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Blog Home Design Design Inspiration How Ad Agency Life Has Changed from the Golden Age to the Digital Age

How Ad Agency Life Has Changed from the Golden Age to the Digital Age

It was July of 2007 when period drama Mad Men first aired on AMC. Set in the 1960s and later in the 1970s, the series took viewers to Madison Avenue and the heady New York City advertising scene. Millions watched, but arguably nobody was more enthralled than real-life agency folks.

That’s because even though more than half a century has passed since the “Golden Age of Advertising,” some things haven’t changed a bit.

“Watching Mad Men I would sometimes get a nervous twitch because it feels so real,” said Tim Brokaw, co-owner and managing partner of independent advertising agency Brokaw. “As much as the industry has evolved, it’s amazing how much is still relevant today.”

Mad Men cast: Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, Jon Hamm, January Jones. Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
Mad Men cast: Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, Jon Hamm, January Jones. Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

Tracking the transformation of the ad world from 1960 to 2016 is a fascinating exercise. There are some notable differences and some surprising similarities.

Today’s agencies have more of a female presence beyond secretarial jobs, yet just three percent of creative directors are women. There may be fewer in-office bar carts and three-martini lunches, but drinks are still part of the culture. Millennials now make up 44 percent of the advertising workforce, which means that Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Ken Cosgrove, and Joan Holloway would be right at home in today’s agency environment. But while New York City remains a hub of advertising activity, successful and influential agencies are now scattered across America.

And what about pitches? The creative process? What methods for producing great work have agencies retained, and what has been upgraded? We caught up with modern-day agency executives to find out the changes, visualizing the shifts in technology and culture with original designs created from the Shutterstock collection.

The Ad Biz, Then and Now


Jeremiah Knight, executive director of digital at Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, believes that in order to understand the advertising industry in its current form, we need to look at technology, from the advent of cable to inexpensive recording devices, the internet, 4G wireless, and on-demand services like Netflix and HBO Now. In the 1960s and ’70s, consumers relied on print, radio, television, and film for entertainment, so advertising was mostly limited to these mediums (along with outdoor ads). Modern consumers have a mind-boggling number of media choices, and agencies must meet them where they are and provide a cohesive, consistent brand experience.

“At Saatchi today, we aren’t just making a couple of spots and a jingle, some print ads and a few billboards,” Knight said. “We expect ourselves to be master storytellers who can craft messages that are right for each platform, channel, and — most importantly — for the customer. Our clients expect this mastery as well.”

Design Has Gone Digital… or Has It?

Bob Jeffrey, former CEO of global ad agency J. Walter Thompson, has been quoted as saying, “Mad Men reminded people about what the essence of advertising is: It’s about ideas, creativity and personality.” How those ideas are captured and presented, however, has advanced quite a bit.

According to Denise Blasevick, CEO of New Jersey-based The S3 Agency, which works with such brands as BMW Motorrad, MINI USA, and Wyndham Worldwide, digital technology and desktop publishing have completely transformed the way designers and copywriters work. Rather than being confined to paper, they can now leverage tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, WordPress, and Dreamweaver to produce engaging, immersive, and interactive advertising and marketing content suited to 21st-century consumers and their manifold devices.

This doesn’t just apply to the development of final creative, but to the pitching process as well. Tools like these allow agencies to give clients a sneak peek at design ideas, which Blasevick says can help those who have trouble visualizing the outcome to better understand the proposed concept and, consequently, buy in.

Knight agreed. “One of the many great things about the digital space is the ability to prototype work,” he said. “Whereas previously we might have shown a design treatment or some wireframes for a couple key pages to convey an idea, a clickable prototype conveys the feeling of the intended final experience, and it makes it inherently easier for clients to understand.”


“We like to be inspired by the best of the old school and the best of the new school,” added Carol Herman, partner with Connecticut-based creative agency ACME Idea Company. “That means honoring Mad Men-era creativity and ingenuity, but also embracing technology and all it affords.” Digital technology, she noted, has also made pitching quicker and more efficient. “We’re able to streamline the creative and presentation process, collaborate with partners in multiple locations — sometimes on multiple continents — and get almost immediate feedback from clients,” she said.

That’s not to say there isn’t still value in the old ways. In his 16 years in the advertising business, Tim Brokaw — whose agency works with such brands as GE, Samsung, and — has watched his creatives return to traditional design methods time and time again. The agency’s interactive director, for example, creates vast websites for clients, but still sketches and storyboards on paper.

“It all starts with showing the idea in its most rudimentary form,” Brokaw said. “There are programs that can make it look pretty, but we want clients to focus on the concept. As an agency, we keep it pretty old school.”

Rise of the Rapid Response

Certainly, digital technology has aided inter-agency workflow and communication. “Snowstorm? No problem,” Blasevick said. “We can all work together remotely, share concepts on our phones, and still meet the client’s deadline.”

In other words, gone are the days when Don Draper can take a business trip to LA and disappear for days at a time. “Life operated at a slower pace in the ’60s in pretty much every way,” she adds. “Agencies had much more lead time and funding to work on campaigns. Today we must be more focused and efficient — and generally, much faster.”

With the help of digital technology, contemporary agency executives are equipped to generate work on a dime. Whereas ad designers in the Mad Men era took days (and often nights) to come up with concepts and execute on ideas, today’s creatives can meet rapid turnarounds.

That’s a very good thing, because consumer expectations for advertising and marketing content have changed. Studies have shown that 38 percent of consumers feel more negatively toward a brand if it doesn’t respond quickly to a tweet. Agencies, therefore, must be ready to deliver creative and brand content at a moment’s notice. It isn’t a print ad that took weeks to create, but the real-time Oreo Super Bowl tweet that’s likely to get attention today.

In the Mad Men days, as Brokaw pointed out, agencies could have upwards of 15 people working on a client request, from account executives to creatives, media people, managing partners, and even agency owners. For most modern ad agencies, that simply isn’t feasible.

“Being flat allows us to be much more nimble and responsive to client requests,” Brokaw said of the agency’s organizational structure, which has very few levels of middle management. When hiring, he looks for advertising pros who understand both creative and strategy and have a robust, multi-faceted skill set. Specialized knowledge is beneficial, but it’s no longer enough.

Collaboration is King

Today’s agencies prize teamwork, and use workflow management, customer relationship management, analytics, and project management software and tools to bridge the gap between creative, marketing, and account teams. “We see most agency departments making liberal use of collaboration tools like Slack, Google Docs, BOX, and others that help ensure we are all hitting our milestones,” Knight said. These also help agencies capitalize on cross-departmental talent to produce better performing and more impactful work.

A broader trend is the move toward more streamlined operations that Brokaw touched on. “Traditional agencies were flush with cash from high media commissions,” he explained. “They had numerous bureaucratic layers and overhead, and an inefficient model in terms of time and money. Today’s digital economy is fast and cost-effective. The traditional model no longer works.”

Many agencies, therefore, have trimmed the fat and moved to a leaner organizational structure, both in order to be more nimble when it comes to producing client work, and to pass along cost savings to their customers. “They say you can only pick two: work that’s great, work that’s fast, or work that’s cheap,” Brokaw said. “But in reality, you better deliver all three, and you better do it right now.”

That challenge, too, comes down to collaboration. Brokaw’s solution is to have planners work alongside creatives, account services, and the agency’s “connections team” of owned, paid, and earned media strategists. Account heads are given the freedom to cherry pick the workers they need to meet client needs, routinely pulling in traditional creatives, art directors, digital art directors, content strategists, motion designers, or PR and media strategists. The joint effort makes it possible to systematically respond to daily client requests.

Perhaps the biggest change from 1960 to 2016, though, is the relationship between creative and account teams. On Mad Men, Don Draper and Peggy Olson were portrayed as spending hours alone with bottles of Canadian Club, waiting for inspiration to strike. “At the very best agencies today, the creative teams don’t keep to themselves, period,” Knight said. “We expect collaboration and try as hard as we can to avoid being too precious about an idea.”


“Account folks are in brainstorms. Creatives are in front of clients,” Blasevick added. This approach, she believes, allows agencies to deliver more targeted concepts and actually strengthen their pitches, since “the campaigns are vetted from multiple internal perspectives before they ‘make the cut.'”

At Saatchi & Saatchi, strategy and media teams also work together to harvest customer research, while strategists and creatives collaborate on campaigns to ensure the insights gleaned “stay intact.” By the same token, the agency’s data-informed advertising team, which employs segmentation and consumer interest data, spans media, social, creative, and production. “When their work is deployed it tends to create advertising that feels simple, helpful, and personalized. But its apparent simplicity actually comes from a highly complex collaboration of departments,” Knight said.

Don Draper’s job would look quite different in 2016. His mandate would expand to include artwork for the desktop web, smartphones, and tablets, and might even extend to online video and native ads. This new reality has led many agency creatives to defect to tech companies and startups, where opportunities to both create new breed of ads, and advance in their careers, abound. AdAge recently reported on this trend, stating that “If Don Draper were working in today’s ad business, there’s a good chance his business card wouldn’t read Sterling Cooper but instead Google, Apple, or Facebook.” Those types of jobs simply didn’t exist for creatives fifty years ago.

That said, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, art director and advertising, promotions, and marketing manager roles continue to experience growth. “There is still no substitute for a good idea, and I believe that will always be the case,” Blasevick said. “Creative strategies are still the foundation of all of our campaigns.”

Fifty years after Mad Men‘s era, advertising life may be a fast-paced, multi-channel affair, but agencies are just as dedicated to producing world-class work. “Technology continues to change,” Brokaw said, “but if you don’t write well, communicate well, and engage emotionally, you can’t deliver.”

It’s safe to say Don Draper would agree.

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