Advertising: It’s Not ‘Mad Men’ Anymore

Three major forces have changed advertising since Don Draper last prowled the corridors of Sterling Cooper. Professor Emeritus Alvin J. Silk's decades of research finds an industry that, while evolving in fundamental ways, is healthy and creative.
by Michael Blanding

Fans of the television show Mad Men are well acquainted with the mystique of the advertising business, circa 1960s, where relationships were consummated over martinis and campaigns fashioned through the wizardry of creative director Don Draper, swooping into the pitch meeting at the eleventh hour with his latest brilliant inspiration. For decades, advertising agencies have thrived on, and in some ways fostered, the idea of advertising as a creative black box.

“I think the story here is how the industry has evolved and adapted”

"How you get a breakthrough campaign rather than a run-of-the-mill one has long been the burning question for clients and their agencies," says Alvin J. Silk, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School. "Hence the famous saying attributed in US advertising circles to legendary retailer John Wanamaker: 'Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.' "

For the past several decades Silk has devoted himself to prying open the black box, understanding the economics underlying the work advertising agencies do: the development and production of advertising campaigns. As he's done so, Silk has charted fundamental changes in the advertising business—some of them well known, others that address long-standing puzzles or that challenge conventional wisdom.

In a trio of papers, Silk has laid out his research on three key developments that have shaped the industry in recent years: unbundling of agency services, the problem of competing clients sharing a common agency, and concern over consolidation with the growth of holding companies. To understand them, it's first important to appreciate how advertising has traditionally operated.

Shaping The Industry

For much of the twentieth century, companies relied on a "full-service" agency for most or all of their advertising service needs, including both creative development and media planning and buying. Agencies were compensated primarily by commissions related to the volume of media space and time they purchased for clients' campaigns.

This practice was institutionalized by an arrangement known as the "recognition system" between agencies and publishers, and administered by a set of trade associations. Among other things, the system supported standards for granting of credit to agencies and established a fixed commission rate paid by magazine and newspaper publishers to agencies. These practices served to discourage price competition among agencies and facilitated the bundling of services by full-service advertising firms.

After complaints from advertisers and a series of antitrust investigations, the recognition system was essentially dismantled in 1956 with a consent decree signed by the trade associations involved in administering the system.

But nothing much changed.

Don Draper at workAs Silk, Mohammad Arzaghi, Ernst R. Berndt, and James C. Davis detail in The Unbundling of Advertising Agency Services: An Economic Analysis, agencies continued to bundle their advertising services and collect media commissions for decades. By analyzing US Census Bureau data, the researchers demonstrated that unbundled services accounted for only 13 percent of business in 1977, 20 years after the consent decree.

In part, the report suggests that while the change dismantled the institutional structure used to administer the recognition system industry-wide, it did not prevent agencies and media suppliers from continuing the same practices individually.

That practice finally started to change in the 1980s. Unbundling began to increase significantly, with income from fees and other direct compensations growing from 23 percent in 1987 to 65 percent by 2007.

What happened? The paper presents an economic model of an agency's decision to unbundle its services that accounts for both the slow pace of change and the variable preferences for unbundling among agencies and their clients. Using microdata collected by the US Census Bureau from 1982 to 2007, the researchers found that agencies were more likely to unbundle if they were large and diversified in their service offerings, as media prices grew higher.

As agencies were unbundling, growing, and diversifying, they were also becoming more globalized.

When Clients Compete

In combination, these developments greatly exacerbated an old problem: the potential for conflicts of interest to arise when competing companies hire the same advertising agency for their business.

Historically, advertising agencies in the United States and Europe did not simultaneously serve accounts or clients that were competitors—a practice that also limited an agency's growth. The holding company was introduced as a means of addressing this issue.

The essential idea was to operate two or more agencies (or "networks" of specialized service agencies) under common ownership as quasi-independent entities. But since the mid-1980s, waves of mergers and acquisitions have created potential conflicts of interest as independent agencies that were separately serving competing clients suddenly came under common ownership. In addition, mergers between advertisers could be a source of conflict-of-interest problems: for example, when the ad agency of an acquired company also provided services to a firm that competed with the client in another product category.

Silk explores this problem in his 2012 paper, Conflict Policy and Advertising Agency-Client Relations: The Problem of Competing Clients Sharing a Common Agency.

According to Silk, industry opposition to an agency serving competing accounts is driven by two concerns: first, proprietary information might be leaked (even though there have been no recorded cases of that happening) and second, an agency serving competing accounts will give rise to "divided loyalty." What assurance does a client have that it, rather than a competitor, will be assigned the agency's best talent and be the beneficiary of breakthrough ideas they may develop?

"There is this general sense that if you are going to come up with a great creative idea that moves the market in some sector, you better do it for me rather than my competitor," says Silk.

While "exclusivity"—one agency, one client—has been the norm in the United States for decades, Silk found as he examined newspaper articles and court filings that two significant changes in conflict policies adopted by agencies and their clients have occurred in recent years.

First, safeguards to protect proprietary client information that function as organizational, locational, and personnel mobility barriers have become essential components of conflict policies. Second, a family of hybrid conflict policies has evolved that feature elements of the "split account" system long practiced in Japan.

"What surprised me," Silk says, "was that these developments have received relatively little attention. Exclusivity is still the norm, but the consensus around it is slowly shrinking."

The Consolidation Myth

Choices made in conflict policies can influence the size and distribution of agencies that the industry can support. This has led Silk to investigate how the structure of the industry in the United States has changed over the past few decades following several M&A waves. Concern has been raised that the industry has become highly concentrated, dominated by a handful of large holding companies.

In the paper "How Concentrated Is the U.S. Advertising and Marketing Services Industry? Myth vs. Reality" (forthcoming in the Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising), Silk and coauthor Kip King take aim at the conventional wisdom that the ad industry has become highly consolidated.

In measuring degrees of industry concentration, the trade press has counted only billings of the largest 500 firms or so. By contrast, Silk and King analyzed data from the US Census Bureau that includes revenue from some 10,000 agencies of all sizes, over half of which are small and serve local rather than national clients.

In the case of traditional advertising agencies, they found concentration increased slightly from 1977 to 2002, but then declined somewhat by 2007, falling well within the range that economists use to judge industries as "competitive."

Moreover, the share of total revenue from the entire US industry (traditional advertising agencies plus firms specializing in PR, media buying, marketing research, etc.) captured by firms controlled by the four largest holding companies has remained a stable 25 percent for the past decade. This figure is roughly half the estimates often reported in the trade press.

That makes sense, says Silk, since a range of factors favor a highly diverse and geographically dispersed industry, especially low-entry costs and limited economies of scale. The advertising business continues to attract creative talent who form and staff small, nimble firms, all the while perpetuating a diverse and highly competitive industry structure.


Since Don Draper's time, the advertising industry has gone through—and might not be done yet with—a major restructuring. Technology, globalization, government intervention, and a shift away from reliance on mass markets have changed the environment in which advertisers, media, and agencies operate.

As Silk's research demonstrates, agencies have shifted historical industry policies, starting with a transformation from full-service and media commission-based compensation to unbundling and cost-based fee compensation. The traditional norm of strict exclusivity has been at least partially relaxed, and agencies have begun adopting hybrid conflict-of-interest policies wherein competing accounts are served by a common agency—augmented by safeguards to protect confidential information and avoid conflicts of interest.

Despite these changes (and probably because of them), the result is an industry that "remains relatively unconcentrated at both firm and holding company levels, diverse in scale and scope, geographically dispersed, and highly competitive." This structure, Silk says, is well suited to serve the heterogeneous demands of large national advertisers and smaller local ones.

"I think the story here is how the industry has evolved and adapted" to the growing demands of advertisers and to the increasing supply of media available, says Silk, adding that the industry continues "to deliver advertising messages and remain viable as intermediaries in the process of creating and producing advertising campaigns."

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • roger bognar
    • president, bognar enterprises
    major development in 1950s j walter thompson was only ad agency public i was involved in creation of interpublic
    riight out of hbs class of 56.
    stayed in agency business for 15 years based in newyork city. P&G requirements were much more demanding than nestle or colgate.. 0r several regional beer companies.was a great time for advertising agencies
    • Rebekah Brown
    • CEO, The Marketing Square
    Advertising strategy never changes. The types of ad agencies thriving today have adapted to a violently fluid media. The provocative characters and intricate storylines compel us to watch every episode of Mad Men; they romance the hard work that actually has to be done. But the next day they compel and inspire great work when we knock out a new brand campaign. It makes what agencies of all sizes do sexy and relevant.
    • Stan DeVaughn
    • Creative Director, Write Angle
    The tools change. The technology behind the tools change. The organizational forms change. Two things never change: (1) having right value proposition in the product you're selling and (2) the need to express it in the most compelling way. Neither one can ever be off-shored, computerized or made into an app.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    In some form or the other, advertising was introduced way back in 4000 B.C. The technique has evolved over ages as a dynamic activity to develop awareness, knowledge,liking, preference and conviction leading to acquiring/purchase of the item(s) advertised.
    Modern advertising has been created with innovative techniques which include the medium of Radio, TV, informercials,mobile phones, in-store, billboards, street banners/boards, etc. With the appearance of internet, online advertising and online sale-purchase have also developed.
    Advertising is no longer something which can be assigned to novices. It utilises people with special thinking skills and there are various training programs for imparting theoretical knowledge where the nuances of advertising are taught. Thereafter, success is achieved by advertisers who can properly understand the psyche of the user/buyer in order to strike for results by creating proper focus.
    Hence, one has to agree that " It's not 'mad men' anymore." However, there are some negative features too. While advertising can be seen as necessary for economic growth, it is not without social costs. Unsolicited commercial email and other forms of spam have become so prevalent as to have become major nuisance to users of these services as well as a financial burden to internet service providers.
    Some but not all countries have developed proper regulatory mechanisms to streamline systems and halt those who resort to cut-throat competition by using unethical means. Even where some sort of a law (e.g., Competition Law in India) exists, implementaion at ground level leaves a lot to be desired.
    • john
    • CEO,
    Thanks for the revolutionary story about advertising, effective advertising can raise an organization to enormous achievement. Alternately awful promoting can pulverize an organization or place it in the national spotlight only on the grounds that its terrible. It's an extremely flighty industry generally in light of supposition, guess, and total speculating no doubt. So in what manner can a little businessman get his message out successfully when it appears that this only a huge unpredictable mess? Truth be told, the little businessman might not have the entrance to the assets expected to test and center gathering his promoting battle.If you take my advertising agency in bangalore, it has adopted so many changes in the field of advertising from the decades so far.