Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner Looks Back on His Show and What It Taught Him About Advertising

For a new, lavish book about the iconic series

Headshot of Jason Lynch

Mad Men ended a year and a half ago, and now Matthew Weiner is finally ready to close the book on his iconic TV series about '60s advertising. The creator has partnered with Taschen for Matthew Weiner's Mad Men, a lavish, spectacular two-volume set that looks back on all seven seasons of the series, which starred Jon Hamm as Don Draper.

The elaborate, 16-pound set—a love letter to Mad Men and its fans—is split into two volumes: Vol. 1 presents an overview of the show's most compelling dialogue and imagery; Vol. 2 contains new, in-depth interviews about the series with Weiner, the show's writers, several key production staffers and Hamm. It also includes new behind-the-scenes photos, Weiner's personal notes about the show, production sketches and some of Mad Men's most famous advertising concepts.

The new book contains tons of behind-the-scenes info for fans. All images courtesy of Taschen

The creator has been working on the project with Taschen founder Benedikt Taschen and Josh Baker, the editor and designer, since Season 3. Matthew Weiner's Mad Men retails for $200, though several online retailers are selling it for closer to $140.

Weiner hasn't talked about Mad Men much since last year's finale, as he focused on writing a novel (Heather, the Totality, due out next year) and creating his next series, which will stream on Amazon and be set in the present-day.

However, he agreed to speak with Adweek about Mad Men (and how his perspective on the show has changed in the past year), the new book, what he thinks about advertising now and his upcoming Amazon series.


Adweek: What was the thinking behind the approach to the book?

Matthew Weiner: We wanted to have an experience that was different than owning the DVD. There is a lot of extra information, and a visual treatment of it that I think is an extra experience. It might be a little fetishistic, but it's an extra experience that is very different than watching the show. If you look at this book, you might dream about it afterwards. You can flip through the pages, and, even if you don't know the show, go into our world, and that's something that I never anticipated. I've very pleased that it came out that way.

What has it been like looking at the finished book, especially now that you've had some distance from finishing up Mad Men?

Honestly, when you see it all together like that, it feels like someone else did it. You do something over a 10-year period—and you can see from my notes in there that it had been on my mind since 1993—and so it's already unreal that we did 92 hours of it. There's something about seeing it in print, and seeing it in the Taschen format. Seeing all those years of work, and all those people's work and the actors transforming and the characters transforming … it's not real to me, in a weird way. It's kind of overwhelming.


The book also assembles several scraps of paper, on which you wrote bits of dialogue or character development on the fly. Is that how you operate, scribbling something down whenever an idea pops into your head?

Yeah. I used this in the show, but at a certain point, especially when you're starting out, you don't realize that a lot of these stray thoughts you have are actually valuable. And after working with David Chase [on The Sopranos] and seeing these key bits of life, or dialogue, or anything, you think, if it's important, you'll remember it. But you don't, really. I said in the show, and it was actually quoted by some other writers on the Sopranos, that Chinese proverb: "The faintest ink is better than the best memory." I'm like, "I'm an experienced enough writer to know that some of these stray thoughts are valuable, and I'm too old to think that I'm going to remember anything." The more you get in the habit of writing things down, the more you're like, "Wait, that was important to me." So, I learned to take my passing thoughts seriously. That said, anybody reading this should know that 90 percent of them were useless. (laughs) There's a drawer full of garbage [notes] that are not on the show!


Several of the show's advertising concepts and pitches are also included in the book. You were so immersed in all aspects of the production, so did the ads on the show come from you as well?

I don't want to take too much credit for any aspect of the show. I would say that my knowledge of advertising is as a consumer, and secondly, as a writer. I got an education, not only from Bob Levinson, who had worked in advertising at BBDO and was on the Lucky Strike account, in 1960, and was an adviser on the show. But also from Josh Weltman, who did a lot of our period-looking artwork for the ads. [They both] really gave me an education on what an ad was. When you pass these things through the art department, and someone who's in advertising says, "This is a mess, this would never get out of an art department. That's not where the tagline goes, nothing is touching the image…" [there were] all these rules that I didn't understand. But what I did understand is that I was always interested in how advertising in the show would express something thematic from Don's life, or something that had to do with the story.

How did you come up with the iconic Carousel pitch at the end of Season 1?

I told Josh that I needed a product for the end of the first season, for Don to overlap with his life. We always had an idea that he would be taking slides of his family, and the story of the finale of the first season was that he had basically abandoned his family for his job. And Josh told me, "You know, the Kodak Carousel slide projector came out that year." Then, I start making up this entire thing about the wheel, and that was all done, and then Josh made the artwork that made it like the carousel.


Were any of the advertising pitches particularly tough to figure out?

We had one of the biggest discussions we ever had in the [writers] room about the Jaguar pitch. Which had nothing to do with whether Joan [Christina Hendricks] would sleep with the client or anything. I had more than 30 anecdotal stories from people who watched the show who would tell me a story like that. It was one of the most common things I heard as soon as the show went on the air. But it was really about the Jaguar ad itself. I came up with the tagline: "Something beautiful you can own." We had Vic Levin on the show at that time, who was also from advertising and had worked at maybe Benton & Bowles and I think he had done, "Be all that you can be" for the Army. And they were just staring me down and saying, "This is a terrible tagline. It's terrible. It's beneath Don. It's beneath the agency." And I go, "But it fits the story!" Because they're like, "Anybody who can buy a Jaguar can own anything. This is not specific, this is a terrible ad." And the compromise was—and I think this was me just begging them to do it, because I was the creative in that case but completely uninformed about the process—was, "Something beautiful you can truly own."

What did the advertising industry think of the show?

I would hear two things. Number one: "You're making our job very hard because every client is coming in and is expecting an emotional sales pitch, which is not what we do anymore. "And then I was hearing, "He's so good and it's so short!" And I would say, "It's rigged! I'm writing the clients as well." (laughs) I'm deciding if he's successful. If you go in and try that domineering attitude he takes in the episode where he's like, "Do you believe in Jesus or not?" If you try that in real life, I'm pretty sure you will lose the client, and get fired! For me, it was about the dramatic context, and then I had actual professional people who would both research what was the ad language of the time, and help me turn them into real ads.

Now that you've had a year and a half to reflect on Mad Men, what resonates for you now, that perhaps didn't when it first ended a year ago?

A lot of things. Number one, it's embarrassing that even with the all of accolades and viewers and years that we got to do the show, I don't think I was really able to absorb that it meant so much to the audience. That's something that I have enjoyed since it ended. Also, that if you can imagine when the show went on the air, there was no iPad, there was no iPhone, there was nothing streaming. Netflix happened during this; the entire model of television changed during it.

But besides the technological changes, there were the political changes. There was so much anger and a disconcerted feeling about the way things were when the show went on the air. Now we're in a world where all of these things are completely present and the stuff that we were commenting on about what was wrong with that period, and how lucky we were that we weren't in it anymore, it hasn't changed. I now see, quite clearly, that the culture has completely moved back towards that attitude. I always thought I was writing about right now, and the writers, we took things from our lives. Now I look at it and I say, "Wouldn't it be ironic if this show is actually representative of a simpler time in people's lives, when it was on the air?"


Are there things you look back and wish in hindsight you'd done differently, or do you feel at peace with the show you put on the air?

I've made peace with it. Yeah, there's always things you want to correct. The interesting thing for me is at this point, if I watch any part of it or am looking through the book, I don't see the equipment anymore, I don't remember the editing room anymore, I don't really remember writing it anymore. I remember all the people and everything, but it has become its own thing, which is something time does to you. That's what I meant about it feeling like someone else did it.

But the strangest thing was, we did it one year at a time. And while you can see from the notes that I always had a plan, I don't even think I knew that I could, even with the help of 500 people, execute that plan. And so you watch the show, the issues, as we picked a story for each season, which was something unusual, I'm super proud of the fact that we never repeated ourselves. I don't think we ever repeated ourselves in an episode, never told the same story twice, which is a lot of effort. I'm super-proud of the fact that there's no murder, or procedure, in it. Which was disturbing initially to the people who paid for it. They're like, "Well, who's the client this week?" And I'm like, "There isn't one!" So there's no formula, but the reality is, I look back on it and say, one year at a time, you can see all of us learning, you can see all of our lives changing. For example, my insight into my children as they're growing up and changing.

So it's kind of like reading someone else's diary, to look at the show. Some of it's embarrassing …it's not perfect, obviously, and everyone who worked on it was a perfectionist, so I always say, that means you feel like you're failing, all the time. That's what perfectionists are like. But I stand by the heart of all of the people involved. We had an amazing time; it was really fun. There was a lot more laughing than you can tell from when you watch the show. But people did it with an earnestness that I would never criticize it at this point.


How has the experience of making Mad Men changed your view of advertising now?

It's hard for people to remember, but when we went on the air, advertising was in a deep crisis. And it got even worse. We went on in 2007, and just imagine, a year and a half after we go on the air, there's no car advertising because this gigantic recession has happened. And combine that with the internet and everything else, and people are scrambling, figuring out how to even get a message to anyone. And what I see now, is that the public's appetite for advertising—and especially the next generation—it's insatiable. And they don't even seem to see it as a nuisance or any of the things we talked about on the show. As a consumer, I feel like there was an effort made to make things more interesting. And there was a whole school of advertising that was fighting the DVR. If you look at the Target ads, there's a whole school of advertising that is short and sweet and one-joke, like Geico. So I've seen it change. Some of it feels retro to me and some of it doesn't.

But I see that the industry did respond to the technology. I guess what I'm most interested in is, and the entertainment industry is in the same shape: How do you stand out in this marketplace? And it's so wide open and so, as we know from the election, at least bifurcated, but even more individual than that … this is not a technological issue anymore, this is a creative issue. I can say that for the most part, there are people rising to that problem. I see more interesting creative than I did when we went on the air. Though I don't know if it's working! [One thing we learned from working on the show is that] a great creative ad does not necessarily sell anything.

You were always very secretive when it came to sharing details about new Mad Men seasons, and you're being just as enigmatic about your upcoming Amazon series. What can you say about it at this point?

I really don't want to talk about it. I will talk about it when the time is right. I feel like interfering at this point in the process, it's not good for any aspect of the show. It's not like, "Oh, it's so amazingly top secret!" It's more like, I can't work and have people saying, "Whatcha doing?" On Mad Men, we already had the pilot [completed] by the time we ever met a journalist.

A few days after the Mad Men finale aired, you said that if you ever made a show for Netflix or a streaming service, you'd try to convince them to release it weekly instead of all at once. Have you had those talks with Amazon yet? Who is winning that battle at the moment?

Right now, there is no battle. I'm going to make the show, and maybe we'll have a conversation about it at that point. But the world has changed in a certain way and I'm prepared to deal with it however Amazon feels comfortable. We'll see what the marketplace is like at that time. I'm just making the show and that will be a conversation I have with [Amazon Studios head] Roy Price when we get closer. And I may not even care, I don't know yet. Like everybody else, I'm consuming shows like that. So it may be a thing like [saying], "Hey, when you use the typewriter…" and I don't want to be that person.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
Publish date: December 20, 2016 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT