Social change has done away with the liquid lunches and casual chauvinism the show depicts as cornerstones of the 1960s advertising industry, and advertising instructor Michael Rosen says the industry itself has shifted in other more subtle ways.
Don Draper, the show's central character, is played by Jon Hamm as a talented but troubled ad man with insatiable appetites for whisky and women. Draper is at his best in the pitch meetings, deftly selling his ad agency's services to executives from companies that include Kodak, Hilton and Lucky Strike.
Rosen, who teaches advertising at Toronto's Humber College, said Draper's skills at building relationships with clients will never go out of style. But he adds that the advertising industry has moved from an emphasis on keeping clients happy to the creative side of the business and a determination to build popular campaigns.
"It's less schmoozing than it was, less taking the client out for drinks to create loyalty," he said. "It's about being a functioning part of the creative process and helping build value."
The switch from sales to creative is even evident in office fashions, Rosen said, as the natty suits and expensive watches of Draper and his associates have been replaced by casual wear and tattoos.
"The creative has taken over," Rosen said.
Tyler Turnbull says he was originally attracted to "Mad Men" because the key moments in Draper's business life are relevant to his own as CEO of the Toronto office of FCB, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world.
He pointed to a scene from the first season in which Draper pitches the idea of a slide projector as a time machine for one's own life.
"Crafting a great consumer insight that turns into a big idea is still the foundation of what we do today," he said.
Turnbull, who's a few episodes behind in the final season but intends to catch up by Sunday, said advertising agencies have become more collaborative since the "Mad Men" era. Doing away with "Mad Men"-style hierarchies allowed him, at age 32, to ascend to his current position.
"Today the strongest businesses allow inclusive environments that allow ideas to come from everywhere," he said. "Agency leadership has really come to value ideas over tenure."
Nicholas Quintal, who heads ad agency Rethink's new Montreal office, spent the early part of his career with BBDO, one of the real-life advertising giants that competes with Draper in the fictional world of "Mad Men."
He said Draper's pitches often relied on knowing more than his clients about the "mystery" of advertising and production. Now, with smartphones capable of editing photographs and shooting high-definition video, that mystique has vanished.
"In the time the show was set, no one knew how to do a commercial, it was so mysterious," he said. "Now everyone thinks they can do more themselves."
Quintal believes Draper could find employment in the advertising world of 2015 as long as he kept his personal problems under control.
"He's still trying to do the right thing for his client, and that's what an agency should do," he said.
Draper would also fit in because "he's so cool," Quintal added.
Gillian Graham, CEO of the non-profit Institute of Communication Agencies, is a long-time "Mad Men" fan and she said she will be "absolutely riveted" by next Sunday's finale.
She adds that the industry still relies on the personal magnetism that Draper exemplifies.
"If you're going to hold the attention of your client, you have to have the kind of personality that would draw them into the conversation," she said. "It's a relationship business, always has been and always will be."
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