What We Can Learn About Creativity from ‘Mad Men’

Seven years into its run, the critics are turning against “Mad Men.” Harpers’ Jenny Diski says “Mad Men” is “rather stiff in its groping for authenticity,” and The New Republic’s Marc Tracy cites the show’s “trying-too-hard brand of seriousness.” Others have joined the chorus, saying “Mad Men” has never quite adjusted to the 60s.

Not many people are still around who worked in the world depicted at Sterling Cooper. But some who did say “Mad Men” misses a huge part of that world, which was how much fun it was back then to work in advertising. Agencies weren’t as research-dependent as they are today and took more risks. For a good glimpse into what it was like, find a copy of A Big Life (in Advertising), the thoroughly enjoyable autobiography of Mary Wells Lawrence. Mary Wells, who changed her name when she married an airlines big shot, was a copywriter for Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1966 when she opened Wells Rich Green.

Suddenly eager to associate their brands with the “youth culture,” companies wanted “big breakthrough ideas,” Lawrence writes. Even if “uncool themselves,” clients wanted to think they were, and in this “era of the miniskirt and long legs,” Wells Rich Green was a hot shop.

For Philip Morris’s Benson & Hedges 100’s, the agency produced ads showing the “silly millimeter longer” cigarettes lopped off and otherwise mutilated in unexpected ways. People loved it.

American Motors wanted an “anti-establishment” vibe for its new Javelin, so Wells Rich Green showed workers taking sledgehammers to Ford’s Mustang. Suddenly American Motors “was not only surviving, it was swinging.”

“We might not have been intellectuals,” Lawrence writes of her Madison Avenue colleagues, “but we were very smart.”

They also were high-spirited so-and-so’s who knew how to have a good time. For all their boozing and carousing, the sad sacks on “Mad Men” never seem to derive much enjoyment from their indiscretions or, for that matter, their work. They are as grim a bunch as you can imagine, and the office tension is never broken by a good, hard belly laugh.

Which makes you wonder how Sterling Cooper could ever produce good work.

Creative work is hard, but it’s also fun, and if you aren’t having fun, you probably aren’t producing good work. That’s important to remember if you start taking your work, or yourself, too seriously.

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