Don Draper vs Elon Musk: The 5 Things I’ve Learned from Mad Men

The “meeting” has changed in the past 50 years. This suddenly became clear to me the other day in a PPC meeting that followed a night of binge watching Mad Men. We were talking about clicks. Single clicks on Google ads. For like 30 minutes. I had this epiphany about how absurd that is. Don’t get me wrong–it’s absolutely necessary. But, it occurred to me how far removed we are from the “pure” marketing of the 60’s.

It’s not a qualitative thing–not better or worse. But I imagined Don Draper in that same meeting, and he was very confused. It got me thinking. What else has changed? What will continue to change? I gave it some thought and came up with 5 lessons I’ve learned from the show, as they apply to modern business.

1. Drinking/Smoking at Work Was Much More Common

Wow. This was what first caught my eye about the show. Is no time of day, no situation inappropriate for drinking? Are they ever not smoking? I wonder though..did people stop doing this because it’s inappropriate, or because they found out IT’S TERRIBLE FOR YOU? Either way, it’s for the better. Mostly. Except for the days I could really use a scotch after a long meeting.


The whole crew. Probably a 9am on a Monday. Source

2. Account Managers Used to be a Vital Role in Ad Agencies

It was a simpler time back then. You got in good with the client, had a few meetings over drinks, and if you drew up an ad that was decent, you did your job. Creative took orders from the account team, who talked directly to the client. Even the advertising mediums were simpler. There was print, radio, and T.V., that’s about it.

Nowadays, things are so complex. The social intern has to talk to the outsourced content creator who has to get approval from the marketing director and have a meeting with the…etc. The hierarchy/importance of each person or department depends on the company, or can even fluctuate depending on market conditions. Not to mention the clients, who probably have 5-6 contacts at each company.

This convoluted system has changed how we work. It used to be about doing business on a personal level, now it’s a disconnected game of telephone. We still have account managers, but their roles are different for each company. Because of the increased complexity, it may require talking to 6 different departments to get anything done. Agencies are hired and fired at a whim because they’re homogeneous to clients behind the wall of email. Sales teams are obsessed with bringing in new accounts instead of nurturing existing ones.

The loyalty that existed back then is also gone. Clients got to know their account managers on a personal level, and would stay with them if they switched companies. Unless something went wrong, clients would stick around for years, decades even. Nowadays, if a client stays with an agency for 3 years, it’s an achievement.

With the world moving online, it’s less important to shake someones hand or meet their wife/husband. Barriers to entry are dropping, and the industry changes every day, so there’s an assumption that clients will just move on, that partnerships are temporary. We need to think like account men again. Businesses are run by people, and the best client is the one you already have. Pick up the phone or have a meeting and talk long enough to surface the real issues, and then solve them. Align your work with the client’s long term needs, not based on the project that’s due next week.

Shake more hands! Source

Shake more hands! Source

I’m not trying to be negative. Things evolve. When they do, it’s easy to harp on the advantages of the “golden age”. In reality, sacrifices are made for the newer advantages, which are harder to see when you’re in the middle of them. But, obviously, there are tons of advantages of the digital age. The question is, do they outweigh the cons?

3. There Are and There Will Be More and More Specialists

This is why the account manager role has changed, and it’s largely due to the internet. With every new form of communication, a specialist is needed to use it, and another specialist is needed to analyze it. It used to be that the copy writing took the most time of any project, let’s say for an article in the paper. For a modern equivalent (a page on a website), you need a front-end coder, back-end coder, designer, UX guy, search guy, and copy writer if you want to do it right. Luckily, software keeps coming out that can eliminate some of this work, like auto-bidding APIs for AdWords, but they can’t handle everything, especially with custom projects.

The cool thing about this is that there are that many more ways to distinguish yourself as the best in the world. You can have the best website design or interactivity, best social/pr/seo/ppc campaigns, best software, best app, etc. There are thousands of companies to choose from to run each, but that decision is made easier with modern search engines. Projects can be rolled out quickly and consumers’ attention spans are short, so if you’re in 2nd place one quarter, you can easily win in the next.

Modern Peter Campbells are harder to find, but I think his work is obsolete, not wrongly missing. We can take pride in the fact that we can specialize in micro-niches, build something that’s never been built, and exceed expectations with ingenuity, not just charisma.

4. Because More Things Are Measurable

Technology has vastly increased our ability to measure. Magazine companies, for example, have always had general numbers on their sales and distribution, but now they know exactly what magazines were sold on each street corner. Store-fronts have existed since ancient history, but membership cards and reward programs are relatively new. Companies in the 60’s had to be comfortable with the “half my advertising budget is wasted” concept, and I wonder how often that issues was brought up. You don’t see any meetings in Mad Men where they discuss the results of campaigns. I’d be curious what that would be like. The partners often say “sales are up 10%”, but that’s a pretty marginal number. The increase could be seasonal or from some other external factor.

Always talking about ads and commercials, never wasted budgets! Source

Always talking about ads and commercials, never wasted budgets! Source

Now, everything is measurable. So far, this evolution has been about convenience and broad segmentation. Going forward, it will get even more specialized, down to the individual consumer or sale. Single people or tiny geographic groups will get differentiated ads–you can already show unique Google ads down to the city. Sticking with the trend, more specialists will be required, adding more hands that needs to touch each campaign. I bet even now there are workers that do remarketing full-time, a job that is on the forefront of the measurability/targeted marketing trend.

Is this good or bad? I’d say good overall, but as consumers we are going to have to sacrifice some privacy for the added convenience. I’m sure you’ve already been a victim to this. The first time we all added an item to our shopping cart, left the website, and then saw that exact item in a banner on another page, I think we all felt one step closer to Big Brother. But…the banner said you can use the code “WEREWATCHINGYOU” and get free shipping…worth it?

5. Despite the Drastic Changes, There Is Still a Need for Big Idea Workers

Full circle back to Don Draper. He wouldn’t have a place discussing clicks, so where is he needed? Has he been replaced by algorithms and a team of specialists? No. Those things are simply necessary to get the work done. Unfortunately, it takes extra effort for a specialist to step back and examine his contribution as a part of the big picture. You can get so deep into your code or your tweeting schedule that you may not realize that the winds are changing and your project’s returns are diminishing. Even CEOs can get too tied up in operations to dictate direction.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure there is a place for Don today–on his own at least. He had great ideas, but today’s executives want results. Results that are measurable. Today’s leading companies, the fast-moving startups, can’t afford to have someone who just has ideas. Even Elon Musk knows how to code. There is less room for squishy creativity because things need to get built, not talked about.

Instead, everyone needs to keep the big picture in mind. If you’re not questioning where your project is going, you’re being short-sighted and not doing your full job. Just because a process has been proven to work does not mean it is the only way. Embrace your inner Don Draper. Sit back at the end of the day and put yourself in the client’s shoes or your consumer’s head and think abstractly. Lord knows we could use the distraction from our inbox, and you might just come up with a big idea or two yourself.

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    1. says

      “The partners often say ‘sales are up 10%’, but that’s a pretty marginal number. The increase could be seasonal or from some other external factor.”

      Exactly — good point about attribution. Sales could have been increasing anyway and the advertising was only part of the increase.

      We’ve figured some of that out today, but not everything — it’s still easier for e-commerce than for offline sales.

      • says

        Exactly yeah that ties in well with the “things are more measurable” section. Ecom is huge now and you can make $100k+ a year just doing analysis on it, which is awesome! Even offline stuff is adding tracking with online registers like Square and being able to tie in membership cards into the Universal Google Analytics and such. Looking forward to how it all plays out!

    2. dobbie says

      I once read this quote about advertising , it was comparing that expectation of results to watching the grass grow on your lawn. In effect it was saying that you’ll just discourage yourself trying to visibly see immediate results, but still there was certainly something happening down there. I don’t know, this seems like a pretty old school sentiment now since we probably do have ways to realtime measure your grass growing.

      • says

        Hi Dobbie–What a cool quote. I bet that is exactly why they didn’t discuss results. They were just moving on to the next project, since expecting results wasn’t measurable. I would agree, though, that it’s a pretty old-school sentiment. I wonder when that quote originated because I bet it was before all of this measurability!

        I just watched a video yesterday about one of the team members from the Obama for America fundraising campaign. Here it is. He was talking about how they were testing the website to see which pictures got people to donate more, and they could watch the results in real time. And these were changes that were effecting millions of dollars in fundraising! If something wasn’t working, they pulled the plug immediately. No wasted time or money. Super good grass growth measurement!


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