Three Things 'Mad Men' Taught Us This Season

On Eve of Finale, an Examination of Similarities Between Show and Real Advertising

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John King
John King
In the past month, I've done the following: considered swimming at a health club for the first time in years; searched for (and bought) a plaid windowpane sport coat; heard the word "hillbilly" used repeatedly in a meeting; gazed longingly at a bottle of Canadian Club at the neighborhood liquor store.

I have to wonder whether we were already more like the guys on "Mad Men" than we realized, or if the TV show has influenced us more than we think.

Remember the vicarious liberty we all felt when Don Draper and the boys stuck it to the Brits at the end of season three, starting their own agency with just a telephone and a crowded hotel room? Could that epic episode have inspired the steady stream of entrepreneurial hostages who were running big agencies walk out the door to start their own shops this year? Many a media person scratched her head amazed that agencies still haven't found a way to get paid for stunts like "two ladies wrestling for a ham." And I'm sure many of you have seen many a creative brief sent back into planning this summer because it was two-pronged. Don would be proud.

'Mad Men'
'Mad Men' Credit: AMC
It's strange to watch a program every Sunday night before heading to work on Monday to do advertising for real. It kinda turns the old joke "I'm not an advertising executive, but I play one on TV" upside down. After four seasons, the "Mad Men" effect has clearly evolved. In the beginning it was mostly about the clothes and the booze, inspiring us to wear suspenders to work and have the occasional three-martini lunch again. But as the show's writing improved and wove into the dialogue more intelligence about how the ad business really works, there are now valuable takeaways in a 48-minute episode of "Mad Men" than in Harvard Business Review marketing articles we get sent by our clients.

Here are three of my favorite.

Make a decision, and don't look back
A creative director I work with once told me, "First and foremost, the job is to make a decision, or they'll eat you alive." At the time I didn't think much of it, but it's quite clear both in "Mad Men" and real advertising that hesitation equals death. It kills work, it kills careers. Creative leaders like Draper have a golden gut and a cracked rear view. They see what they're trying to make and this vision allows them to make the countless decisions that trickle up to the top rung of a creative led agency. So whether it's writing an open letter denouncing tobacco advertising or using the Japanese's own pitch criteria to set traps for other agencies, creative leaders like Don know this is a big swing business. Sometimes you hit it out of the park, sometimes you strike out -- but you sure as hell never strike out looking.

Truth trumps all
Whether you're selling Mountain Dew or Lucky Strikes, the best ideas are usually rooted in a human truth. Too often we decide to stretch something or, worse yet, make it up, when the creative process should begin in the brand cupboard. When we push past the noise and surface elements to see what's really there to work with, the result is more powerful than anything we can manufacture. The same can be said for the current season of "Mad Men." The show is about a lot of things, but if you strip off the skinny suit and wait for the cigarette smoke to clear, it's really about "What I want versus what's expected of me." A simple brief that rings true, and one I'd be proud to take into any creative department. When it comes to truth serum on "Mad Men," Peggy always orders a double. She's the show's constant reminder to push past what the product does to learn how it makes people feel. Peggy can see the best way to sell latex gloves to housewives isn't to focus on how the product performs, it's to remind them it's soft hands that keep you feeling like a woman after the chores are complete.

The business is image as much as it is service
One of the effects "Mad Men" has had is loosening the industry up a bit. While most of us don't have six dress shirts in the drawer or three martinis at lunch, we've felt motivated to explore the edges. And that's a good thing. Too often agencies try to mirror the client, when the reason we all got hired in the first place was because we were wildly different. Clients may say they want an agency to partner with, but what wins and keeps them is an agency they want to party with. Just like a long lunch with Roger and Don, remember that a meeting with your agency should be the most interesting part of your client's day. We shouldn't forget advertising is a romance language. Don does as much for his agency's reputation leaving the Clio at the after-party bar as he did winning it in the first place. That's not to suggest agencies should utilize a top-down fun police, rather it's to remind us the value of fostering a creative culture where someone might think it's a good idea to hop on the riding mower at the holiday party.

John King is chief communications officer at Publicis Groupe's Fallon in Minneapolis.
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