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The Mad World of Advertising: Fact From Fiction

It won several Emmy awards, acquired a massive fan following, and even inspired the creation of a clothing line.  The popularity of AMC’s Mad Men has put a spotlight on the advertising world, past and present. In its wake is the creation of AMC’s reality show The Pitch, in which ad agencies are pitted against each other to win high-profile accounts. These two shows exhibit a dramatic, cut-throat, and scandalous depiction of the advertising industry, but is it accurate? To sort fact from fiction, we talked to two representatives of ad agencies that were featured on The Pitch, as well as an instructor at The Art Institute who headed his own shop for twenty years.

Competition within the agency

In both shows, competition within the agency is fierce. In The Pitch the premise of the show is built on the competition between two different agencies, and also between two different creative groups within each agency. The inter-company competition causes unavoidable tension that keeps us holding our breath throughout the show.

According to Liz Paradise, Group Creative Director at McKinney in Durham, North Carolina and member of the winning team on the first episode of The Pitch, competition adds intensity to the creative process. “Call it inspiration, call it fear of losing, call it a fire lit under your butt, when teams are vying for the winning idea, there's a different vibe. It’s electric, it’s stressful and it’s what we all signed up for,” she says.

Dealing with that constant competition can be a challenge. Jim Gentleman, senior vice president of account management and strategy at SK+G Advertising in Las Vegas, believes that healthy competition is a good thing for any agency. He weighs in: “When you compete against others, it takes you out of your comfort zone and pushes you to new heights and places. Ultimately, we’re all on the same team.”

Is competition within the agency really crucial? Not according to Todd Van Slyke, instructor at The Illinois Institute of Art Schaumburg. With twenty years of experience in owning his own ad agency, Van Slyke thinks that the portrayal of cut-throat competition within the agency is dramatized on the show and wouldn’t fly in a successful shop. “Generally, I think that intra-agency competition is bad for business, especially a personal business like advertising,” he says.

Deadline Pressure

In Mad Men, we see moments of extreme chaos and pressure, and then days with three-hour (and three martini) lunches. The teams on The Pitch endure days of working late and headache-inducing drama up until deadline. Is this how it works in a real agency? Not in a successful one, according to Van Slyke.

“If your people are good at their jobs, if they work efficiently, if they turn out great work the first time and every time, then time crunches aren't much of an issue,” he says. He goes on to explain that he never encouraged his employees to work late nights and weekends on a regular basis, because all it proved was that they didn’t have good time management during the work day.

Paradise sees it a bit differently. “I can't speak for other jobs, but the thing to remember about advertising is the product you put out is personal. Yes, it's marketing, but any good creative believes their work is art. It's their writing or their design or their idea, so there's a strong emotional attachment to what we do. That makes the highs high and the lows low, which is very consuming.”

However, both Paradise and Gentleman agree that work-life balance is crucial. Paradise balances family life with her career by involving her family in the work that she does. That makes her business something that they can all be proud of.  Gentleman puts it in perspective, by recognizing that though his job can be time-consuming, there are plenty of other careers that require even more time away from family. He also recognizes the value of a balanced employee: “The best thinking comes from people full of ideas inspired by real-life experiences that happen away from the office.”

Not an industry for the faint of heart

It has been said that you have to be thick-skinned to be successful in an advertising career. We saw enough harsh criticism coming from all directions (clients, superiors, and peers) on The Pitch to make us wince. Is it really that cut-throat?

“Advertising isn’t for the faint of heart. In the world we live in today where everyone has an opinion and a forum for those opinions via social media and the Internet, you need to exude confidence and pride or else you’ll wilt,” says Gentleman.

Gentleman experienced this personally, when the drama and work in his episode of The Pitch was widely criticized in the advertising community. But as Gentleman says in an article he wrote for the Las Vegas Sun, “Unfortunately, the editors left out a lot of the important stuff that took place at SK+G during the shoot that evidently didn’t make for ‘good TV’--the strategy discussions, the consumer insights, the complete integrated campaign we created, the laughter and the overall camaraderie at our agency.” Because the television producers have the ultimate say over what makes it onto the show, you have to take the reality of it with a grain of salt.

The Lifestyle

These shows, particularly Mad Men, delve into the lifestyle of the ad agencies and paint a picture of greed, illicit affairs, alcoholism and philandering. Van Slyke believes this portrayal of agencies in that specific time period is actually very accurate, and maybe even understated.  He notes that the “Mad Men Era” was a bit before his time, and that the atmosphere had calmed down by then.  “Sure, there were drunks and philanderers and affairs and all that in "my time"--human nature always wins--but the era of the ‘three martini lunch’ was long past,” he says. This was due to many different reasons, but a lot of it was a result of tightening regulations on the financial side. “Excessive client "entertainment" disappeared because an agency couldn't simply write it off anymore,” says Van Slyke.

The Takeaway

So what do viewers take away from these shows? Hopefully they take away an hour of entertaining television and a glimpse (albeit a dramatized one) of the advertising industry, past and present. But viewers should realize that there is much more to the business. “It's a great business but it's not as dramatic as either Mad Men (fictional) or The Pitch (only slightly less fictional) portray. It is a great business and it can be joyful and fun and exciting and exhausting and all that--in a single breath.”

“The Realities of Reality TV” http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2012/may/23/realities-reality-tv-my-experience-amcs-pitch/

SK+G Advertising




The Illinois Institute of Art Schaumburg


Mad Men


The Pitch