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This is a Mad Men’s World: 6 Lessons from Don Draper for Agency Life

My “Mad Men” avatar, courtesy AMC

I am obsessed with the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I even dressed up as an SCDP secretary for a Halloween party (and won third prize). In preparation for the fifth season of “Mad Men” beginning this Sunday night on AMC, I’ve watched the episodes again and despite the lack of surprise, I’ve enjoyed them even more than on my initial viewing. Without a need to focus on the storylines, I can spend more time admiring the exquisite production values, the labyrinthine script, and the subtle acting.

With my head in the 1960s, I’ve repeatedly drawn comparisons between life at the SCDP ad agency with my life at the Sterling Communications public relations agency, to the point where I decided to summarize my top lessons from Don Draper and his colleagues. No, I’m not talking about the boozing, harassment or eavesdropping —and no one has ever driven a lawn mower in one of our offices— but the lessons on client and employee relationships. Some things don’t change.

As a “spoiler alert,” I’ve ordered the lessons by season, and am paraphrasing the dialogue.


Lesson 1: I was reviewing messaging of solar companies recently and noticed that one company describes their “waterproof solar mounting systems.” Aren’t they all waterproof? They go on your roof. Then I realized that it was an example of the messaging meeting Don had with Lucky Strike in the pilot episode:

“Lucky Strike. It’s toasted.”

“But all tobacco is toasted. Every one does it.”

“No, everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted. So you can own that message.”

How many times have I heard a similar conversation in messaging and positioning meetings? That conversation was spot on — and I was hooked on the show.

Lesson 2: After Peggy Olson was assigned to the Rejuvenator account, she dithered over asking for a salary raise until Don barked at her, “Don’t ever be afraid to ask for what you deserve.” That’s a good piece of advice, and as applicable in budget negotiations with clients as it is in salary discussions.


Lesson 3: When Sterling Cooper lost its bid for American Airlines’ business because their contact had been fired, Don, surprisingly, took it in stride. Rather than bemoaning the lost effort, he consoled Duck Phillips by reminding him that their participation in the agency review had catapulted Sterling Cooper into a new league. Other companies would no longer regard them as a bit player. The entire episode rang true to anyone who’s worked in an agency, as we’ve all experienced opportunities that have evaporated due to a contact’s departure. You regret the lost opportunity, and then move on. On the positive side, you’re left with some good new collateral developed for the proposal.

Lesson 4: When Sterling Cooper merged with Putnam, Powell & Lowell, Duck talked about his vision for the new company. At the end of the speech, old Bert Cooper commented, “Not once in that speech did I hear mention of the client.” I was reminded of this when reading Greg Smith’s letter outlining his reasons for leaving Goldman Sachs, a letter strikingly similar in tone to Don Draper’s “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” op-ed in Season 4. Smith was discouraged by Goldman’s laser focus on profits, sometimes at the expense of the client’s best interest. Whether it’s banking or advertising or public relations, if you’re in a service business, the client’s good should figure into every decision.


Lesson 5: When discussing her objection to the client’s wish for a shot-for-shot copy of the opening sequence of “Bye Bye Birdie” for a “Patio” drink ad, Peggy said, “Sometimes clients don’t know what they want. You need to tell them.” The attitude of her male counterpart was:  Whatever the client wants is fine. They’re paying. While that’s true, it’s the account person’s responsibility to present options and recommendations, not to be a yes-man or –woman. The client is paying for strategic counsel, and you should offer guidance.


Lesson 6: The executive team of Fillmore Auto Parts couldn’t agree on their strategy:  Did they wish to appeal to professional mechanics, or to the DIY Everyman?  Don impatiently told them to come to a decision while he left the room on personal business. As he exited, one of the clients could be heard to ask, “Why do we have to please him?” I could understand the frustration felt on both sides. They did need to agree and were wasting the account team’s time, but Don treated them in a condescending way that was not respectful. They were the clients and were paying for Don’s time, not the other way around.

What about you?  What’s your favorite life lesson or work tip from Don, Peggy, Pete and the rest of the gang?

If you want to celebrate the return of “Mad Men,” the San Jose Mercury News published some tips for hosting the ultimate 1960s-era cocktail party. I’ll have an Old Fashioned and a bowl of Chex Mix, please. Don’t forget to “Mad Men Yourself” on the AMC website — see my avatar above!

Lisa Hawes can be reached at lhawes@sterlingpr.com. Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisakayhawes.