From “thirtysomething” to Now

thirtysomething2caLast week, I attended a premier for the new “thirtysomething” Season One DVD. Guests were treated to the pilot episode of the show, and a Q&A with the producers, as well as two of the stars, Peter Horton and Timothy Busfield. If you watched the show, then you’ll remember that Busfield’s character was a partner in an ad agency with Michael Steadman (Ken Olin). Seeing the episode took me back to my early days as a twentysomething with dreams of landing a job as a copywriter at a San Francisco ad agency.

Those days have been on my mind ever since the premier as it got me thinking how much advertising, as well as the entire world of marketing, has changed. We didn’t have social media in 1987 when the pilot first aired, much less the World Wide Web. Think about it: Web 1.0 hadn’t even been invented.

I’ve been waiting for the release of this DVD for some time, not only because I was a fan of the show and was drawn in by the ad agency angle of two of the lead characters, but because I had a chance to see the special features sections of the new DVD release being produced first hand. My significant other, Greg Carson, was the Producer, so I vicariously became part of the production process, through him. One day when he was short-handed, I quickly volunteered to help out as an intern on the set. I got to meet a couple of the stars, and a writer, and was impressed with how smart everyone was. They all seemed imbued with charm and witty banter, just like their characters.

I went home that night thinking how much natural talent and real skill are both needed to make something great, anything great, whether it’s an ad concept, a TV show, heck, even a casserole. Okay, maybe not so much natural talent and skill are needed for a casserole, but it helps lift the ordinary (cheese and potatoes baked together) to the sublime—yukon gold potatoes and chanterelle mushrooms baked with smoked gouda make an entirely different dish.

As the DVD was nearing its release date, it was fascinating to see the marketing of it in action. Shout Factory, the distributers, has an ace publicity team that scored great media placement. Aside from the event I attended, there was a spread in the LA Times, close to the same in the NY Times, and a cast reunion on “Good Morning America” coming up this Tuesday, and that’s just to name a few of the big ones. They didn’t have to ask for a plug from Audacious Ink. I am inspired to do so because of what they show meant to me as a hopeful young copywriter.

What struck me about the show back then was the every day struggles that the ad guys went through, at the office and at home, but I’ll be honest: it was mainly the office scenes. Some of my pals bit their nails wondering what would happen to Nancy (Patricia Wettig) and Elliot’s marriage. I, on the other hand, shuddered whenever Michael and Elliot encountered the hopeless feeling of being blocked creatively, or the thrill of hitting a new concept out of the park, right down to the crazed boss they eventually had to deal with once they sold their agency.

During the panel discussion, it came up that Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, the creators/producers, had never even stepped into an ad agency when they first created the show. For guys who didn’t know what they were talking about, they fooled a youngster like me. I didn’t know ad agencies from medical school. I liked to believe, though, that when I would one day snare a job at one of San Francisco’s hottest agencies, I’d be working with good, earnest guys like Michael and Elliot who just wanted to create great material. They’d wear suspenders, and I’d be their female equivalent in shoulder pads. We’d create great ads featuring other people in suspenders and shoulder pads.

In the pilot episode of the show, Michael fires a client who wants them to do “sleazy” ads. There is little talk of the creative process in this episode, though they make it clear that they started the firm because they didn’t want to “sell out.” “Selling out” is a phrase that these days seem antiquated. We think more in terms of “being true to our vision,” or, perhaps more accurately, producing works that will endure. The bar has been raised so high in advertising and all things marketing, that we never think of selling out because often times our best is still not good enough. We celebrate the Genius and the Inspired. Schlock is for losers, or people with low budgets. Maybe it flies in the local market, but certainly not on the national level.

“thirtysomething” was groundbreaking television. It showed the good, the bad and the really ugly of domestic life. It didn’t glorify motherhood, but gave us a glimpse into how hard—and tiring—it can really be. It didn’t glorify the entrepreneur, but forced us to look at the realities of business ownership: the constant worries of staying afloat, paying bills, and the sad truth that you can’t always have it your way. I remember watching the show people would talk about how selfish the characters were. Maybe. But they rarely got the things they wanted. We saw their heartaches and disappointment. As for me and my advertising career, like a character on thirtysomething, my life changed course. I went in-house and did advertising, but under the umbrella of integrated marketing, where I did PR, communications, and anything touching the world of promotions. I worked with a few Eliot and Michael types, and along the way, someone would mention something about “selling out.” We’d roll our eyes and think of our credit card bills and wonder who had the luxury to worry about selling out. That doesn’t mean we were happy with mediocrity. We knew: Great marketers don’t sell out. They just fail to create great work.

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