The Creative Wisdom of Mad Men

Mad Men — the AMC drama series has produced a ton of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations during all its years of running. Great acting, great directing, great costume and make-up, and not least, great screenwriting. And the quotes are no exception. List of quotes from the lead character of the show, advertising bad-ass Don Draper, are all over the internet. A lot of these quotes relate directly to how creative agencies think and innovate. The quotes are lovable by any creative professional. No one has, however, clarified why exactly these quotes are goldmines of wisdom. So in this article I do this with eight great quotes from the series:

1. “Peggy, just think about it deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will… jump up in your face.”

Sometimes a really great idea needs more ingredients than your focus and attention. Sometimes you need to lay out a topic with all its possible subtopics, its layers and all the ways we see that topic appears in our lives, in other people’s lives, in the media — this is the “think about it deeply”-part. Today design-thinking and the rhetoric discipline offer many helpful tools for thinking about something deeply (brainstorming techniques, idea evaluation tools etc.).

Because deep thinking is not the sole ingredient of great ideas, at some point you need to stop giving the topic attention — the “forget-it”-part. Suddenly, while you are sifting through the ever-inspiring world and people you are surrounded by, a unique combination of the elements, layers and varieties of the particular topic will appear in your mind — “And an idea will… Jump in your face”-part.

2. Drapers reaction to Peggy (aspiring female creative talent and “apprentice” to Don) saying that “sex sells” in relation to an airline ad in which she included a short-skirted stewardess:

“Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. And they take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase, completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine… You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them [The people who think monkeys can do this]. Not sex… They can’t do what we do. And they hate us for it.“

Advertising does not work by definitive (and stereotypic) truths: “Sex sells”, “Yellow color signifies cheap”, “As seen on TV”, “Buy two, get one for free”. This is just shoeshine, generic labels, which any random person (or “monkey”) can apply to any ad. Success is when your brand speaks directly to the individual consumer, is able to resonate with their opinions, values and lifestyles — able to evoke emotion.

In the scene Don highlights the child in the ad (see ad here) and after some contemplation Peggy suggest a new tag line “What did you bring me, daddy?” to which Don responds “You can put that in your book”. See full scene here.

3. Peggy’s argues that using an attractive girl in a diet Pepsi commercial is phony. Don tells her that it is good advertisement targeted at women, because women want to be her. He then tells her this:

“You are not an artist, Peggy. You solve problems… Leave some tools in your toolbox.” [Video link here]

Your taste is the taste of consumers. Leave your personal taste out of it (You are an artist). Sometimes the taste of society are populistic and, well, tasteless. Most ad agencies look to sell their clients whatever make the clients’ customers buy their products — i.e. “You solve problems”. Don’t add flavors to it, if people like tasteless — i.e. “Leave some tools in your toolbox”.

4. Don rejecting the findings of an attractive female qualitative focus group researcher — See video here [at 2:55]

Don: “A new idea is something, which they [consumers] don’t know yet, so of course it is not gonna come up as an option [in the qualitative interview or focus group]. Put my campaign on TV for a year, then hold your group again, maybe it’ll show up.

The researcher insists that the her research shows that Don’s idea/interpretation of the consumer is wrong and that an alternative interpretation is more consistent.

Don’s response: You can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved.

Expert: Why are you being so hostile? You think I have never had this argument before?

Don: Because you go in there, and you stick your fingers in people’s brains and they just, start talking, blah blah blah. Just to be heard… And you know what? Not only does it have nothing to do with what I do [create advertisement that sells products], but it’s nobody’s business.

Now, this an interesting one. Firstly, this is the super exciting debate between researchers and innovators — “You think I have never had this argument before?”. Many are reminded of the metaphor “marketing research is like driving a car by looking in the back mirror” The counterargument then is: often the forefront window is not clear enough to see where the road is going. So if we know the road went straight ahead most of the time until now, why shouldn’t we keep the course?

Secondly, the discussion brings up the notion that great branding and advertising is not reactive upon what consumers want — “You can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved”. Consumers do not know what they want until they are shown by someone else. Steve Jobs said almost these exact words. The academic trickster Stephen Brown also wrote in Harvard Business Review a while ago: “The truth is, customers don’t know what they want. They never have. They never will. The wretches don’t even know what they don’t want, as the success of countless rejected-by-focus-groups products, from the Chrysler minivan to the Sony Walkman, readily attests”. Advertising and brands have a great influence upon the topics and values that we have in our lives. And Don Draper knows this: “Put my campaign on TV for a year, then hold your group again, maybe it’ll show up.”. Actually Draper may be overconfident with regard to the power of advertising. The truth is probably that it is an on-going exchange between advertising topics and the general topics of society and people’s lives. But then again, Don’s got an argument to win, some male ego and dominance to show off to the attractive female focus group researcher.

5. Peggy: “I don’t know. I can’t tell the difference anymore, between something that’s good and something that’s awful”

Don: … Well, they are very close… But the best idea always wins. And you know it when you see it. Keep banging your head against the wall, then it happens.

Why something good is very close to something awful: often it is just a tiny detail in the whole of an idea that needs changing in order for the idea to go from standard mumbo-jumbo to awesome innovation. Recently my friend who is a Marketing Manager at LEGO told me the story of the company. Before LEGO became iconic it was just a standard building block made of wood and later plastic. Building bigger structures from little toy blocks was nothing new or spectacular. What made it innovative was the idea that the building blocks shouldstick.
Awful and good ideas are also “very close”, because the challenge lies in opposing the taken-for-granted things about something. An innovative ad, for instance, is often innovative because it highlights something which we took for granted until now. And often it takes nothing but changing the slightest little detail in an ad in order for people to notice that the ad is breaking a barrier — challenging something taken-for-granted.

6. Ted Chaough (Creative director at competitor ad agency and a rival to Don) headhunting Peggy: “Look I need a writer. They don’t have to be like me, but… Do you know anything about Ralph Waldo Emerson […] He said that you have to be a transparent eyeball. What he meant was, you have to take in the world and pass it through you. I am tired of people, who treat this like math. I looked at your book and I saw somebody, who is writing like every product was for them. No clichés, no homilies, no formula.” See video here

The legendary method of “no method”. Most creative agencies shiver at the idea of using statistics for guiding their copywriting (“I am tired of people, who treat this like math”). Consumers do not behave in mathematically predictable ways. But this quote is not just a rant at quantitative thinking. It rejects any method. Any formular. Anything, which does not come directly from the world that has passed through you. What he is talking about are your real experiences with the world. This is the best resource for selling products as opposed to a particular theory, method or formula.

7. Don: “The greatest thing you have working for you is not the photo you take or the picture you paint. It’s the imagination of the consumer. They have no budget. They have no time limit. And if you can get into that space, your ad can run all day.

Leave some space for the imagination in your ads. Advertising is not just communicating that your brand or product is better. It is entertainment. Leave some room for consumer’s to play with your message. The purpose of social media is often spoken of by brand managers merely as having millions of viewers/subscribers. Hence the main objective is to effectively spread their message into this social space. If you understand the above quote, you will know that it is not just about planting your message (i.e. your brand) at the right place (i.e. social media). Any “monkey” can do that — and do it. It is about having a natural motivation to do it and compelling content. It is about letting people engage with your brand. They should enjoy (i.e. like, comment and remember) your brand’s status updates as they enjoy every other story, picture or mood shared by their friends, family and the news sites they follow. “If you can get into that space”, your brand will gather social media attention all day.

8. Talking to the person installing a new computer in the office [The big new thing in the late sixties]

Computer man: The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can in a life-time.

Don: But what man laid on his back counting stars and thought about a number?

This I am certain is a reference to Big Data: Unless you translate your Big Data into something meaningful to your consumers, you can gather as much data you want — numbers and statistics never carry meaning in themselves. Big Data is not a recipe for cooking up compelling content. At most, it provides some ingredients.

Don’t keep your thoughts to yourself. I would like you to leave a comment, if there are any errors or something you disagree with. Don’t hold back either though if you actually liked some of it.