Here are the top ten timeless advertising lessons we can all learn from Mad Men’s Don Draper:



Don Draper, from the AMC series Mad Men


10. Something “new” creates an itch.

“This old pro, a copywriter, a Greek named Teddy, told me the most important thing in advertising is ‘new’. It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.”  –Don Draper

It holds just as true today, perhaps even more true today, that people will tend to want the “new and improved” thing by virtue of it being “new and improved.”

I can understand why this is…I feel this particular tug all the time, particularly with new gadgets. But it’s hard to say exactly why we feel this compulsion. It’s hard to classify this need as one of the six weapons of influence. There is an extent to which Social Proof is involved, as in Keeping Up With The Jonses…but I believe that in a vacuum, we would still prefer that which is novel. We need to be a part of that which dazzles us: the new, flashy and exciting…almost for its own sake.

9. Totally immerse yourself in popular culture.

When Don is “off at the printer’s,” we can usually find him in the arms of one of several women. Other times, though, he is escaping work in other ways: in a solitary art-movie theater, or reading Meditations In An Emergency in some bar…

Don is “in-touch.” He connects with popular culture and absorbs it like a sponge.

In the sixties, popular culture had a lot of unified meaning behind it. There were tectonic shifts in culture and thought, and Don holds his fingers to the pulse. In not a coincidence that the first girlfriend we see him with is a beatnik illustrator. Don can never be of that group, or any group. But he can experience the group and absorb insight from it.

Today, being in-touch seems much more low-brow. The beating heart of the culture is no longer the art-house cinema…it’s now reality-show dish. John Jantsch, author of Duct Tape Marketing, admits with slight guilt that he stays in-touch be devouring People Magazine.

8. Don’t try to ram-rod the creative process.

“Just think about it, deeply, and then forget it. An idea will…jump up in your face.”  –Don Draper to Peggy Olsen

“You came here because we do this better than you. Part of that is letting our creative be unproductive until they are.” –Don Draper to Lane Pryce

Since part of my own job is creative and part is organizational, I am of dual mind on this lesson. On the one hand, it’s infuriating to see people actually accomplishing very little. Especially if you’re a small company that doesn’t have a lot of money to throw around.

On the other hand, when I am on the spot to write something…that’s when I produce my lamest, most uninspired stuff. Something about the command to produce now cuts off the bloodflow to the right side of the brain. On top of that, I have it on good authority from people way more creative than I am, that the brain must go through some kind of ruminating process before anything useful comes out.

7. He who is least attached to the outcome keeps his power.

“The day you book a client is the day you start losing him.” –Don Draper

I found inspiration for this lesson with the help of an article called,“What would Don Draper do?” It’s very hard not to take loss or rejection personally, especially when you’ve contributed your own creativity. But in the end, the acceptance or market viability or your work is not completely within your control.

Getting your self-image tied up in individual outcomes will only make you tighten down on yourself in an effort to over-control. This is counterproductive, especially when you’re early in your career and the first things you try may not work as well.

All we can really do is keep improving our own quality, which gets better when we detach our egos from individual outcomes.

6. Work from a perspective of authority and dominance.

“There comes a point when seduction is over and force is actually being requested.”  –Don Draper to Ken Cosgrove

Do I mean to be arrogant and controlling? Absolutely not…unless the situation calls for it.

Here’s the deal: you are in the business of telling people what they need, not the business of asking people very politely to please see their way to trying out your product. When you present yourself, your company, your work; when you pitch whatever it is you pitch (and we all pitch something), it’s got to be backed up by confidence and the ability to be just fine with walking away.

For example, if you are an actor on an audition, the meta-communication is that you are pitching yourself as a professional and telling the director that s/he needs you. If you audition from a place of, “Please like me,” you are sunk before you start. So never seem apologetic about your work. Assume that you’re the best judge of quality in the room.

5. The Customer Needs to Project Their Face on Your Product

“There’s a rare occasion where a public can be engaged beyond flash…[my mentor talked] about a deeper bond with a product: nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent.”  –Don Draper

When I wrote about the Cialdini Weapon of Influence called “Liking,” I spoke a little on this idea of man’s tendency to associate himself with certain significant people or objects, and dissociate himself from others. They’re looking for an excuse to project their face onto your product – to feel some kind of kinship with it – and all you have to do is give them that excuse.

When Draper gave is famous pitch on the Kodak Carousel, he spoke about very simple themes, and showed personal slides of his own family during happy moments. He talked about a place we long to go again. Who wouldn’t like something that gave him or her the ability to time travel to the most carefree and happy moments of their lives? What potential customer wouldn’t be able to see themselves doing that?

How will you encourage people to associate their identities with you?

4. “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

“Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s…is toasted.” –Don Draper

Don said of this concept that PR people “understand it but can never execute it.” It’s funny to look at BP and Toyota today and realize the wisdom of this anachronistic fictional character.

The Lucky Strike pitch mentioned above was only in a position to work because the company and all its competitors were in the same health-claim situation, meaning that they didn’t have to dive into the minutiae of differentiating the health benefits of their product.

Both Toyota and BP attempted to change the conversation when each company had their famous problems, but Toyota did so with much more acuity and success than did BP. Part or that had to do with Toyota customer loyalty, but part also had to do with Toyota’s implicit acknowledgment of their situation, whereas BP’s tone seemed more cynically misdirecting.

Frank Luntz is a conservative pollster, and the mastermind behind the Republican’s 15-year success at re-defining a public debate simply by changing the name of the issue. He invented the terms “clean coal” (actually just regular old coal), “energy exploration” (oil drilling), “death tax” (estate tax), “opportunity scholarships” (school vouchers), and “electronic intercepts” (warrantless eavesdropping).

Here’s an article from on “Trust Busting Websites,” which shows more examples of people trying to change the conversation with an awkward lack of sincerity.

Never forget that if the public conversation about your product is going downhill, there are ways to de-emphasize the complaint. Just be sure you don’t sound like a spinmaster when you phrase your message.

3) “You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex.”

I come from an IT background, where most people get bogged down in features. Even marketing and product managers, who should know better, get so thrilled with features that they drag creatives kicking and screaming away from the messages that really sell.

Never forget that selling a product means selling the feeling that goes along with it. For example, I work for a scientific software company. And my life got a lot easier when I realized that I don’t actually sell software. I sell answers. The software is just a thing that someone wields in pursuit of accomplishment.

Aristotle believed that the most valid form of argument in public discourse was a logical argument, and that everything else should be devlaued because logic, in the end, should win the day. But in marketing, that’s backwards. Benefits don’t actually sell unless one feels something as a result.

2) “Something terrible has happened and the way they saw themselves is gone.”

The sentence above came from one of the greatest monologues in the series, right after their portrayal of the Kennedy assassination. But, as observed by the author of the TrueTalk Blog, this idea applies just as well if not better to a post September 11th world.

Most people write their messages from their product’s point of view, without once thinking about the customer. They say, “I’m going to put a message together that’s fun and catchy, and people will respond to that.” As if the consumer state were populated by robots who responded the same way to every time.

This is not science. We are not talking to rational beings who always act predictably and respond to stimuli with repeatable accuracy. We’re talking to ourselves; quirky, neurotic, mob-minded, insecure, exhausted, arrogant, stubborn, fragile people who make gut decisions and call them logical.

This isn’t a harsh judgment; I’m not saying to be cynical when you write. I’m saying the opposite: keep your audience close to your heart, with all their imperfections and concerns. We’re all more fragile than we want to be, and we want to feel just a little bit better. Can you help us feel just a little bit better?

1) “Advertising is about one thing…happiness.”

And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” –Don Draper

As an exercise, I’ve been taking particular notice when I watch TV commercials, with a more critical eye as to what they’re really selling. A typical commercial break usually goes like this: security, family bonding, financial peace-of-mind, attentiveness, more family bonding, amusement, escape, etc.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an entry on people’s secret dreams and ideals, and I came back to that concept more and more as I keep writing. To understand someone is to see how they would arrange the world if they were in charge. Most people chase dreams without coming close to attaining them; dreams are not only difficult, but quite often conflicted, vague, and even self-defeating.

Fundamentally, what are we selling? An easier, more fun, more fulfilling life; a method by which we can inch closer to some vision. Sometimes, that’s a spotless floor, sometimes it’s a music download, sometimes it’s a new car that fits our personality. We are selling the decorations and trappings of someone’s more ideal life.

So tell me how my life gets closer to my vision if I bring your product into it.


[Editor’s Note: A couple weeks after this blog entry was published, I came across “Don’t Eat The Shrimp,” a blog on marketing and social media who’s author has been writing for years on the real lessons we can learn from Mad Men. It’s a brilliant blog, and I wish I had discovered it before I wrote this entry. His take-aways are more insightful than mine.]

Hi, this is Scott. Was This Article Helpful For You?

I’m always trying to improve these articles for you and answer your questions directly.

If this information is helpful to you, I invite you to bookmark this page in your browser for future reference. I hope this information can be a useful citation for a post you’re working on!

If you would like me to address specific material or have a question, please leave me a comment below.

Also, please don’t forget to share with the buttons below! 😉