When someone asks me what my favorite TV show is, my nonchalant reply is Mad Men, without giving it a second thought. Not because I’m in advertising, but because I genuinely love the show for the many facets of human nature and agency life it portrays – from unpleasant vices to interesting relationships and of course, its retrospective portrayal of advertising. It was exciting to see the Mad Men at work, churning out brilliant ideas even during times of crisis and massive creative blocks. I was captivated by Don Draper’s personality and skill and found myself trying to replicate his techniques. I failed more often than I succeeded at first, but eventually cracked the code to getting it right. While there are several lessons I learnt from Mad Men, I am happy to share those that helped me out the most.
Put the Audience in a ‘Happy Place’
My first lesson came in the first episode, when Draper turned the tables on a failing meeting with Lucky Strike; the clients were convinced the agency had no solutions after research had proved cigarettes were linked to cancer. Given the fact that no one could talk about health and cigarettes in the same space, all the cigarette companies were in the same position. Draper had hit on a valuable insight: people love cigarettes. They know they are unhealthy, but they don’t want to quit, despite the risks. Any notion of health would make audiences uncomfortable – so Draper changed the conversation altogether. The solution was hidden in plain sight – it’s toasted. “But everybody else’s tobacco is toasted,” said Lee Jr., to which Draper simply proposed that everybody else’s tobacco was poisonous; Lucky Strike’s is toasted. A reassurance of sorts – they would be the first to say it and build a positive association in the consumer’s mind.
Personalise Your Story
I cannot stress how important it is to not just humanise your storytelling, but personalise it as well. Ever since I watched Draper’s Carousel pitch for Kodak, I was amazed at how he didn’t hold back from sharing personal photographs and experiences to make the product’s role come to life. He did the same thing when he pitched to Hershey’s Chocolate. For almost every idea I have thought of, I tried to add a touch of my own personality and experience to enrich the rationale behind it. Remember, clients are human too and if you craft your story correctly, you can find a soft spot that speaks directly to their hearts – ultimately selling the idea.
Bet Your Life on Your Idea
When presenting Peggy Olson’s Mark your Man idea for Belle Jolie Lipstick, the clients did not react as expected. Today, this would have upset the creatives who worked on it. They would have probably tried to defend the idea, while at the same time mentally prepare themselves to go back to the drawing board. However, when Draper rose from his seat to show the clients out, I was amazed at the amount of confidence he man put into the idea, even at the risk of losing the client. Since I don’t own an agency and cannot make such a bold move just yet, it made me think – could I believe in the effectiveness of my idea so much that I would be ready to bet my life on it? Ask yourself that question next time you think of an idea. If the answer is no, then work on improving the idea until you get a yes.
If you can advertise a brand along emotional lines and at the same time refer to the functional qualities using the same words – then know that it can be persuasive. It’s the same rhetoric that puns operate on, making audiences think in two directions at the same time. This helps build up an emotional association with the brand – something most brands would dearly appreciate. In Mad Men, this was demonstrated not by Draper but by one of his associates in a rather sexist concept for Jaguar. Draper did the same when he wrote his Why I’m quitting Tobacco column in the NY Times – comparing Lucky Strike, the company to cigarettes, by using sentences such as “we knew it wasn’t good for us, but we couldn’t stop”.
Look for Opportunities Where Others Don’t
Draper wrote his Why I’m Quitting Tobacco column in response to Lucky Strike’s decision to move their business elsewhere. He took a risk by closing his agency to any potential tobacco clients, but at the same time advanced his credibility because it showed his moral accountability and a change of heart. While the approach seems counterintuitive, he turned his loss into an opportunity by assuming that an ethically driven firm would make the biggest splash for new business and he was correct – the FDA hired him to develop a campaign to discourage smoking among children. One of the ways we can look for such opportunities is by winning advertising awards. Instead of thinking of ways we can win awards for existing clients, think about an award-winning idea first – and then look for a client who is relevant to the idea. You can also think about how rejected ideas (I call them old opportunities) can be repackaged to work for another brand.
Give Everyone a Chance
Contrary to Draper’s reputation of having taken credit for Olson’s work in the past, in the pitch to Burger Chef, he puts her centre stage and speaks of her commitment to the work with great enthusiasm. It is evident how her anxiety is lifted and she presents confidently. It made me realise how important it is to give colleagues, especially junior creatives the opportunity to showcase their talent – not just in-house but at client meetings. Put your trust in young creatives and they will perform.
Two Heads Are Better Than One
One of the most shocking yet exciting parts of the show was when Draper merged his business with a competitor agency overnight to form a ‘larger agency’ and worked together with Ted Chaough in pitching to General Motors for Chevrolet and their top-secret new car. I don’t suggest merging with competitors like he did; instead of working in isolation, think about working together in teams. When ideas come together, they evolve. Think about proposing not just a big idea - but a ‘bigger’ idea.
Muhammad Ali Khan is Associate Director Creative & Strategy at Spectrum VMLY&R. He also teaches in the Masters of Advertising program at SZABIST-Karachi.