I started Mad Men in June of 2010. I forget who told me I needed to watch it, but I had the show marked on my must-watch list for some time. After finishing up my sophomore year of college, this would be the summer I caught up.
I spent that summer in Los Angeles, at a film program through USC in which an adjunct professor with “industry experience” canceled four of the fifteen scheduled classes. I was there, I told my parents, to learn how to write for the screen. I would be a screenwriter. Six hours north, in Davis, California, I was going to school for creative writing—a talent far removed from screenwriting, I was sure. Just two years and three creative writing workshops into my undergraduate experience, it was becoming clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to make much money writing short stories about my ex-girlfriend. Screenwriting, on the other hand, would allow me to make money writing tv shows or movies about my ex-girlfriend. This was clear.
In a pre-Netflix era, I streamed shitty quality episodes in bed at four in the morning. With just two courses that summer, I was afforded a lot of time to follow Don and Roger and Peggy. Mad Men, I’ve always contended, isn’t about advertising. Sure, it plays a major role in the plotlines of the characters and serves as a welcome metaphor for American consumerism, but the advertising was, to borrow a saying from the industry itself, only a “way in” to explore the psyche of the main characters. Advertising in the ‘60s is the setting, but the show has always been talking about the present. Mad Men is about advertising the way Breaking Bad is about meth.
Which is why I’ve forever been a bit embarrassed to admit that Mad Men is probably what turned me on to a career in advertising. I recognize the artistic merits of the show and not just the way it’s broodingly handsome main character sells ideas to client! (But I was drawn to that, too. If I’m being honest with myself.) I could be a copywriter. Coming up with ideas and writing headlines? Sign me up. Sounds a lot more creative than working with the Hollywood types in my screenwriting class (ha ha ha) and makes more money than the MFA hopefuls in my creative writing seminars.
Five years later, I look back at that summer with fondness. Without much to do at a foreign college campus, I was able to catch up to season four of Mad Men just as it was airing. Simultaneously, I channeled my frustrations with screenwriting (I’m writing for a director, not a reader), into a productive internet deep dive about how to break into advertising.
It would turn out a lot more time consuming than the internet led me to believe. I would need to build a portfolio, find an “art director” to partner with, and “be an intern.” All of that took me four years. I worked at an app marketing agency in Sacramento, I made a portfolio on WordPress, I went to job fairs. Most embarrassingly, I asked an award winning author and head of the creative writing department at my school for a letter of recommendation for a grad program in advertising, of all things.
I went to ad school. I got an internship in New York. I got a job in New York. I’m a copywriter now, at a big ad agency, one that they reference in Mad Men (not McCann). It’s actually still on Madison avenue. With Mad Men’s finale, I’m thinking a lot about where I was when I started the show; bored and up late in Los Angeles. The show itself has always been interested in Los Angeles and New York. Now, I’m here. I’ve made it. When I explain what I do, I sometimes reference Mad Men. It’s a good jumping off point. “Are you like Don Draper?” A better comparison would be Johnny Mathis, the copywriter that drops an f-bomb and is then fired by Don this season.
Mad Men isn’t about advertising, but it can be. Long ago, it accidentally sold me on a career that, despite it’s many lame, cringeworthy, embarrassing, tone-deaf faults, I still truly enjoy. Mad Men is really about the long continuous search for fulfillment, after all. I’m lucky that I was able to change my career path on a TV show recommendation and spend the better part of four years trying to achieve that. I guess I’m embarrassed to admit that Mad Men, a TV show, had that much effect on my life, but it’s the truth. The show ended on Sunday, but my life in advertising will hopefully last long past that.