It’s a sunny Christmas in Hawaii, but Don Draper is trapped in one of hell’s nine circles. He’s reading Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno: ‘Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray/ from the straight road and woke to find myself/alone in a dark wood.’ This was at the beginning of the sixth season of Mad Men, a 1960s American period drama on the lives of the men and women who work at Sterling Cooper & Partners ad agency in Manhattan.This was also the season where Draper’s life begins to unravel. The decline is not the manic frenzy that defined the last hours of Walter White (in Breaking Bad) or your friendly neighbourhood serial killer, Dexter. It is the quiet desperation of a man on the verge of losing everything.
It is still unclear whether the writers of that show will allow their lead character, Draper, redemption. But in its ongoing seventh and final season, there is a sense of calm urgency that suggests, at the least, a fightback to a semblance of his previous, all-powerful self. There are only seven episodes left—to be aired later this year—to find out how it all ends for Draper, the self-destructive creative director played by Jon Hamm.
Not many care about Draper, as in feel affection for him. It is difficult to. He wears his abundance of vices like a badge of honour, and is often revealed as a part tragic-part despicable figure. But he is also shown as a genius who, for many professionals, represents an age where advertising was not ‘just a job’ but an intensely creative and coveted calling. It was a time when even the ‘creative’ types wore a suit to work (and would be mistaken for investment bankers today).
The many shades of grey have often rendered the character obnoxious. However, Draper’s talent has proved as aspirational as the products he pitches, as ForbesLife India found out through a number of interviews with advertising professionals in India. The new generation of creative directors envies Draper’s skill at mesmerising clients with his slick pitches. For instance, revisit the man we meet in the first episode of the first season. He’s struggling for an idea for Lucky Strike cigarettes. But he’s buoyed by egotism and confidence. His eyes betray excitement, not the self-loathing of the later seasons. He ends the pitch with what remains one of the most powerful quotes in the series. “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. ...Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”
But Draper is no longer okay. Season six rips apart the carefully constructed lie that is his life, and the audience bears witness to the devolution of a man they were convinced was a genius. “He’s still a genius, but a conflicted one. It’s not that he is de-evolving as much as he is unravelling,” says Sayantan Choudhury, senior creative director at JWT, Delhi. “He’s the biggest a**hole, but he is also capable of making some of the sweetest gestures. There’s only so much a man can hold together with so many demons.”
Draper’s conflicts also underscore the ugliness of the advertising industry in the 1960s. Underneath the veneer of crisp suits and gelled hair, Mad Men hyperbolises a period in US history that venerated masculinity, celebrated smoking and alcoholism, accepted and perpetuated racism, condoned anti-Semitism and revelled in adultery. Draper, a product of this period, thrives in its excesses and lives a life without restrictions.
Preeti Vyas Giannetti earned her stripes in a similar world. “Mad Men portrays a period in America that is similar to what I experienced in the Indian advertising industry in the 1980s and 1990s,” says the chairwoman and chief creative officer of Vyas Giannetti Creative (VGC). As a rookie, she worked with advertising legend Mohammad Khan, who introduced her to a world “filled with Don Drapers”. “Yes, there was promiscuity and drunken launches, but there was also passion. It wasn’t just a job. These men were personalities who were driven by a hunger to become trendsetters. But the rules of that decade are no longer valid,” says Vyas Giannetti.
(Talha Bin Mohsin - Suit: Brooks Brothers; Shirt: Bombay Shirt Company; Pocket square, shoes and belt: Ermenegildo Zegna. Niranjan Kaushik - Suit, shirt, shoes and belt: Ermenegildo Zegna; Tie: Brooks Brothers; Cufflinks: Hackett London. Denzil Machado - Suit, trousers and cufflinks: Hackett London; Shirt: Park Avenue; Tie: The Collective; Shoes: Steve Madden; Belt: Ermenegildo Zegna. Anuraag Khandelwal (on the cover) - Suit, belt and shoes: Ermenegildo Zegna; Shirt: Bombay Shirt Company Styled by: Nisha Kundnani; Assisted by: Baishali Baruah; Hair & Make-up by: Avni Rambhia; Location courtesy: Palladium Hotel)
Elsie Nanji, who was creative director and partner of Ambience Advertising for 20 years, also identifies with this overtly masculine world. “When I travelled abroad for creative meetings, I was the lone woman among 12 men. In India, too, it was common for big accounts to go to men, especially if the product was related to technology, like a computer, or something very obvious such as a bike. Clients sought out women only if it was for fashion or cosmetics,” she says. “However, I was often told that my presence was beneficial, not just because I brought another perspective, but also some dignity. After a few drinks, an evening dinner could degenerate into a boys’ club. If they were at a bar, they would try to pick up women. They were being men.” (Nanji is currently managing partner of design firm Red Lion.)
But 1969, the year the final season of Mad Men unfolds, is also the decade’s last hurrah in the US. Society, by then, had started changing into the more politically correct world we know today. And change has come to India, too.
Today, there are plenty of women in ad agencies, but the upper echelons are still dominated mostly by men. Women like Vyas Giannetti and Nanji are among the exceptions, not the norm. And while the industry may have shed its vices and rewritten the rules, it has forgotten the meaning of passion, says Vyas Giannetti. “We are driven solely by the bottom line. We are not leaders anymore but have become followers, with clients as the decision-makers. The moral degradation of the present times is that overpaid kids submit ads just to win international awards. This is not what advertising is about. We are being dictated by a hunger for awards at any cost, and in the process we have become an inward-looking community with no passion.”
In the Mad Men universe, Draper is being buffeted by the winds of change too. The suffragette movement is gaining ground, and Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss)—she was his secretary—is now the boss. His position of power is being eroded.
Nanji, who was drawn to Mad Men in the initial seasons, finds his personality rather unattractive. “He’s a good-looking, smart, creative guy, but he is dishonest. He keeps everyone, his wife, girlfriends, and even clients, at a distance. He doesn’t understand softness, and is incapable of comprehending what a woman can bring to the table. At least not in the episodes that I’ve seen.”
Even Hamm has little sympathy for the character he plays. In a 2013 interview to The Guardian, he says, “People tell me they look up to Don, like they look up to Tony Soprano or Walter White…Maybe it is the fact of doing everything wrong and getting away with it.”
But Draper has started feeling the consequences of his actions. It had to happen. Because Mathew Weiner, the show creator, does not ignore history. Though the series explores the lives of the characters, it remains true to historical events. The 1960 US presidential election, which pitted Richard Nixon against John F Kennedy, runs through the first season. In the second episode of season two, called ‘Flight 1’, Pete Campbell’s father is on American Airlines Flight 1, which in real life crashed on March 1, 1962. The assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, the death of Marilyn Monroe and the Vietnam War, play out in the backdrop. Technology, too, is evolving, and the ad agency gets an IBM computer in season seven. The Apollo II mission features prominently in the final season. Draper is back at Sterling Cooper, and after a few hiccups, is supportive of Peggy in her new role as copy chief. He, Peggy, Harry and Pete watch the ‘Moon Landing’ in a hotel room at Indianapolis the day before an important pitch. Draper convinces Peggy to give the presentation and they, later, celebrate its success.
Moments like these imply that, perhaps, the man will not only survive the series finale, but emerge once more resurrected at the top.
Whatever the endgame, India’s mad men will be watching. And some of them wistfully. As advertising director and filmmaker Niranjan Kaushik, who has long been drawn to this sepia-tinted world where men and women look like they’ve stepped out of a fashion magazine, puts it: “I was born three decades too late, and working in the wrong continent.”
And Kaushik’s voice is reflected in three others from his fraternity, as you will see in the pages that follow.
(Niranjan Kaushik - Blazer, shirt and tie: Brooks Brothers; Pocket square, trousers, shoes and belt: Ermenegildo Zegna. Denzil Machado - Suit and shoes: Ermenegildo Zegna; Shirt: Park Avenue; Tie: The Collective. Anuraag Khandelwal - Blazer and belt: Ermenegildo Zegna; Shirt: Brooks Brothers; Tie and cufflinks: Hackett London; Shoes: Zara. Talha Bin Mohsin - Waist coat, shoes, trousers and belt: Ermenegildo Zegna; Shirt: Brooks Brothers; Pocket square: Lacquer Embassy)
Talha Bin Mohsin
‘Times have changed. There’s more work and less play’
I love the fact that the American cable network AMC made a show that was honest and real. Mad Men appears to be an accurate reflection of the period it portrays, the US advertising industry in the 1960s.
The styling is amazing and the detailing is fantastic. Even the magazines the characters in the show read are originally from that time. It’s like watching a documentary on advertising at the time, one that is far more stylish.
Whatever I’ve read or heard about the advertising culture during this period is depicted in Mad Men: The hedonistic lifestyle, ethical lapses, burgeoning feminist movement, racism, political incorrectness and, let’s not forget, the great American dream. It’s all there.
‘If you are nervous, the client will smell it on you’
The camera plays as much a role in telling the story of the people who work at Sterling Cooper. Every frame is immaculately constructed. The cinematography is brilliant, at times dramatic. Some of the more telling shots are the ones that capture Don Draper alone. For instance, when he’s sitting on his bed and the camera slowly moves out of the room. The viewer becomes a voyeur. In India, we tend to use still shots, but in this series the camera sometimes moves into a scene, especially in restaurants and bars.
It’s my job to create the look and the feel of a commercial or a print ad, and it’s this aspect of Mad Men that appeals to me the most. The way each episode is shot is a good reference point for filmmakers.
‘Advertising forces you to confront yourself’
Elsie Nanji hired me when I was barely out of LS Raheja School of Art, Mumbai. At the time, Nanji, who is now the managing partner at Red Lion, was partner and creative director of Ambience Advertising. I’ve worked with Divya Thakur (founder of Design Temple) and Malvika Mehra (national creative director and senior vice president, Grey India). In not so many words, women have shaped my career. They’ve toned down my stubbornness. And because of my experience, I found the hyper-masculine world of Mad Men and the rampant misogyny it portrays shocking.
In many ways, it’s very typically American, especially in the 1960s, before the feminist movement took off. And even today in popular culture, it’s the male super heroes who are expected to save the world.
I’d like to think that the Indian advertising industry is not sexist. Women hold key positions but, yes, the male-female ratio at the national creative director level is skewed and biased towards men by a 7:1 ratio, but that’s just my guess. I could be wrong.
‘Don Draper, like the world he represents, is a lie’
I hate Mad Men. No, wait, hate is a mild word. I detest it. Around five years ago, when I was executive creative director at McCann Erickson (India), I went through a marathon 10 episodes of the first season over a long weekend. I was drawn to this highly stylised world of 1960s Manhattan, where well-dressed men with their side-parted hair clad in dark two-piece suits and white shirts created ads for clients.
The following Monday, I got a heavy dose of reality when I went back to work. And that reality was everything Mad Men was not. I was surrounded by some of the most ill-behaved and worst-dressed people amongst the salaried class in Mumbai, a true reflection of the Indian advertising industry. And I’m as guilty as my peers.
Mad Men was a slap in the face. It forced me to acknowledge that little voice in my head, ‘This is what you could have been’. I was born three decades too late, and working in the wrong continent.
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(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)