3 Important Lessons from a Fictional Ad Man

Sam DeMastrie

April 10, 2013

This past Sunday marked the much-anticipated return of everyone’s favorite televised drama set in the socially-turbulent 1960s advertising world—Mad Men. I’ll assume that everyone in the advertising/design industry is already watching this show. If you’re somehow unfamiliar though, know that it stars Don Draper, this fictional ad man is a brilliant creative director and adman who, amongst other less-than-admirable habits and character traits, really knows how to sell a piece of advertising.

While it is true that Mad Men takes place half a century before our own time—before mobile phones, inbound marketing strategies, and the rise of social media—Don’s innovative lessons are tried and true, and just as relevant today as they were back then.

1. Be Relatable

“It’s not called the Wheel—it’s called the Carousel.”

In one of his most rousing client pitches, Don is tasked with creative direction for Kodak’s new slide projector. Originally dubbed the Wheel (“Wheels aren’t seen as exciting technology”), Don sees an opportunity to rename and reposition the product, using the power of nostalgia and emotion to resonate on a deep level with the consumers.

Understanding your audience is one of the most important facets in the advertising world—it should inform everything you do, why you do it, and how you do it. Advertising and design are all about communication, and if you don’t know to whom you are talking, you aren’t really talking to anyone.

2. Be Memorable

“Say what you want. Love it or hate it, the fact remains we’ve been talking about this for the last fifteen minutes.”

During what was supposed to be a brainstorming meeting for a client campaign, the creative team instead debates the validity and impact of a new Volkswagen magazine ad, featuring the original Beetle and a single-word headline—“Lemon.”

In the crowded sea of advertising, the only way to be seen and heard is to be different and stand out. Every day, consumers are flooded with ads in print, on television and radio, on billboards along the freeway, and through social media. Differentiating yourself from the rest is the only way to get people talking about your ad and your brand.

3. Be Ambitious

“You’re happy with 50%? You’re on top and you don’t have enough. You’re happy because you’re successful—for now. But what is ‘happiness’? It’s a moment before you need more happiness! I won’t settle for 50% of anything—I want 100%. You’re happy with your agency? You’re not ‘happy’ with anything. You don’t want most of it; you want all of it. And I won’t stop until you get all of it.”

In a long-shot pitch for a potential client who’s apparently happy with his current advertising agency (and his 50% market share), Don makes a very stirring argument to win their business.

The lesson here is don’t settle for anything less than the best—“go for the gold,” “eyes on the prize,” “in it to win it,” etc. etc. Everyone knows the advertising world is highly competitive and continually evolving. If you’re not ambitious enough to always go after the bigger fish, you may not last long.