Four Marketing Lessons I Learned By Watching Mad Men

Four Marketing Lessons I Learned By Watching Mad Men image 1371754522Four Marketing Lessons I Learned By Watching Mad Men

Once, I thought I wanted to be Don Draper. I was a chronically bankrupt college student studying marketing and advertising, and he was a powerful executive desired by clients, ad firms, and women alike. He had a great job, a nice house, a gorgeous wife, perfectly tailored suits, and a desk full of  top-shelf liquor. What more could a young guy like me want?

Of course, that was back in season one, and I’ve since realized that Don is a rather poor choice of role model! (Have you seen what he’s done to poor Sally this season?). Still – professionally at least – there’s much to be learned from the team of misfits at Sterling Cooper and Partners. In honor of this weekend’s finale, here are four marketing lessons I’ve learned from six seasons of Mad Men fandom.

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Sterling Cooper rainmakers wine + dine a client.

Personal Relationships Matter
A former mentor of mine was fond of saying that “all else equal, people prefer doing business with those they know, like, and trust.” It’s an important notion that the account executives at Sterling Cooper have clearly taken to heart. They often go out of their way to entertain clients after hours.They know that even if the creative department brings the business in, it’s a strong relationship that will get a client to sign on and stay for a stretch.

While I wouldn’t recommend taking clients on liquor-fueled romps through the city, as Roger Sterling is so fond of doing, there are still ways to establish these personal connections today. For starters, show a genuine interest in clients’ personal doings. Ask about their kids, pets, or hobbies. Send them a holiday card, or congratulate them on a personal milestone. As things heat up, invite them to lunch or dinner. The key is showing them you care about more than the dollars they put in your pocket.

Lesson 1: In effective business relationships, responsiveness, a proactive attitude, and attention to the clients’ needs are essential, but the strongest relationships transcend even that; they include a personal connection.

Put the Client’s Bottom Line Above Your Own
A pivotal moment in Mad Men’s early seasons occurs when the original Sterling Cooper Advertising is being purchased by a large British agency. Don’s rival Duck Philips is poised to assume control of Sterling Cooper, and he has plans to increase profits by minimizing the role of the creative department and pushing clients towards bigger media budgets. Don is so disgusted by this that he threatens to leave the agency, retorting: “I sell products, NOT advertising!”

It’s only a short outburst, but it may reveal one of the reasons Don has been so successful. Whereas Duck Philips’ goal is to squeeze more money out of each client (selling advertising), Don is focused on providing a service that genuinely helps the businesses he serves (selling products). It’s the difference between asking “what can my client do for me?” and “what can I do for my client?”.

Duck’s strategy may have led to greater profits in the short-run, but clients would eventually leave once they realized their needs weren’t top priority. Don’s method, however, will lead to real growth for his clients, which in turn will grow Sterling Cooper as well.

Lesson 2: As a marketer, aim to grow with your clients, not at their expense!

Loyalty is a Virtue
Client conflicts are a common challenge that Don and company never seem to get right. In season two, Sterling Cooper promptly fails to land American Airlines after dropping another client to pursue them. A while later, the agency loses a quality client when a “secret” meeting with his rival co-worker isn’t kept so secret. And just last week, Don managed to once again alienate Ted by signing Sunkist, forcing Ted to give up his client, OceanSpray.

While client conflicts should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, it seems that loyalty is never a bad policy. Even if the incoming client has a bigger budget, is it really worth burning bridges and endangering your firm’s reputation? What kind of message does this send to your existing clients? From what I’ve seen in my limited experience, these are things that are typically considered, but in too many cases the allure of short-term revenues take precedent. Learn from the Mad Men’s mistakes; think twice before letting a good client go.

Lesson 3: A loyal business breeds loyal clients and a glowing reputation.

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Don instructs Ken on what “strategy” means.

You Can’t be Everything to Everybody
This may be an old cliché, but it’s an idea I struggled to implement in my first advertising class. My first two campaigns were returned with “You’re doing too much. Choose a single message!” scribbled across the top. I was simply trying to appeal to too many people at once.

Don Draper could have set me straight! During a meeting with an auto-parts store that can’t choose a strategy, an overeager account manager suggests the business be positioned as both a place “where the pros go” AND “where everyone is welcome.” In one of my favorite Draper quips of all time, Don immediately shoots him down, saying: “That’s not a strategy. That’s two strategies connected by the word and.”

If only every business could hear this! In today’s increasingly saturated business environment, niche marketing tactics are becoming increasingly successful; however, many businesses still seek to increase market share by casting their net as wide as possible. They don’t realize that each “specialty” they pursue limits their success in other areas, and every new message decreases the impact of the last one. It’s like trying to hit multiple targets with a single arrow. You can’t possibly hit them all, isn’t it better to score a bullseye on just one?

Lesson 4: You can’t possibly appeal to everyone. Choose a single message / identity and stick to it. 

Have you learned any valuable business lessons from Mad Men? What are your favorite marketing and advertising moments from the show? Please share your own thoughts in a comment!

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