Why Have Admen Lost Their Mojo?

“There aren’t enough personalities in the business anymore,” said adman Richard Kirshenbaum, who founded Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners with his former J. Walter Thompson co-worker Jonathan Bond in 1987, when he was 26. He was speaking as part of a panel on how to start your own ad agency, in the Time-Life Building, as part of Advertising Week 2007. The assembled hopefuls twittered.

“Everything’s just become too vanilla,” he continued. The unspoken assumption, of course, was that Mr. Kirshenbaum was one of the last true badasses in a business that has become neutered in the last 10 years.

Mr. Kirshenbaum, whom Us Weekly recently named one of New York’s 25 most stylish people, was wearing a navy blue suit with lavender pinstripes—bespoke, as most of his suits are—and a matching lavender pocket square and rather tight white shirt. His mane of blond hair was highlighted; he had stubble on his cheeks and just a hint of a goatee; a pair of glasses hung casually at his chest. The effect was 21st-century Austin Powers meets David Beckham. (Mr. Kirshenbaum reportedly once referred to himself as “the greatest metrosexual of all time, aside from David Beckham.”)

He spoke about an intern of his who came to work wearing a paper bag on his head, with holes poked out for eyes. This, he told the crowd approvingly, was an example of how advertising agencies need to allow creative people to just do their thing.

Later, Mr. Kirshenbaum elaborated via telephone. “The business has gotten a bit more bland,” he sighed. “There aren’t as many personalities as when I went into the business. There were different types of agencies, and each one was representative of the founder.”

But so what? Is it so terrible that the age when, as the AMC series Mad Men—which, in its first season, has followed the fortunes of a fictional ad agency called Sterling Cooper in 1960—shows us, admen were larger-than-life figures, is over? That a copywriter is now likely to get a blank stare when he proudly relays the tag line that he came up with to sell dishwasher detergent or convertibles or cold medicine? Eager college graduates used to move to New York to seek their fame and fortune in the glass and steel skyscrapers on Madison Avenue; advertising was seen as a sexy industry that offered the perfect combination of business and creative skills, and attracted thousands of failed novelists, hobbyist painters, moonlighting poets. They were attracted by men like David Ogilvy, who once said in his trademark Scottish brogue, “If you can’t advertise yourself, what hope have you of being able to advertise anything else?” He was wearing a kilt and a cravat at the time; when he retired, he moved to a 60-room castle in the south of France.

The era portrayed by Mad Men (which AMC just renewed for a second season) is an alluring one: three-martini (sometimes four- or five-) lunches, smoking in the offices, lots of extramarital affairs. (Of course, it was an alluring world largely for men; women were almost entirely confined to the typing pool and the beds of their bosses.)

“The glory days of advertising just aren’t around anymore,” sighed a 28-year-old copywriter at a large agency. “The multimillion dollar account and cocaine in the boardrooms are fewer and farther between. And now, you can’t ethically have an expense account and take clients on crazy vacation shoots.” Tant pis, mon chou! “It’s not to say it’s without its perks or glamour, but the persona of the power suit is playing for much lower stakes now, and the unchecked excess of that whole industry is such that it’s much more regulated than it used to be.”

That also might be because there’s simply less money floating around advertising today. The ad sharpies in Mad Men think nothing of taking clients to 21 and Toots Shor’s, skipping out for an afternoon romp with their mistresses, or—in one difference that undoubtedly resonated—buying a co-op at 83rd and Park as a junior account executive. (“It’s $32,000, but the agent thinks we can get it for $30,” the man’s wife tells him excitedly.) All the money was largely due to the industry’s fee structure, which paid agencies a 15 percent commission on whatever its clients’ media spending was.

“If a client spent $100 million on media costs, the agency used to get $15 million,” said Nina DiSesa, chairman of McCann Erickson’s New York office. “A lot of money was going around in those days! Today, the cost of doing business may be the same, but we don’t entertain the same. The relationship with the client is not based on entertainment; we don’t go out drinking. People don’t have time for that now, because when a campaign fails, you get fired.”

“When I first started, it was pretty decadent—people working drunk and everything—but it’s definitely lessened over the years. The whole decadence thing in advertising is kind of looked down upon,” said Mark Duffy, a copywriter who’s been in the business for nearly 20 years and writes the Copyranter blog.

At the same time, the types of clients who want a large agency to handle their advertising have changed. On Mad Men, Sterling Cooper competes for business from Bethlehem Steel and Richard Nixon; today, some of the biggest money in advertising comes from pharmaceuticals, which don’t offer the same cachet. Try telling the girl you just met at Soho House that you work on the Cialis campaign.

Why Have Admen Lost Their Mojo?