In post-recession America the role of traditional ad executives on Madison Avenue may soon be a thing of the past

The iconic image of Don Draper in a sleek suit, martini in one hand, ad campaign in the other, will return to TV screens around the world when the fifth series of Mad Men airs at the end of the month.

But for America's real-life Drapers, the advertising executives of Madison Avenue, their jobs may soon be a thing of the past.

According to Ad Age, which reports on advertising and marketing industry news, the job market for traditional ad executives has altered dramatically since the economic downturn.

The publication's DataCenter said ad agencies accounted for 189,700 jobs when the US economy was at its peak before the recession in 2007. By January 2010, the sector had shed 30,000 jobs, and although 17,000 had been regained by November last year, these jobs were not the same as those that had been lost.

"There were tens of thousands of jobs cut in the recession; as marketers pulled back in their ad spending that led to agencies having to do a lot more with fewer staff members ... it's definitely a conservative hiring market," said Rupal Parekh, agency editor at Ad Age.

For Matthew Neale, managing director of the global marketing company Golin Harris, the world where ad execs such as Draper and his team were the "exclusive arbiters of creativity and modernity is over".

"Today's consumers want a conversation with their brands and they are being their own art directors using media like YouTube," Neale said. "That's a big reason why the old model is failing. While this new way will never replace agencies, it shows how competitive things have become and for traditional ad agencies, that's creating panic in the room."

This situation is in stark contrast to the hey-day of ad agency employment and industry growth, seen through the portrayal of the Sterling Cooper agency on Mad Men. Former ad executive Andrew Cracknell, who has written a book called The Real Mad Men, remembers the time fondly.

"The Mad Men era was the most exciting time ever in advertising as a business because its product, the ads, were the best they've ever been. It was a golden age, especially in New York City. There was huge economic expansion, the war-time economy had changed to a successful peace-time economy."

He said the boom was reflected in the architecture of Madison Avenue, where brownstone buildings were replaced by steel and glass offices by 1960-65.

"It was a time of growth – growth of the middle class, growth of consumerism and growth of competitive products – so there was an enormous demand for advertising. It was a golden era, in terms of profit and expenditure, not to mention martini lunches."

He said many people consider that period to be a time of media revolution through television, "but in reality what's happening now is the real media expansion, with the growth of the web, and advertising is struggling to figure out how to monetise the web".

The latest paper from the US Congressional Research Service, which records trends in the advertising industry, highlights how the industry is grappling with the impact of the recession and adapting to the migration online.

As well as the growth of digital marketing, an explosion of "niche media" opportunities is benefiting smaller advertising businesses.

Peter Hubbell broke away from the big agencies after 30 years to set up his own business,, which creates advertising aimed at the baby boomers who make up 80 million of the US population. He sees this strategy and model as the best way to keep the industry successful.

But it's not all bleak for Manhattan agencies, according to Robert Manni, who once worked on Madison Avenue and is now president of the Agent16 agency. There was still a fundamental place for the Drapers in today's advertising job market, as long as they look to the future, Manni said.

"I think the new Don Draper has to always be adding to his game, has to understand the power of digital marketing, has to really understand how social media really allows the consumer to participate in the marketing and messaging for a brand," he said. "In the past, advertising spoke to the audience, now it's more of a conversation. There are a lot of great Don Drapers out there today, and the really great ones are the ones who've learned to add to their game and keep their eye on the prize."

© Guardian News and Media 2012

[Photo credit: Helga Esteb /]