktails featured on Mad Men, including Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and gimlets, are suddenly popular again. (Though claims that Mad Men started the trend are a "little overinflated," since interest had already been building for a few years, according to Wayne Curtis, who penned a column about cocktails in The Atlantic from 2008 to 2014.) "What Mad Men did was shield the classic cocktail revival from being thought of as too twee, as some Brooklyn thing like artisanal pickles," Curtis tells Adweek. "It raised interest with a broader group, and the surprising thing about the classic cocktail culture is how deep it has gone."

Judy Gelman, co-author with her husband, Peter Zheutlin, of The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, notes that cuisine featured on the series—canapés, deviled eggs, pineapple upside-down cake—have all seen a surge in popularity.

"I'm 61 and I remember people looking and dressing like these characters, and I think part of the appeal of the food and drink on Mad Men is the nostalgia factor," says Zheutlin. "There's a Game of Thrones cookbook, but how many people remember that era?"

It transformed AMC

Before Mad Men debuted in 2007, AMC—originally known as American Movie Classics—was simply "a movie network," concedes Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC and SundanceTV. "So much of what we set out to do when we greenlit Mad Men," Collier says, "was create premium television on basic cable."

Mission accomplished. From its breakout first season, Mad Men helped cement AMC's reputation as one of HBO's most serious challengers for top-shelf original programming. (As it happens, HBO passed on Matthew Weiner's series—a decision its execs still regret to this day—even as he dazzled the network as a producer and writer on The Sopranos.) Premiering the month after The Sopranos wrapped, Mad Men went on to win the Emmy Award for best drama—the first time a basic cable series had ever achieved that—and it kept the streak going for the next three seasons.

More importantly, the show primed audiences, creators and advertisers to expect groundbreaking programming on AMC—and it delivered, with Breaking Bad in 2008 and The Walking Dead—currently TV's highest-rated series in adults 18-49—in 2010. "Mad Men gave us the start we needed to make the programming investments like Breaking Bad, like The Walking Dead, like Better Call Saul," Collier points out. "Very few shows in the history of television have affected their entire network the way Mad Men has AMC."

Ironically, this series about advertising was never exactly a powerhouse ad vehicle. Not that it mattered so much, as only 38 percent of AMC Networks' revenue comes from ad sales, with 62 percent coming from distribution revenues, primarily fees from cable providers. For AMC, that fee rose to 33 cents per customer per month in 2013, up from 22 cents in 2007—a 50 percent increase, according SNL Kagan. (Those per-subscriber fees are, of course, paid on behalf of all cable subscribers, not just those who watch the show.) Revenue at AMC Networks was $2.17 billion in 2014, up from $1.18 billion in 2011.

While the show's ratings never came close to matching its buzz or critical acclaim (last spring, the first half of Season 7 averaged just 3.7 million total viewers in live plus seven, less than one-quarter that of The Walking Dead), its audience is an affluent one, with nearly half boasting a household income of more than $100,000.

"You might vet the rating and say it's not a mass audience, but it was never built to be a mass-audience collector," says Collier. "It was built to be distinct, it was built to reach an elusive upscale audience—and it does that in spades."