So, Don Draper is now history. Well, actually, he’s always been history. He started and finished as a half-century look back at what advertising was. Part of the appeal of Mad Men was the anthropological quaintness of the whole thing – “Can you believe they used to do that?” We, smug in our political correctness, can watch an episode secure in the knowledge that the misogynistic, substance-abusive, racist world of Sterling Cooper and Partners is long gone. The world, and with it, advertising, have come a long way!
But, one wonders, what would happen if a similar premise was launched in 2065? What about advertising now would look similarly unacceptable to viewers then?
Draper’s world was the world of the creative spark igniting the big idea. It was the world of the catchy jingle and meme-worthy slogans. The Don Drapers of the world could do no wrong great enough to tarnish the glow of their ability to blow away a client in a pitch or snag a Clio. Creative gods stood firmly astride their kingdoms on Madison Avenue.
Now, of course, we know better. Those were simpler times. Clients, and consumers, are not nearly that naïve. Today, we demand quantitative data and testing to back up our creative inspirations. It’s not just about Big Ideas. Today, advertising is also about Big Data.
But, 50 years from now, will our current preoccupation with data look anachronistic or prescient to that future audience? Are we exhibiting some equally entertaining naiveté? Will the pendulum swing back to the big idea – or will some other alternative present itself? Will data profiling, targeting and programmatic buying look as quaint then as a corny jingle and a three-martini lunch look to us now?
Advertising in the era of Don Draper had gone through its own evolution. At the turn of the century, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, a flood of new products entered the market. Advertising’s first job was to make consumers aware of new offerings, opening new markets in the process. Its primary goal was to inform.
But, by the 50’s and 60’s, mass media had made consumers aware of most product categories. Advertising’s job became to persuade consumers to purchase products they already knew existed. Its primary goal was to persuade. Market share, rather than market expansion, became the end goal. Hence the era of the big idea. You don’t need a big idea to inform, but you do need one to persuade.
Today, however, with the expanding capabilities of technology and micro-manufacturing fueling a new revolution of innovation, we may be coming back to a time where awareness is the primary concern. Advertising’s job seems to be to navigate increasingly complex filters to create awareness in increasingly targeted audiences. The era of branding that found it’s legs in the era of Don Draper already seems to be morphing into something much different that what we’ve known previously. Who knows what that will look like in another 50 years?
The thing about history is that it gives you the intellectual distance required to recognize how silly we once were. The greater the distance, the safer we feel in laughing at ourselves. In the case of advertising, 50 years seems to be an adequate buffer to feel pretty smug with our historical hindsight. Of course, if somehow you could be transported back to 1965 and talk to the average creative director at a big agency, it’s doubtful they would appreciate being enlightened about their ignorance.
So, if we project that forward to today, it makes you wonder. What are the things we do now that our grandchildren will be laughing at in 50 years?