Schooling Mad Men: An Advertising Professor and Student Discuss the Show

TV Features Mad Men

This story is a part of our Mad Men Takeover. Season four of the series premieres on AMC this Sunday, July 25.

There’s a lot of information on Mad Men that the advertising-uninitiated of us might not understand. The show has been lauded for its accuracy, but if you don’t know the first thing about advertising, how can you tell? It seemed that there was a lot we could be taught by the pros. So we turned to The Creative Circus, an Atlanta-based school that trains for the creative side of the advertising, interactive development, design and photography industries. Working industry professionals—the people actually behind the ads we see each day—teach the classes at The Creative Circus. To help us understand Mad Men in the context of the actual ad world, we recruited the help of Dan Balser, Advertising Department Head, who talked to us via telephone, and Brittany Poole, a recent graduate now employed at Crispin, Porter and Bogusky who we contacted via e-mail. Their responses to some questions below have been combined for the ease of reading.

Paste: Are you a fan of Mad Men because advertising is your thing? Does someone have to be into or understand advertising to be into Mad Men?
Dan Balser: There are a lot of advertising stories in there that resonate and one of them was there was this one particular episode when Don Draper presented an idea to Kodak… They named the slide tray the carousel, and the way he set it up was with emotion, and since you were invested in his character and you understood his life, you could see how peoples’ individual lives informed their creative expression and how the work that they do reflects their lives. So in a way, if you have the patience to sit with the show and invest yourself in the characters, you can see how people in creative fields apply their personal lives to their profession. That, to me, is pretty profound.
Brittany Poole: If anything, I think it’s the opposite. It’s definitely helped my family and my friends finally understand what I do. I can just say, “I’m Peggy” (without the whole giving away bastard babies thing), and they get it.

Paste: Blogs, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, the internet: All are more or less integral to advertising (and most professions, nowadays). How would Mad Men benefit or be different with technology like we have today?
Balser: I think what’s happened now, and I speak partially as an advertising instructor and head of the department of an advertising school, agencies need a much wider skill set than they did when I entered the industry and Mad Men was happening. When Mad Men was happening, you had stories like Peggy’s, where someone who was working in the agency ends up becoming a copywriter. Those kinds of stories happened a lot in the ‘60s, ‘70s, even in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s, ad schools started and you had to show that you could write, and agencies stopped training people, stopped taking people in and making them into creative people. They would hire them pre-trained, which is why there are ad schools now, to basically pre-train people to work in the industry.

What’s happening now is that the skill set that we have to train people for is so much wider than it used to be. They have to understand that the majority of the advertising is no longer traditional media. In Mad Men’s time it was radio, TV, newspapers and magazines. Now it’s just completely blown apart. I think that the actual discipline of thinking creatively and communicating with people is the same but the way that you reach people is so fragmented and so different that I have to have a Twitter account and a Facebook. I have to, because I have to understand how to comunicate to people, and it has evolved and it’s still developing. I don’t think anyone really has the answer of what it means and where it’s going.

Poole: I think that’s a hazard in advertising right now. In Mad Men, they just have ink and paper. Visuals and copy. So the message has to resonate with people to work. There has to be an idea. But a lot of times today, you see brands just trying to do cool shit for the sake of doing cool shit and it doesn’t lead back to a real message about the brand. It’s forgettable. But when you take a clear message and use new technology to highlight that message, that’s when you end up with something cool and effective. I feel like people in Mad Men would be just as affected by all the new internet toys as we’ve been. Also, they might respect younger people a little bit more. You can’t get too cocky with stuff changing so fast, because chances are there’s a 20-year-old who could get hired tomorrow and would know more about technology than anyone in the agency.

Paste: Dan, you have a Podcast called “Don’t Get Me Started” where you interview people in the ad industry. If you had Don Draper on the show, what would you want to ask him?
Balser: Well, I would ask him the same thing I ask every guest, which is, “Knowing what you know now, in this stage in your career, what do you wish you would have gone back and told yourself?” I ask everyone the same question…and some of the answers are predictable, and some of them are surprising and wonderful. Like, this guy, Paul Keister, has an ad agency called Goodness Manufacturing in California, and his answer was, “I would have told myself to stay in better touch with my friends,” which I thought was a great answer because the industry can really eat up your time and ruin your life. I would probably ask Don that, I would ask him what lessons he’d learned, I would ask him what does he look for in people that he’d want to hire. When you watch a TV show, you know the character often better than they know themselves, so I would ask him, “What personal traits of yours do you think have served you well in your career?” and see if his answer is in alignment with what the viewers see.

Paste: What do you, as a viewer, see?
Balser: His personal traits are he has a lot of self-confidence and he’s extremely handsome. [laughs] So if he could say, “You know I think that being handsome has helped me,” I think that’d be a good answer.

Paste: Would you have any advice for him?
Balser: Would I have advice for Don Draper? Well, it’s interesting, because he’s so good at selling on the show, but one of the things that actually impressed me about him was that he could actually sell an idea through, and he’s patient and… Advice for Don Draper, that’s a great question. Let me think about it for a second. [pause] I would probably just tell him what I’d tell any creative director or creative: Stay true to your instincts, and don’t worry about what people are saying.

The thing is, Don Draper doesn’t worry about what people say. He doesn’t really need my advice. That’s probably my answer: Don Draper doesn’t need my advice. I learn from Don Draper. I think advertising people could learn from him to be confident and believe in yourself and not to worry too much. His lesson he could teach young creatives is not to worry so much about what you think other people think of you. Draper doesn’t give a shit. He doesn’t give a shit what people think of him… I’ve also felt like there’s people who are successful in their professional life [who] often have damaged personal lives and vice versa. He hasn’t found a balance, I can tell you that, on the show. So maybe my advice for him is, “Maybe you want to work on your balance so you don’t have any regrets when you’re older on your personal life.” His whole life is almost like an ad. His whole life is contrived, so his life is a metaphor for advertising, which I think goes over a lot of peoples’ heads.

Paste: Brittany, how do you think Don Draper would be in a modern-day or any-day classroom? Is there anything he can teach students of advertising?
Poole: I feel like Don Draper might be one of those guys who can nail advertising, but wouldn’t be able to teach it. Or wouldn’t have the patience to let his students fail and figure it out themselves. He would just tell them the answer or the way he would do it. That’s a skill I value in a lot of the teachers and creative directors I’ve had.

Paste: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten in regards to the ad world?
Poole: It came from my mom. She says there’s an infinity of ideas out there, and no right one. So you just have to reach out and grab an idea and decide it’s right, and it will be. But also I’m learning new things here every day. Right now, I’m learning to really listen to the people who have done well, and to not take advice from people who are jaded with it all. Even though those are the people who tend to have more to say.

Paste: What do you think of the representation of the real world of advertising in Mad Men? People talk about its accuracy so much — what’s your take on it? Do they ever do anything wrong on Mad Men?
Balser: No. I mean, I’m not that old. Norm Gray is one of the founders of the Creative Circus and he’s 72 or 73 years old. He, I think, mentioned a couple of things to me, but he also said that he didn’t like that there’s no joy on the show. Like, it bothered him. He actually said it was pretty accurate. He was around in that time; he said that was exactly how they were.
Poole: I do think it’s really accurate for its time. So it’s neat to see the similarities in the structure of an agency and the differences. The pace, I guess, is much faster. And the technology, obviously, is different. But overall, the creative process is still the same in that it takes time, and good ideas don’t always come when you want them to. And everyone’s still just trying to create a message that resonates with a lot of people.

I think it’s much easier to sell an idea when you carry yourself into a meeting like Don Draper. Advertising is so subjective. It’s always been that way, and it will always be. So confidence and decisiveness in creativity can go a long way. Also, it’s still a business. At the end of the day you’re still being employed by the clients. Regardless of your ideas, you’ll always have to make sure to meet their needs.

Paste: Is there a modern-day Don Draper? If so, who is he and what makes him that way?
Balser: I think Alex Bogusky was until last week. I think he was until he officially retired and quit the business. I think that he had that air about him of invincibility and he was cutting edge. The thing that’s almost comical about Mad Men is how the work is considered cutting-edge, but we look at the work on that show and it seems so dated and so simplistic.
Poole: Yeah. I guess there is. There are still some old-school guys who carry themselves like Don Draper. But in most cases, they’ve earned it. If you’ve been doing this for long enough, and can still kill it every time, go right ahead.

Paste: Can students learn anything from Mad Men?
Poole: Don’t cheat on your wife. I don’t know. There’s probably some lessons in how ideas are formed and how to speak to target markets, I guess. But there’s also a way for students to get a crazy skewed view of the industry. It obviously glorifies the debauchery of advertising in those days. And it’s not like that as much anymore. Sorry, everyone.

There are a lot of real-life people like Don Draper who paved the way in advertising. For me, as a student, it just made me want to learn about those people more and the stuff they did. I think the lesson with these guys falls with understanding where advertising was, with all these false claims and paragraphs of descriptions, to where they took it.

Paste: Dan, is it possible that it might give students the wrong impression? Like, they’d see it and think, “Oh, that looks amazing!”
Balser: It doesn’t look so amazing. It looks pretty brutal. I think it’s pretty realistic.

Paste: It’s pretty brutal out there?
Balser: Well, I just think you’re working with people with their own agendas a lot of times, and I think that there’s decisions that are made in big agencies that affect peoples’ lives.

There’s a group of characters in the show that are sort of like the creative department, but they’re not the higher-up, and they’re kind of always wondering what’s happening behind closed doors. And there’s that sense that that’s always happening in agencies, it’s like, “We don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re waiting to hear,” that’s in any business, I think, and I’m glad that they show that, because that’s a big part of it. Someone said to me once, “Dan, we’re all in this alone,” and I think that it’s a collaboration, and it really is a team, but at the end of the day you sort of have to take care of yourself. And as a creative person, you always have to have a portfolio at the ready in case you’re laid off, because everyone I know has been laid off at least once. So it’s pretty realistic.

Share Tweet Submit Pin