The End of Mad Men?

Courtesy of Getty Images

Written by Sanjana Gupta

Advertising has changed. The good old days of ad men sketching copy and creating taglines is nothing more than a fond memory. Today, the word “advertising” conjures up a far more menacing image: one of a computer geek holed up in some corner of the world, ruthlessly gathering as much data as possible, exploiting people’s vulnerabilities and using them to influence consumer behaviour. 

Thanks to the rise of big data and precise targeting, advertising is no longer associated with creativity but rather with optimization. However, having spent the last two years interning at an advertising agency, I know that this is only partially true. While advertising, specifically the role of media and digital has changed, the core of advertising and brand building has and always will be creativity. 

Advertising is evolving faster than ever. I have seen the industry get disrupted, broken down and rebirthed in my two years as a planner (the people who create advertising strategy). But right from the heyday of the Mad Men, the power of creativity as a differentiator has been the constant.

It’s true that the industry now has more data than ever before and there’s a whole cohort of people learning to analyze this data and extract as many insights as they can from it. It’s true that advertisers can now target extremely specific audiences with bone-chilling precision and it’s also true that advertisers avail of these tools – it would be foolish not to. But these lower funnel activities are no longer being carried out by traditional advertising agencies. As companies build their own data stacks and perfect their optimization machine, these activities move in-house to maintain the speed and agility required to effectively leverage the data companies have gathered. 

This begs the question of the future of advertising. After all, a huge portion of what once was the core proposition of advertising has been in-sourced by companies or outsourced to digital agencies, consultancies and media buyers. Companies are increasingly constructing large marketing machines and ad agencies that once dominated this space might be reduced to a small cog in the larger machine. 

I would argue that while the role of creative agencies may have reduced, it has only become more important. Companies today have more data on their consumers than ever before, they know their likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, they may even know our daily schedule. Consequently, they know what and when of advertising. They know what consumers want to hear and they know when we want to hear it. What they struggle with is the how. Yankelovich, a market research firm, estimated that the average consumer in a city has 5,000 ad messages competing for her attention every day. The reality is that on a good day, of those 5,000 ads, consumers notice ten, recall four and are maybe convinced to but one. 

This is where the creative agencies come in – they tell companies how to show up, how to be that one ad that convinces consumers to make a purchase. Creativity is what ignites that all-knowing marketing machine that companies dream of creating. The best ads are a little left-field from what consumers are used to. Those messages are clearly heard even in the deafening noise that is modern advertising because they are creative. And that creativity will only come from the maverick, unorthodox community that inhabit ad agencies. And this community will never settle for being another cog in the wheel. They will insist on being independent outsiders because that perspective fuels them. And here’s the thing – no matter how much data and targeting they have, companies will chase creativity because that remains the only thing that helps differentiate them from the pack. 

So, here’s my conclusion on the matter. Madison Avenue and all it represents has burnt down but advertising is still very much alive and more important than ever. Think of all the Super Bowl ads that we love or the campaigns that we remember Nike with Colin Kapernick, Dove with Real Beauty or Always with #LikeAGirl – they didn’t sell their product or reinforce existing ideas – they changed the conversation and that’s why we remember them. The most powerful brands today are the ones who have not just the loudest but the strongest voice. They don’t just reinforce conversation, they shape it. And advertising, at its core, births that voice. It may seem intangible on the surface, but Sternies of all people know the importance of goodwill on the balance sheet. 

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