Real-life Mad Men: Careers in Advertising and the Degrees |

Careers in Advertising for Real-life Mad Men

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Last Sunday, AMC’s "Mad Men," the Emmy-winning drama about New York advertising executives in the 1960s, returned for its sixth season. A whopping 3.4 million viewers tuned into the premiere, making it the second-highest watched episode in the show’s history, according to Variety. It seems America is still enthralled by the scandalous lives of these Madison Avenue ad men and the inner-workings of their agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Aside from all the drinking and philandering, much of the show’s appeal comes from watching these creative professionals tackle new accounts, dreaming up the commercials and print ads that will represent brands like Heinz, Kodak and Lucky Strike to the world.

While its office politics are outdated, the show’s portrayal of the advertising industry can be surprisingly relevant. Today, ad men (and women) are still responsible for creating commercial campaigns and shaping the national identity of products and companies. Their work permeates every facet of modern culture, from billboards and store shelves to magazines, TV commercials, and now nearly every webpage. The thought of reaching so many makes advertising an alluring profession, made all the more enticing by the AMC's sensationalized take on the field. No doubt, after watching Jon Hamm strut about as Don Draper, leveling clients with his campaign pitches, many have thought, “How do I get that job?”

Those interested in entering the world of advertising have many options. Becoming a creative director like Don, or an account executive like Pete Campbell, often takes years of professional experience and successes, but a good place to start is college. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that advertising, promotions and marketing managers, the people who plan campaigns or meet with clients, typically possess at least a bachelor’s degree. Many schools offer programs in marketing and advertising, but journalism is another option that, along with coursework in topics such as market research, accounting, sales, and visual arts, may help prepare graduates to become ad execs themselves.

While Don Draper heads the creative department, most of the bright ideas are generated by Peggy Olson and the rest of Sterling Cooper’s copywriters. Played by Elisabeth Moss, Peggy starts her advertising career as a secretary before impressing Don by brainstorming clever approaches to several key accounts. Copywriters call upon their word wizardry to create memorable lines of text and dialogue, and help concoct the concepts, jingles, themes and slogans that comprise ad campaigns. According to the BLS, professional writing positions like this generally require a bachelor’s degree in English, journalism or communications. Some schools may also offer courses in copywriting, helping students gain the creative and technical skills necessary to succeed in the field. As they gain more experience, prospective copywriters may want to compile a portfolio of their work to show potential employers.

Another prominent fixture on "Mad Men," and every ad agency past and present, is graphic designers. These creative professionals bring ideas to life through art and technology, designing the imagery that populates advertising campaigns. Along with grabbing attention, their creativity communicates the client’s message to the consumer. The BLS states that a bachelor’s degree in graphic design is typically required for entry-level positions in the field. Additionally, to showcase their skills, graphic designers too should keep a professional portfolio of their best work at hand. With enough experience, one might move up the agency ladder to the position of an art director, who handles the overall layout and visual style of campaigns.

Joan Harris, the compelling redhead portrayed by Christina Hendricks, is perhaps the most recognizable face on "Mad Men." As office manager and head of the secretarial pool, she helped oversee nearly every aspect of the agency for five seasons, until just recently becoming a partner. Office administrators, like Joan, support businesses in a variety of ways, from purchasing supplies to budgeting to supervising personnel. Today, administrative services managers generally need only a high school diploma to start, but some positions may call for a bachelor’s degree in business or faculty management, reports the BLS. Other support occupations often found in an ad agency include secretaries or administrative assistants, who perform duties such as answering phones, filing and typing (or, as we call it today, word processing). Some schools even offer programs specializing in office administration, usually at the certificate or associate degree level.

Obviously, a great deal has changed both culturally and socially since the mid-20th century, when "Mad Men" takes place. A new technological revolution has taken over, changing the way we approach almost everything, including advertising. Today’s audience is constantly bombarded with commercials and banner ads on their televisions, computers and cell phones, forcing agencies to think up new ways to captivate their audience.

“It’s not just art directors and copy writers coming up with a concept. The team is much bigger; often software developers, information architects, user-experience designers and content strategists,” says Michael Caguin, chief creative officer at Colle+McVoy. “Technology is really driving this: The sources of inspiration have always been art, music, literature, [and] film entertainment. But the new one is technology.”

Modern ad agencies rely on a wide range of technical professionals to transmit their messages to the masses. Nowadays, a degree in information technology or software development may be just as likely to get one’s foot in the door. As mobile computing becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, perhaps the future of advertising lies in those designing and implementing mobile apps or games. The BLS projects that demand for software developers as a whole will grow an astonishing 30 percent between 2010 and 2020, much faster than the average of all occupations. So maybe the next Don Draper is hunched over a laptop right now, pounding out the code that will one day epitomize a national brand.