November 12, 2009Lessons we can learn from Mad Men

So Don Draper is’s man of the year, ahead of Barack Obama, and the founders of Facebook and Twitter.

Good. He’s a hero. An archetypal, flawed, don’t-make-’em-like-that-any-more hero. He also happens to work in advertising.

He’s also a fictional character. But what can us real-life ad men learn from Don?

1. Stay ahead of the game

I just watched the finale of Season 3 online. I live in the UK. I’d have to wait months to see this on TV. So I didn’t.The world has moved online. Move with it, or be left behind — just like Harry is ahead of his time setting up a TV department at Sterling Cooper, so too have the agencies who saw the potential of the web powered ahead. Online advertising spend now outstrips television advertising. Get with the times.

If a film comes out in America but the release is delayed for even just a few weeks here, I’ll watch it online. That’s the way the internet works. Once it’s out, it’s out. You can’t censor it, block it, or slow it down. This is why Rupert Murdoch’s plan to make all his online newspapers subscription only will fail. Someone will reblog them for free.

2. Everyone at an ad agency should be creative.

It’s not just the creatives who have to think fast. Whether it’s a secretary coming up with a good excuse for why her boss is out of the office (hint – “he’s at the printers” doesn’t work in a digital age) or a personal assistant coming up with a reason why he needs an office, thinking on your feet gets results.

Pete Campbell gets made partner because he’s as creative as Don. No, he doesn’t have great advertising ideas. But when it comes to manipulating people, he’s good — one of the best .Whether it’s blackmailing Don or cooking up intricate schemes to get the next-door-neighbour’s au pair in the sack, he’s great at handling people. He’s creative.

Creative itself has to be creative two times over. Half of what Don does is to sell an idea to his clients. He has to be able to explain to them why his ideas work. If you can’t explain it to your clients, go back to the drawing board. Your idea’s just not that good.

3. Be cool.

Sharp suits. Sleek cars. The best barber in town. Everyone in Mad Men oozes cool the same way real-life ad-men sweat. Cool always saves the day. Whether you’ve been caught having an affair, or someone’s foot has been run over by a John Deere tractor, be cool.

For the last few years to be a “creative” you’ve had to look like a cross between a mad artist and an eccentric hobo. Either that, or look like you’ve just got out of bed. Times are changing. Clean cut is cool again.

Success breeds success. Successful people are successful because they look the part. People trust them. They look like winners. Would you let a loser loose on your account?

4. It’s tough at the top. It’s even tougher at the bottom.

Don’s broken away to form his own ad agency. He’s struck out, boldly — perhaps taking a leaf out of Connie Hilton’s book, or maybe just finally getting round to reading that Ayn Rand that Bert Cooper lent him. But suddenly the team’s gone from working in a gorgeous serviced office to working out of a hotel room. Sure, they’ve got room service, but it’s going to get cramped.

The point is, branching out on your own brings rewards. And if you don’t want to be a cog in a wheel, sometimes you’ve got to take risks. There are some agencies I’d love to work for. There are other jobs I’ve turned down. I’m a freelancer because the hours and the pay suit me right now. But if the right company made the right offer… or if a beautiful viscount’s daughter came along…

The most successful characters in Mad Men take risks. But they also take opportunities when they come knocking. And they’ve always got one eye on the next rung on the ladder. They play the long game.

5. There are some things you can’t get away with any more.

Drinking in the office. Now frowned upon. Try going for a gin martini after work instead. Drinks in the morning? Don’t get caught out in an embarassing pants-wetting episode. Try rehab. Sexual harrassment — it’s out too, I’m afraid. Homophobia — see how far that gets you these days. Television? Who cares. And for the love of God, don’t tell your boss you’ve had “a great idea to target the negro market”. That’s as uncool now as it ever was.

Mad Men is brilliant because it simultaneously shows us how far we’ve come, and how similar we still are. It’s a triumph of style and substance. A show whose popularity has spread by word of mouth.  In fact, Mad Men is just like the best marketing campaigns.

It’s won our hearts. We can all learn from it.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, November 12th, 2009 at 5:00 am and is filed under Blog, Me and my business. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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