Watching Mad Men, if you’re in advertising, is like being an emergency department physician and eagle-eyeing the TV drama ER. Will they get it right? Josh Weltman, Mad Men co-producer/advertising consultant, notes, “The difference is, no one expected George Clooney to really save a kid’s life. Or take out an appendix.” When Matthew Weiner created glamorous, glossy Mad Men, the Lionsgate award-winning drama set in the world of advertising circa 1960s, he brought a pit bull-like fastidiousness to every detail on the show, from wardrobe to set design to the ads the fictional agency creates.
Centered on an ad man desperate to sell himself to his own conscience and the world around him, the show is woven together on parallel levels—the seemingly simple time of the sixties, where roles were still largely defined by the fifties, and the very complicated tapestry of messy human relationships. Weiner notes, “Part of this period was that people then assumed it was the age of enlightenment. Catch 22 was on the bestseller list (in 1962). In terms of fiction, that doesn’t seem like beach reading.”
Led by actor Jon Hamm, who plays the seriously gorgeous Don Draper, creative director of first Sterling Cooper and, as the series evolves, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP), the cast makes up Draper’s work and home life. Copywriter Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss; first wife Betty Draper, played by January Jones; sultry muse/office manager Joan Harris, played by Christina Hendricks; agency partner Roger Sterling, played by John Slattery; daughter Sally Draper, played by Kiernan Shipka; second wife Megan Calvet played by Jessica Paré—these characters and more give Draper canvases on which to play out his successful advertising career, where he’s considered a wunderkind, and his achingly-damaged past and present personal life. The storylines are mesmerizing and layered, as Draper, himself—a shiny, desirable bauble to be admired—markets his very persona to everyone he touches. He’s astoundingly, yet not-over-the-top, charismatic. Not to spoil anything for you, but Draper has a secret past—revealed in season one—and by season five, it’s slowly undoing him.
To those of us who were conscious in the 1960s, Mad Men is a rich, delectable slice of days gone by, filled with hi-fis, bobby sox, martini shakers, girdles and cigarettes—every-where, cigarettes. This is a world where, in season one, Betty Draper, in dress, heels and pearls, entertains a friend in her kitchen, having coffee and a cigarette, when her daughter, little Sally, walks in wearing a dry cleaner bag over her entire body, playing space girl. Betty Draper is alarmed at the sight, not because Sally could suffocate to death, but because her own newly laundered clothes may be at the bottom of her closet. This is a world without seat belts, cell phones, Google or Botox. You could no more extract cash out of a machine attached to a building than drive your Dodge Dart to the moon. Lavished thick with TV dinners, highballs, Howdy Doody and communists, the authenticity of the show is one of its main appeals, and arguably, its irresistible draw.
Weltman, who has worked on the show since 2007, says, “A number of the actors have said they didn’t really become their characters until they put on those clothes, those foundation garments. It changes the way they stand, the way they hold themselves.” Weiner has reconstructed this world to be faithful in every way to the period, down to the very storylines, reflecting the attitudes and mores of the day. His researchers, designers, writing staff and producers are held to his impeccable standard of strict authenticity. In speaking about Draper’s home life, Weiner comments, “I knew right from the start that Betty Draper would have been living in a house with early American bedroom pieces.”
For Weiner, who was formerly an executive producer and writer on The Sopranos, his use of advertising as a set piece means that he’s hyper-careful to remain faithful to Draper’s occupation. He hired Weltman, who has worked as an art director and creative director for over twenty years on accounts including Taco Bell, BMW, Doritos, Microsoft, Carl’s Jr. and KIA Motors, to be his right-hand expert in creating lifelike concepts and ads. So, Weltman is the creative ad-man side of Don Draper. Or, sometimes Weiner is, and Josh is his partner in creating the work. “Josh is an incredible barometer for what a good ad is and isn’t,” Weiner says. “Having him as my partner in executing ‘real’ ads has been fascinating. For instance, he says, ‘Never draw anything you can trace.’ These things I’ve had to be educated on.”
Depending on the storyline, Weltman creates ads as Draper, Olson, art director Sal Romano or a competitive ad agency. It all starts in the writers’ room, where Weiner’s staff begins the germinating of episodes and season arcs. Weltman is right there, on hand to contribute thoughts on the advertising piece of the storylines, such as how a new business pitch might play out.
Weltman says, “The thing that was most striking to me, sitting in the writers’ room the first season, was how you can absolutely feel the roots in radio. Everything felt like a bunch of writers sitting around a long table telling stories and gags and pitching ideas. The sense of cinema was not yet there, even though it was going to end up on television.
The words and dialogue were definitely pulling the train. And yet, the high point of any art director’s career in advertising is figuring out a way to make a commercial that doesn’t need any words and can play in any country, for Coca-Cola, Microsoft or GM. If you can come up with a really great cinematic silent movie, you know you’re doing really well.”
It’s a testament to Weiner’s period and content accuracy that he doesn’t elect to have the art department just supply random ads that reflect the ’60s. In one episode, the creative and account men at Sterling Cooper are mystified by the famous Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) ad for Volkswagen, “Think Small.” It’s fun to see how a fictional agency would look at that revolutionary work, in real time. Weiner says, “There was disappointment for some that Sterling Cooper wasn’t a DDB. They were the rock stars of the time. I wanted to show the other side.”
In the season one finale, “The Wheel,” Weiner needed a product for Draper to work on that would force him to reflect on his unraveling family life. He asked Weltman for period-correct products that might elicit what he needed. Weltman remembers, “Back in that time, people used Super-8 cameras to make home movies. My dad did that. And there was the Kodak slide wheel—the carousel. I told Matt that might be the perfect thing.” In the episode, Draper is preparing for an agency pitch for Kodak and their new “wheel,” going through his own slides to use in the presentation. It did exactly what Weiner wanted—Draper had to reflect back on his young family’s life to that point.
To create the ads, Weltman uses only period-correct materials: pencil, watercolor, gouache. He didn’t use marker until the show’s researcher could 100 percent verify that markers were used for layouts between 1959 and the early sixties. “I think we saw an ad for markers on the inside back cover of a CA, actually,” Weltman recalls. The effect is yet another layer of the Weiner school of authenticity. The sketches, layouts, comps and finished work evoke the real deal. “Josh’s instincts are so amazing and his executions are period-correct,” Weiner says. “The most interesting thing for me is the partnership where no one knows who’s doing which—art or copy. That was the biggest change in the sixties.”
Like SCDP’s art director (until he gets axed in season four) Sal, and many if not most of the art directors of the day, Weltman is a classically-trained artist. He is a painter, and has been life drawing since he was a kid. Graduating from Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design with a BFA in illustration and communication design, he took the path artists of the sixties might have taken: advertising.
“When you see this business from other people’s POV, like the writers’ room, there’s empathy,” Weltman offers. “One of the things that’s interesting about the show is the respect for the account people—understanding that what they have to do is thankless. Your creative team has gone out and pitched, and it’s very hard to set expectations in your client’s mind without either low-balling or sounding pompous. I remember at the end of season one, my wife Angela and I went to Italy; we were in Florence touring the museum that was dedicated to the work of Michelangelo. We had just finished thirteen episodes of Mad Men, working for nine months in the advertising world of 1960, and everybody was raising questions like, are we accurate? Did we do it right?
“Walking through this museum, we came upon a document that was an order from the Vatican to the studio for a big, allegorical biblical painting. And it said, on the first line, ‘The master will paint 17 heads, so and so will paint 21 circus animals or whatever, and there will be 14 hands.’ And I’m looking at this and it looks exactly like a modern-day production bid and I said to Angela: This was, in the 1500s, the job of the account executive. I know Michelangelo was not negotiating directly with his client, the Pope, but there was someone involved in the transaction saying, ‘Look, I can do seventeen heads, I can’t do nineteen heads, you’re breaking my balls here.’”
Again, authenticity ringing true. Weiner says, “There’s a philosophy doing period pieces that the characters should be influenced by the highest style possible. But these are regular people. To me, the clutter of deglamorizing is the point: Full ashtrays. Broken staplers. Sweat stains.” ca