One thing that made Mad Men’s portrayal of advertising different from other depictions of the business is the respect the show had for the job of account people. Guys like Roger, Duck, and Pete were treated as intelligent, hardworking agents.
But account service can be a horrible job. Much of it involves playing dumb or weak to make others look good. Most of the time, account people are the straight men. The creative people get all the great punch lines. They’re the ones who get all the attention and the accolades. Not only is account service thankless, but when account people are really good at their jobs, you can’t even see what they’re doing.
Some of my favorite Mad Men scenes are the ones Matt Weiner wrote where we get to hear account men explain what they do — like when Pete explains his job to Megan’s father, a Marxist academic. Rather than tell him what he does, Pete shows him. He doesn’t describe how selling strategies to clients requires a combination of enthusiasm and flattery. Instead, he flatters Megan’s father and hooks him right in. Then Pete explains that appealing to someone’s vanity, like we’ve just seen him do, is exactly what he does all day. Megan’s father, like the audience, suddenly thoroughly understands what a good account guy does.
I thought part of the fun of watching Pete was observing his journey from aristocracy to meritocracy. Peter Campbell comes from a life of privilege — Connecticut country clubs and private schools. But working at Sterling Cooper teaches him that while his name may open doors, it doesn’t necessarily close deals.
Pete’s wide-eyed not because he’s innocent but because he’s so surprised at how different things work from the way he thought. For example, in the business world he discovers that — contrary to his blue-blood beliefs — opportunity and credit can only be given, while power and blame must be taken. Moreover, I think he is surprised by how good he is at adapting and becoming skilled at what he does.
I spent seven seasons working with Mad Men’s other writers and producers thinking about what makes people good at the business of persuading. How do they think? How do they behave? What’s innate? And what’s learned and passed on from master to student?
When my work on the show ended, I wrote a book. Because there are some things about the job of advertising, selling, and Seducing Strangers you can’t learn from books. But there are a lot of things you can.
Josh Weltman’s book Seducing Strangers: How to Get People to Buy What You’re Selling (The Little Black Book of Advertising Secrets) will be published by Workman Publishing Company, April 7, 2015.