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How the Mad Men Era Created Modern AdvertisingSo, Mad Men is ending. AMC’s long-running period drama about life (and death) at a Madison Avenue agency in the 1960’s is rapidly drawing to a close. It’s gotten us thinking about our past. At Hudson Fusion, we know we’re part of a legacy that’s not just our own. We’re heirs to a century of advertising and marketing creatives before us.

For a craft that started with nothing more significant than signs telling you where you could get your shoes re-soled, it’s spent the last sixty years in a state of near-perpetual revolution, culminating in the rapid, consumer-directed distribution of viral content on the Internet. And because it’s always changing, we like to look back on our own golden age.

It’s called the Creative Revolution, and it’s where modern advertising was born. It began in the late 1950’s, as a group of young and energetic ad creatives tried to do more than simply shill for a product – but to entertain, inspire, and most importantly, drill into the memories of their readers and viewers.

Creative – “Properly practiced creativity can make one ad do the work of ten.

The lights of the era were William Bernbach of DDB and David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather, who each brought something profound and unique to this era’s explosion of thought and energy. Bernbach insisted upon creating bold, frequently offbeat imagery that would catch the eye – and drive conversions by encouraging people to engage with the ads.

His signature work was his groundbreaking campaign for Volkswagen. Bernbach’s philosophy was not unlike that of modern content and inbound marketers – the goal wasn’t to sell, but to delight, creating brand ambassadors who were enthusiastic about the product rather than getting in the faces of the disinterested. His unique marketing voice depended on owning the criticisms of the Volkswagen Beetle – and turning them into assets and personality.

The ads had a singular, humorous tone: one in particular raised a question nobody had asked, whether Wilt Chamberlain’s 7’1” frame would fit into the driver seat of a VW. It’s conclusion? A stark no. “They said it couldn’t be done,” the ad read. “It couldn’t.”

Analytical – “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

This is an approach that did not go uncriticized; at the other end of the spectrum was David Ogilvy, who took a very different tack in his thinking. Where Bernbach was focused on communication, Ogilvy’s measure of success was whether or not an ad sold its product, saying that “a good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.” His focus was on creating informative advertisements that contained nothing irrelevant to the product.

Ogilvy, you see, was a research guy, so much so that when he started Ogilvy & Mather he took the title of research director. He emphasized long-form, fact-oriented copy that tried to be useful to the customer – not simply entertaining. And despite the energy and enthusiasm of Bernbach’s non-traditional approach, it’s Ogilvy we remember as the father of advertising. Ogilvy’s emphasis was on knowing what he was selling and who he was selling it to. Knowing the customer meant being able to communicate to them, and research provides you with the means of seeing what is – and isn’t – effective.

For Ogilvy, the goal was always the sale – and, ultimately, his approach was as creative as anything Bernbach was up to. Ogilvy perfected the art, not of communicating artfully, but of branding. In a supermarket of nearly identical products, what mattered wasn’t the quality of the cake mix, but the unique personality of the brand. That’s what people would connect with. That’s how the customer would want to be seen. Be it Betty Crocker or the Marlboro man – that’s what would make them buy.

After the Mad Men Era

Ogilvy beat Bernbach in the long run – and for decades, research-oriented advertising became the norm. The 1970’s saw the rise of comparative advertising and product positioning. You know the ads – “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t” and the Cola Wars. Research-oriented comparative advertising increasingly focused on product minutiae as differentiators – and this continues to be a dominant form of advertising.

But the rise of the Internet has meant a return of the Bernbach school. Increasingly, companies want agencies capable of producing dramatic, engaging, entertaining, funny advertisements that will spread far and wide on their own – not because of a huge ad buy, but because the ad is itself worth sharing. A great piece of branded viral content carries the product with it, increasing visibility – and creating a new form of brand ambassadors. These are increasingly big-budget, ambitious ads with lavish production and celebrity cameos – and the best of them enter the culture, exactly as Bernbach envisioned.

So Where We Are Now

Hudson Fusion isn’t a traditional advertising agency – but we’re still heirs to both Bernbach and Ogilvy, and I think we carry what’s best about both of them. Inbound marketing is built on Ogilvy’s love of research, where it’s all about knowing your customer, knowing your product, communicating effectively – and building a connection between the brand and the customer. From Bernbach, we get our larger orientation – not making the sale but creating brand ambassadors. While our approach is different (although we’re always trying to find the next Volkswagen campaign), we want to be keep top-of-mind awareness for the people who are actually your ideal customers.

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