I’m a little late to watching Mad Men, the hit show about American advertisers in the 1960s.Here’s eleven PR lessons I’ve learned from watching Mad Men. And just as a warning, spoilers abound:
1. To succeed, you need both effort and patience
Mad Men teaches us how to sell ourselves and solve unsolvable problems, rather than give into worry and fear.
At the beginning of season one, Peggy Olsen (played by Elisabeth Moss) is a new secretary to Don Draper, partner at the firm Sterling and Cooper.
Peggy has ambitions beyond her $75 a week salary. She presents an original idea during a brainstorm on lipstick, which is her ticket to a seat on the pitch, and eventually to the creative department.
Peggy’s transformation from mousy secretary into ambitious career woman is one of the highlights of the series. We see her decide what she wants, and go out and get it. She’s not silently waiting for opportunities to fall into her lap: she’s consistently working hard and creating opportunities for herself.
By the time Peggy leaves the agency in the fifth season, she’s a creative powerhouse, and earning $19,000 a year.
2. One old friend is better than two new ones
Sterling and Cooper represents the minor airline Mohawk Airlines. When the opportunity to pitch to American Airlines comes up – with the proviso that they drop Mohawk Airlines – the agency makes the choice to pitch. But the American Airlines manager who was dealing with Sterling and Cooper is fired, the deal falls through. Instead of gaining a new, lucrative client, they’ve lost an old loyal one.
3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Lucky Strike cigarettes represent half of all of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s business. (This is in season five, so we’ve seen some promotions among the staff!) When the account pulls out, it causes panic. When other customers pull out, it looks as though SCDP might not survive the crisis.
Partners have to borrow money to make payroll, but it’s not enough to prevent layoffs. Most of the staff are dismissed. Thanks to a rogue move by Don, the firm lands pro-bono work for the American Cancer Society. It’s not until Peggy manages to land a meeting with Topaz Pantyhose that the firm pulls back from the brink of collapse.
This crisis was a long time coming for SCDP. The firm had years to diversify, and chose not to until a crisis hit. And we can learn from their mistakes.
4. Keep your mouth shut
Peggy eventually leaves SCDP, and works instead for a competitor. However, she still keeps in touch with her former colleagues, and it’s during a phone conversation with one of them that she learns SCDP is pitching for Heinz. Peggy leaps at the chance and prepares a pitch of her own. Peggy wins the pitch.
This is just one example of how a former employee can turn into a competitor, and how gossip can impact on the bottom line. Many agencies now sign NDAs with both customers and staff – and for good reason!
5. Don’t go too far to win a client
Sexpot Joan Holloway (played by Christina Hendricks) is asked to help with the pitch for Jaguar – by sleeping with the client.
Joan leverages this into a 5% share of the company. This is contrasted with treatment from other “customer-orientated” agencies, who throw lavish parties, and host dinners and holidays.
Winning work is important, but it’s also important to maintain professional boundaries, and seek out for clients who share your values. And don’t be too jealous of your competitor’s huge budgets… you don’t know how they got them!
6. Dress for the job you want
Everyone in Mad Men is always dressed to kill. And because it’s a work of fiction, costumes clearly reveal character.
It’s not just agency staff that dress for the jobs they want. Heiress Rachel Menken, owner of a New York department store, wears a neat tweed Chanel suit, scarlet lipstick and pearls. She’s telegraphing she will not play second fiddle, and instead directs.
We also see Pete Campbell (played by Vincent Kartheiser) evolve his wardrobe across the series. At first, Pete wears white shirts with striped ties and a blue jacket, a preppy look which is more appropriate in a provincial university than New York City. Over time, Pete moves his style closer to Don’s, and begins to favour a classic dark suit. This corresponds with Pete’s professional success.
7. Be positive
Instead of whining, go to a party! Don’s second wife, Megan (played by Jessica Paré), has a carefree attitude to life. She has a contagious laugh, and is always happy to splash around in a pool.
This behavior is in sharp contrast to Don’s ex-wife Betty, who is cold and remote.
Toxic people – including staff, and clients – are tiring to be around. Seek out and surround yourself with positive people instead.
8. Look for friends, not enemies
Chevrolet is looking for an ad agency, but they’re only interested in a really large firm. To win the major pitch, Sterling Cooper Draper Price teams up with a rival firm. By working together, Don and his rival Ted Chaough win the client – and the potential of a lot more work later.
9. Drink up!
Alcoholism stalks many of the character’s lives, and we’re not suggesting that anyone return to the whiskey-soaked world of the 60s.
But celebrating a win with a bottle of sparkling wine, or sharing a beer with cowokers on a Friday is still a good way to build camaraderie amongst the team. Don’t forget to stock the beer fridge with non-alcoholic options as well!
10. Everyone Needs a Mentor
The first months in a new company, and the first year in a new career can be overwhelming. A mentor can help a newcomer adapt more quickly and perform better. In Mad Men, Don and Joan act as mentors to Peggy – often modeling behavior which she knows better than to emulate!
Acting as a mentor can also be very rewarding, as an opportunity to nurture young talent, and to get a fresh insight on the business.
11. People Work Best at Informal Meetings.
Never Eat Alone was published in 2005, long after Don Draper’s reign ended. But he still managed to follow its advice. In Mad Men, heads of agencies and account managers invest a lot of time in meetings with clients, over dinners and (of course) drinks. This flow in informal communication is what keeps the business turning over.
Not everyone can enjoy a meteoric rise to power, like Peggy; be as cunningly manipulative as Joan, or wield as much influence as Don. But these tips can help should serve as a reminder that inspiration to do a little better at work is everywhere!