Life after 'Mad Men': The rise of media

MediaCom North America's CEO says the days of "spots and dots" are over

Has media ascended to a more prominent role in the marketing mix since the days of Sterling Cooper? There are three key areas in which I see the greatest transformation — and not always for the better.

The first, and most obvious, is technology. Sophisticated new tools, applications, dashboards and "widgets" allow us to make decisions faster and with more data than ever — sometimes, I worry, without the underlying critical thinking and understanding needed to truly grasp the implications, opportunities and trade-offs.

I am reminded of a prominent CMO who is fond of showing photographs of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Coliseum in Rome and the Opera House in Sydney. Clearly architectural styles and building materials have changed, he says, but the underlying principles of physics have not. In some of the industry's work, I sometimes see too much of a focus on the application and not in the underlying principle. We are not doing our jobs if we're not teaching both.

The media business has also undergone a seismic creative shift, and the days of "spots and dots" are gone forever. Today's media teams are content contributors and sometimes creators in their own right, with scores of Cannes Lions and Effie wins under our collective belts. More creativity is both wonderful for clients, but we could all do without the potential for inter-agency squabbles and the fight for control — or revenue. It is time for softer elbows. Though the entire Sterling Cooper team lived and worked under the same roof, co-location remains less critical than effective collaboration. We must nurture and reward the right behaviors and ways of working to create and sustain the best possible work.

Lastly, media's impact on sales and brand health can be readily measured in many categories, ushering in a new age of accountability. Media-mix modeling and ROI quantification go a long way toward solving Old Man Wanamaker's conundrum, but — in a world that's changing way too fast — I wonder if an inflexible focus on metrics will keep us from trying what cannot be measured. Does Don's imagining the Kodak carousel as a product that "lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again" sound like an idea that could be measured within an inch of its life? Inspiration and great judgment still trumps good data.

In the end, there is little question that media has taken its rightful place at the table, directing billions of dollars of investment and igniting countless brand stories via inspired ideas and informed plans and strategies. Like Sally, we have lived through the challenges of puberty and adolescence to become (almost) a real grown-up.

As we see with nearly all the "Mad Men" characters, though, ascendance comes with inevitable pitfalls. It's too easy to fall back on what the tool says or what feels safe, and it is way too convenient to focus on this or that new channel. True system thinking — ensuring that all the magnificent content works together across each and every client's communications system — requires a level of insight, partnership and understanding that cannot be faked, glossed over or handed off.

Who knows? Maybe the next Peggy Olson will get her start in the media department.

Phil Cowdell is CEO of MediaCom North America.

Editor's note: This Sunday marks the end of the "Mad Men" Era. Not the one it portrayed, but the one it hooked, influenced and shaped in ways we're still figuring out. To honor the finale of one of TV's great series, we've asked thought leaders from across the industry to share their views on how far we've come, and where we might go from here. The columns will run all this week, culminating in a Twitter party with some exciting industry figures during the final episode on Sunday. Join us and them with the hashtag #MadMenCamp.

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