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3 Things That Mad Men Got Right About Advertising – Even Now

November 4, 2016
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Mad Men; a drama that ran on AMC for 7 seasons, and was intended to be a time-piece based on a big-time New York City advertising agency in the 1960’s. Starring iconic TV characters like Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Roger Sterling and so many more, this show reflected not only the atmosphere and issues of the 1960s, but also did an outstanding job of providing insight into what it was truly like to work in a fast-paced and high-stakes advertising agency.

Now, much of how the agency is reflected by the show doesn’t necessarily translate directly to the modern agency, much less in the modern age. However, there are a few key aspects of agency life set forth by Mad Men that have so far continued, and likely will continue, to be the same in the digital age for marketing and advertising agencies alike.  Here, we’ll talk through three specific things that Mad Men, despite being an era piece, got right about marketing and advertising – even now.


“Happiness Is What Sells”

In the series premiere back in 2007, Creative Director Don Draper told us what advertising really comes down to. “Happiness,” he says “is what sells. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay”.

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Isn’t this our job as advertisers? Specifically, in an agency? Our job isn’t simply to push product, or increase site traffic, or to improve metrics; it’s about establishing a sense of credibility and trustworthiness within your clients that eases their skepticism and creates a comfortable, easy feeling about your brand within them.

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For customers, your work as an agency should evoke those same feelings so that they feel compelled to engage with whatever brand or company you represent as opposed to that of a competitor.

This is a principle that is at the epicenter of the discussion around advertising. Veterans in the field have seen firsthand what kind of consequences ensue should a prospective client or consumer not feel that sense of comfort. They have a palpable sense of skepticism. They doubt your intentions, or if you work at an agency, they question your strategy, method and tactics more frequently.

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What people are looking for from an advertisement isn’t someone dictating what they should and shouldn’t do, or what they should and shouldn’t purchase; they are looking for the simple reassurance that whatever decision they make is the best one, and the right one.

If happiness is that freedom from fear and skepticism, Don Draper’s words here will ring true no matter the advertising medium (digital included) for a long time to come. This advertising principle is timeless, because it’s a statement of how people think and behave – which changes much less quickly than the medium by which the message is delivered.


“Stop Writing Down What I Ask For And Try To Figure Out What I Want”

This is another quote from the show, this time coming from season 5, that holds true in the modern age. In the show’s context, Peggy Olsen is in a meeting with an executive from Heinz ketchup, who is trying to explain to her why the current campaign they’re running isn’t working for him. After tensions rise and his temper flares, he shouts at her the now famous line: “stop writing down what I ask for and try to figure out what I want”.

This resonates to the very core of the nature of the advertiser-client relationship. Sometimes, clients have a vague idea of what they want, but they aren’t quite sure how to relay that to you, the advertiser. Sometimes, a client has no idea what they’re looking for, but they have a strong intuitive inclination as to what does and doesn’t work, and what they do and don’t like.

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Regardless of the exact situation, one thing remains constant; it’s that clients don’t necessarily want you to simply say “yes” to them all the time. Every now and then, they want you as an agency to challenge what their notion of the best course of action for a campaign or advertisement is, and for you to go with what you know to be best practice, as opposed to simply deferring to whatever you think the client wants the most.

At the end of the day, a client wants their campaign to be as effective as possible. That’s why they are spending money on advertising with an agency in the first place. As the agency, you’re just as much of a consultant on appropriate advertising strategy and best industry practices as you are an actual “producer” for them.

This quote by the Heinz executive perfectly encapsulates the spirit of that relationship; not simply nodding your head to preserve your relationship with them, but challenging them and pushing your team (and theirs) to create the best, most effective campaign with your expertise as an advertiser.


“If You Don’t Like What People Are Saying, Change The Conversation”

Famously said by Don Draper in Season 3, and then again by Peggy Olsen in Season 6, this is arguably the most iconic line ever uttered in the shows 7 seasons. Why? Because it gets to the heart of advertising as a field and industry; it’s messaging and aesthetic. Not just the messaging, but how you as an effective advertiser can strategically pivot your current strategy to elicit a different kind of response from the public towards your client or brand.

You as an advertiser possess the means to change the conversations people are having about your brand or client, and thereby the means to change the public’s perception about your client. Simple changes in messaging strategy, creative strategy, or even PR coverage can elicit totally different responses from an audience than even a long-standing strategy.

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As an advertiser in today’s age, this principle has become even more important today than in the era in which Peggy and Don’s characters originally spoke about it. Why is that? Well, especially in the digital age, people have the means to communicate about their experiences and engagement with brands and companies like never before.

There’s social media, blogging, websites, forums, chat rooms, you name it. Because of this, reputation management is more prevalent and paramount now than in years past, and that trend only seems to be growing.

Changes in your advertising strategy can effectively help in your client’s online reputation, which is important now and only growing more important as our dependency and utilization of emerging technologies increases.

If you don’t like what people are saying – always remember that, as an advertiser, you possess the means to change that. It’s just a matter of recognizing the opportunity to do so, executing on it, and evoking that sense of happiness and reassurance from your target that we all seek in the process.



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