Back to Newsletters

Four practical business lessons from Mad Men


I’m still in denial that Mad Men is over.

I watched all 91 episodes over the past eight years… many of them more than once. Having spent much of my working life in or around advertising, I found the portrayal of the Sterling Cooper Pryce agency to be surprisingly legit.

(Okay, the three-martini lunches are a thing of the past.)

I especially enjoyed how Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, blended real life events and iconic moments from advertising in the ‘60s and ‘70s into his storyline.

Right up until its end two weeks ago, Mad Men also helped me learn (and reaffirm) a few key business lessons.

Among my favourites:

1.   Be brave. Be different. 

Early in Season #1 we see the SCP creatives dissecting Volkswagen’s legendary Lemon ad, a promotion for the “Bug” created by rival agency DDB. The campaign was bold and different, and VW Beetle sales went ballistic. The core idea lasted more than 20 years and was voted the best campaign of all time by Advertising Age.

Not everyone at SCP liked the ad, but as creative director Don Draper put it, “Love it or hate it, we’ve been talking about it for the last 15 minutes.” 

2.   Partner carefully. 

Roger Sterling was a philanderer, yet a consummate relationship manager. Pete Campbell a spoiled brat, but a new business machine. Don was a complex brooder, but always had the Big Idea at the right time. Bert Cooper walked around in his socks. Somehow, the SCP partners made this eclectic combination work.

Partnerships are hard work. You know this, if you’re part of one. They require constant compromise, collaboration, “two ears more often than one mouth,” and an ability to speak candidly to overcome the inevitable conflicts… because they happen.

These Mad Men were united by little more than the fact that each was prone to bad behaviour. At times they wanted to throttle each other. But, above all, they trusted each other.

Choose your partners wisely.

3.   Emotion trumps logic.

How often do we present what we sell as a rational decision (a great deal, a slick process, some neat benefits…) when it’s really emotion that makes the difference?

At the end of Season #1, Kodak asks SCP to help launch its new slide projector, The Wheel. Don’s clever re-positioning creates a much deeper bond with the product. The creative presentation, captured here, is an epic TV moment.

Don showed us this wasn’t a wheel. It was the “Carousel of Life.” The pitch left the Kodak execs speechless and one of Don’s own staff in tears.

4.   Remember your roots.

They speak volumes about who you are and what you stand for.

My favourite moment in Mad Men comes at the end of Season #6, when Don takes his children to see his humble beginnings (a house of ill repute) in Hershey, PA. The scene is telling in its simplicity.

In this quick clip, set to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, Sally gives her father a look that immediately says, “Now I understand who you are, because I see where you came from.”

So let me ask you:

  1. Are you brave enough to be different?
  2. Have you partnered wisely?
  3. Are you using emotion?
  4. Do you remember your roots?