Why My Favorite Don Draper Line is “You’re Number Four”

Mad Men will soon be ending its run on AMC and I must say it has been quite the ride. Through seven seasons I’ve gone from admiring Don Draper to hating him and finally back to pulling for him again. His is the story of an ad man who got everything he ever wanted only to discover it wasn’t what he really wanted. The business of advertising has a way of doing that to you, but thankfully Don seems to be waking up to the realization that there’s more to life than work. I hope it ends well for him.

Don has given us more than a few great sales pitches to try to emulate, but my favorite Don Draper moment is actually a pitch that almost got away from him. Here’s how it went down.

Don pitches a campaign for lipstick that doesn’t immediately wow the client. It’s clear the client was expecting fireworks; what Don gave them was far more subtle.

Ken Cosgrove: (To client) I’m not telling you to listen to anyone, but this is a very fresh approach.
Don Draper: It’s okay, Ken. I don’t think there’s much else to do here than to call it a day. Gentlemen, thank you for your time.
Client: (shrugs) Is that all?
Don Draper: You’re a non-believer. Why should we waste time on kabuki?
Client: I don’t know what that means.
Don Draper: It means that you’ve already tried your plan and you’re number four. You’ve enlisted my expertise and you’ve rejected it to go along the way you’ve been going. I’m not interested in that. You can understand.
Client: I don’t think your three months and however many thousands of dollars allows you to refocus the core of our business.
Don Draper: Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus. Either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t. Every woman wants choices. But in the end, none wants to be one of 100 in a box. She’s unique. She makes the choices and she’s chosen him. She wants to tell the world he’s mine. He belongs to me, not you. She marks her man with her lips. He is her possession. You’ve given every woman who wears your lipstick the gift of total ownership.
Client: (pause) Sit down.
Don Draper: No. Not till I know I’m not wasting my time.
Client: Sit down.

You’re Number Four

The reason this Don Draper moment speaks to me so much is because Don isn’t afraid to point out the real problem: there’s a breakdown in the client-agency relationship. In Don’s opinion the client is inhibiting his agency’s ability to solve the very problem they were hired to solve. And when that happens, the breakdown is much more serious than cosmetic creative differences; it’s a crack in the foundation of the relationship.

Don realizes that what the client wants is an approach that’s more familiar to them. However, the familiar approach has resulted in a plateau at number four in the category. Therefore, taking a familiar approach is unlikely to result in moving the client beyond their current position. In essence, the client is asking for an extra helping of the very thing that is inhibiting their growth, and in doing so they literally cannot get out of their own way.

I’m Not Interested in That

Unfortunately, situations like this have become all too common in this business. It’s likely a byproduct of any number of things: decreasing budgets, increased accountability for results, lack of trust between agencies and brands due to shorter term working relationships and an increase in the ad hoc nature of the business.

Whatever the causes, these situations are real and they seem to be occurring with greater frequency. So what’s an agency to do?

There are no easy answers, only difficult conversations to be had. It’s tempting to trade long term project success for short term client happiness, especially when doing so keeps the lights on and the agency staff paid a little bit longer. Happy clients keep writing checks; at least they do until the project concludes unsuccessfully. And when that happens, the blame game begins. (That’s a game you can’t win.)

An agency can survive for only so long without a track record of success

Mike Monteiro, of Mule Design in San Francisco, advises creatives to stop seeing the client as someone they have to please.

Your client hired you because you are the expert at what you do. They are the expert at the thing they do. And you have been brought in to add your expertise to the client’s expertise to help them accomplish their goal. (If you’re presenting work and unclear on what that goal is we have a bigger problem than this article is going to address.) What they didn’t hire you to do is make them happy, or be their friend. Your decisions should revolve around achieving that goal, not pleasing the client. And while you should do everything in a professional and pleasing manner, never conflate helping the client achieve their goal with making them happy.

So farewell, Don Draper. May we follow your example and find the courage to confront head-on the things that stand in the way of our success, because we aren’t interested in remaining number four.