Skip to main content

Nostalgia for Mad Men Creatives: 8 Lessons Traditional Ad Agencies Teach Modern Marketers

By August 30, 2023Leadership

Until recently, you’d find Josh Webber, Big Red Jelly’s co-founder, in every meeting, discovery call, and business introduction with a college-ruled notebook. He would always be jotting down ideas and meeting minutes, even if he was the only one taking notes. A seasoned head of creative, let’s call him Sam, inspired him to do something new. 

Sam is a very laid-back guy. He walked into their first collaboration meeting with flip-flops, a friendly smile, and decades of experience in the marketing field, nearing the end of a long and successful career. 

During meetings, it’s pretty rare that Josh isn’t the only one taking notes, but Sam wasn’t writing, he was creating. Sam brought a well-used yellow-paged sketchbook, and he wasn’t afraid to scrawl and sketch and flip pages and ideas back and forth to get concepts visualized. Instead of just talking about theories and taking notes about what they could try out later, creative minds immediately got feedback and started problem-solving together. Web design ideas, layout configurations, ideas, rejected ideas, and questions filled pages and pages before the meeting was over. 

This got Josh thinking, (and buying company sketch pads for his team). Sam’s sketchbook isn’t just a technique to workshop creative ideas, it’s a symbol of unbridled creativity. It’s a symbol of taking risks and thinking outside the box, literally drawing outside the box of traditional rules. And ruled paper. There are valuable things that the current marketing industry has left behind that we are worse off forgetting. 

Inspired by drawing outside the lines, here are eight lessons that the minds of traditional marketing and advertising agencies — or “Mad Men”, as they were once called — have to teach modern marketers. 

1. BIG ideas… and, more importantly… LONG ideas.

When was the last time you saw a commercial, a billboard, or an Instagram ad that actually made you stop and think? Made you genuinely laugh? Got your mind turning? Inspired you? Outside of campaigns that go down in history (and infamy) for all the wrong reasons, a lot of modern advertising blurs together. These days, Super Bowl advertisements seem to be the only ones that people remember or that spark any kind of conversation.

Mark Beeching, Chief Global Creative Officer of Digitas, once said “I prefer long ideas over big ideas,” and Josh is a big believer in it. ‘Long’ ideas are ideas that connect, persist, stay in the memory, and adapt. Most 20 to 30-year-olds these days will remember Capri Sun’s “Respect the Pouch!” campaign, or the slightly psychedelic narrative in “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” run by Old Spice. Do you remember how many dozens of ways they told a different story with the same foundational idea? 

Everyone wants to build these ideas that are Super Bowl-worthy, which has become an obsession with a golden half-minute that everyone will remember. But that is not the point! A single ad does not make a campaign, and campaigns are the medium of marketing and advertising. Long and lasting ideas, sustainable ideas, should survive being told more than once. If your concept can only fill a commercial break, it’s like writing a chorus but forgetting the rest of the song! Your concepts need to be bigger than 30 seconds.

2. Relationship Building… The “old fashioned” way.

The internet interface makes it easier than ever to run ads, build brands, or develop web designs, but that digital distance means we are interacting less and less with others. We are a social media and communications industry, but it’s like we’ve forgotten how to build relationships, or that we even should build them in the first place.

This isn’t just about shaking hands and physical business cards. We work on Google and Facebook ads instead of building relationships with media ad buyers. Chat GPT is an invaluable tool, but we fall on it more and more heavily to summarize industries and experiences we don’t bother to learn about ourselves. At the end of the day, the purpose of an ad creative is to connect with people, and we’ve let the very tools we use to do our job get in our way of making those connections.

3. Market Research… with “Boots on the ground”

When reflecting on these seasoned traditional agencies, Josh said “The more I interact with some of these people, the more I learn just how much time they actually spent in the store with their clients… We’ve forgotten what it means to get hyper-specific and look at the customer journey, learn about the customer, the consumer, from the second they walk through the door to serving the product.”

Journey mapping is drawing out the path a user will take from start to finish in an experience, including all the touchpoints, pain points, and checkpoints they will have along the way; the customer journey. It’s a standard part of the modern marketing model, but Josh makes an excellent point here; high-value data teaches us about our audience from a bird’s eye perspective, but it’s no substitute for the real thing. In the words of famous UK author Marlyn L. Rice, “There is no substitute for experience.”; A cover is not the book, a data point is not the person and a map is not a real substitute for what it illustrates.

We lean on the crutch of some pretty intense analytics tools: Qualtrics, Google Trends, analytics, etc. These billion-dollar companies with million-dollar tools have provided us with the ability to connect with and know about infinitely more people, but that has separated us from our ability to know our audience personally, which is an integral part of our job. We’ve forgotten that effective creative ideas are tailored to their audience and require knowing them to a personal degree; demographics, diagnostics, and survey data aren’t enough to bridge the divide. 

Experience Design is an evolving industry and people are caring more and more about how they spend their time, which means the 10, 30, 100 seconds that you want people to look at your idea better be worth it to them.  We can learn as much as we want on paper, but unless we walk the terrain of the map we say we know so well, we will always be missing something vital. We need boots on the ground and the knowledge of the terrain first-hand to really know our target as well as we should. 

4. Storytelling… A lost art?

Years ago, with a great deal of philosophical satire, my mother said “We’ve all become dogs that bark at novelty.” This was in response to my 12-year-old brother’s hysterical laughter at a nonsensical internet meme which, for some baffling reason, was entertaining to him. The funniest part of that story is that she’s absolutely right! Thanks to the internet, we see millions of bits of information a day, and “I’ve seen it before” has become synonymous with “boring.” If it’s not new, it’s not fun or exciting, and it doesn’t capture our attention… not like how stories used to captivate us.

Storytelling takes time; it needs a beginning, a middle, and eventually an end. With the 2-3 seconds a site has to grab someone’s attention before they click away, or the 2-15 seconds of an Instagram video we may watch before scrolling on, it’s not all that surprising that the patient art of building a story isn’t a priority. Rather than adapting to tell shorter stories, as a whole, marketers and advertisers have opted to create something novel or outlandish to grab our attention. Without connection-making or story-building, audiences have become accustomed to attention-grabbing dopamine jumpscares, and there’s nothing clear on the horizon that tells internet users to raise their expectations. 

This approach might be effective from a ratings perspective, but it’s a creative loss. Storytelling is emotional, it’s memorable, and it’s possible to do in 10 seconds or less. Think of photography, seven-word poems, and catchphrases. Remember Vine! Advertisers, marketers, writers… we need to tell stories again.

5. Clicks for Cash: Commoditization

The advertising and marketing industry has become infinitely more accessible in recent years. I mean, a high school kid running freelance marketing campaigns could create something that reaches millions of viewers with just a home computer and a good idea! Approachability is a great thing, but it brings negative repercussions. With the lower barriers to entry and the ever-growing potential audience, success becomes a budget competition, just pennies on the dollar for clicks at the cost of real connections, real analytics, and real creativity.

6. Balancing analytics and creativity… emphasis on the creativity

Historical data that tells us exactly what works to achieve precisely calculated ROIs leaves people hesitant to try out brand-new ideas. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, is actually more If we know we won’t go broke, we’ll just change it a tiny bit, then do it again. I guess, if you are unsure a new idea will cash out, why should you try something new? 

“It’s mathematically proven how to run a successful ad campaign,” Josh explains, “We know exactly where, when, and how to run our ads, with the right keywords, to hit this ROI, and they should look exactly like this and they should have these types of people in them and be this color… you got it dialed in so much, it makes it a bit boring.” Calculations have replaced creativity, and we’re left with clean, but cookie-cutter ideas. Boring, but predictably effective.

7. Long-term brand building

Brands that successfully execute those long ideas are the ones that stick around. If you want what you build to last, you have to make decisions early on that establish who you are and the effect you want to have on the world. 

I’d love to sit down and have a conversation with those Mad Men and Women who have been building their brands since 1940, 1950, all the way up to the present day. This topic deserves an article in and of itself, so stay tuned for that article coming this September! 

8. “Fitting in” locally with localized advertising

Back when newspapers were the media of choice, you had to know your audience down to the block. Newspaper ads would be chosen to circulate in specific areas, and marketing was very localized in a way that would force traditional ad agencies to understand that neighborhood in a way that modern analytics tools or software likely wouldn’t be able to replicate.

In lieu of that personal, local customization, we all get bucketed into certain categories that Google, Qualtrics, Facebook, and Instagram say that we are. We’ve fallen to intense market segregation: This product is for this age group in this market in this area, and that’s it. Breaking that formula can cost you viewers, customers, and profit. When female heroes are suspiciously absent from movie merchandise, you’ll recognize why: superhero movies target mostly a male demographic, so marketers choose to only sell collections with male characters. 

Demographic delineation is done with such intense precision that advertisers seldom challenge that status quo. Market segregation doesn’t look for unique similarities in specialized groups or local areas. It doesn’t present challenges or ask for improvement. It doesn’t take advantage of a nearby audience. It doesn’t let the community bonds of geography, history, or environment inspire ideas. We lose out on potential local assets when we obsess about catering to larger, easier-to-digest blocks of carefully calculated target markets.


Here they are: eight lessons that we could learn from the historical successes of traditional agencies. Josh is both reproving and hopeful as he concludes “‘Heads of creative” — those are in quotations by the way — that are willing to take risks and acknowledge there were probably some really important lessons that we can pull from in the past that are going to help us build stronger brands at the end of the day.” Josh still carries around a college-bound notebook, because that is a great way to write and old habits die hard, but now he doesn’t forget his sketchpad. 

Creatives that are willing to let themselves be creative are the ones that will change this industry for the better. Wisdom can come from other people’s trial and error just as it can be gained from our own mistakes, and traditional agencies have been kind enough to give us decades of history to reference. We can maintain this industry as-is… or change it into something new with some help from the past. Sentimentality and nostalgia can be invaluable if we take the time to learn something from it.


Written by Abigail Marks