Top 4 Marketing Lessons from Mad Men

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The TV series Mad Men was a smashing success, and it offered many teachable moments in marketing.

If you have not seen it, here is a quick intro:  Mad Men (as in, Madison Ave men) is the story of an ad exec in the 50s-60s. The lead character is Don Draper who is a partner and the creative genius in a small but respected ad agency. His complex past, personality, and evolution form the main story line and are nicely mapped to the actual events of that period. His protege is Peggy Olson, competent and rising through the ranks while dealing with the even-tougher-than-now atmosphere for women in the workforce in those years.

There are 4 scenes throughout the 7 seasons and 92 episodes of the series that stood out for me as brilliant marketing. Each of the clips below offers several marketing lessons – story telling comes through over and over and you can see the absolute importance of mindset, the way success or failure is determined by how you see things – but I have highlighted one main aspect.

1- Differentiation – “It’s Toasted”

Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
Client: Lucky Strike cigarettes

Setup: New regulations prevent cigarette makers from making any health claims which has been the focus of their advertising up to that point. The bosses of Lucky Strike, the owner and his son, are coming to hear new ideas. Despite working on all angles and even exploring then-new methods like psychological research, Don has nothing. His boss and the account manager are justifiably nervous. But then he sees it!

This is a great example of coming up with perceived differentiation in a competitive market with similar products.

2- Naming – “It’s not called ‘The Wheel'”

Season 2, Episode 13, “The Wheel”
Prospect: Kodak

Setup: Kodak is looking for an ad agency for their new slide projection add-on which they call “the wheel” (or doughnut) and are having difficulty making it an exciting product. They are evaluating multiple agencies. This is their stop to hear what Don has to say. They have a meeting with another agency after this scene.

Recognizing the emotional content of the product is what draws the audience in but it requires a different better name for the product.

3- Positioning – “Let’s pretend we know what 1963 looks like”

Season 2, Episode 4, “Three Sundays”
Prospect: American Airlines

Setup: AA had a plane crash in 1962 on the same day John Glenn had a ticker-tape parade in NYC, a few days after becoming the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth. Looking to re-establish their image, American Airlines is open to new ad agencies and Don has to come up with the right pitch. They’ve all been working many days and it is now the weekend before they present to the client. But Don has new clarity on how to see it and what they should do.

This is a very powerful example of formulating the right question and leveraging what else is going on in the world.

[The video doesn’t seem to be available anymore so I include the text of Don’s revelation. Imagine a floor full of people working on a weekend and Don throws open the door to his office, stops at the 1st table and without any introduction launches into this:

American Airlines is not about the past any more than America is. Ask not about Cuba. Ask not about the bomb. We’re going to the moon. There is no such thing as American history, only a frontier. Let’s pretend we know what 1963 looks like.”

And he goes right back to his office, new direction having been given.

4- Value Proposition – “The connection that we’re hungry for”

Season 7, Episode 7, “Waterloo”
Prospect: Burger Chef

Setup: The agency is presenting to a new prospect, Burger Chef, after weeks of field research and preparation. The presentation happens to be on the day after the 1st moon landing. Everyone was watching it the night before. Everyone is awed by it and is talking about it. They expect their audience will be distracted. To make matters more interesting, Don wants Peggy, his protege, to give the pitch instead of him. She’s never done the big presentations and is nervous. The scene starts with Peggy’s out-of-body observation of the meeting room. Not only does Peggy eloquently find her way to her pitch, she eases beautifully into the client’s value proposition.

This is a great example of capturing the moment, going back to the basics of your value proposition, and story telling.

Here’s the script for this one:

Don: Every great ad tells a story. Here to tell that story is Peggy Olson.

Peggy: Thank you, Don.
That’s a lot to live up to. Because I certainly can’t tell a better story than the one we saw last night. [moon landing]
I don’t know what was more miraculous– the technological achievement that put our species in a new perspective or the fact that all of us were doing the same thing at the same time. Sitting in this room, we can still feel the pleasure of that connection.
Because, I realize now, we were starved for it.
We really were.
And, yes, we’ll feel it again when they all return safely.
And, yes, the world will never be the same in some ways.
But tonight, I’m going to go back to New York, and I’ll go back to my apartment and find a 10-year-old boy parked in front of my TV, eating dinner.
Now, I don’t need to charge you for a research report that tells you that most television sets are not more than six feet away from the dinner table.
And that dinner table is your battlefield and your prize. This is the home your customers really live in.
This is your dinner table.
Dad likes Sinatra, son likes The Rolling Stones.
The TV’s always on, Vietnam playing in the background. The news wins every night.
And you’re starving.
And not just for dinner.
What if there was another table, where everybody gets what they want when they want it It’s bright and clean, and there’s no laundry, no telephone, and no TV.
And we can have the connection that we’re hungry for.
There may be chaos at home, but there’s family supper at Burger Chef.

Client: That’s beautiful.

Peggy: That’s nice to hear because that’s the name of the spot.”

You can’t nail it if you don’t see it, and you don’t see it if you don’t get the essence of it, at a deep level. These are beautiful examples of that.

Leave me a comment and share examples that have influenced you.


ps. If you’d like to see the script for the other ones, there is a site [sadly, this site doesn’t seem to be available any more] that has a very nice compilation for this show and many others.

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