What “Mad Men” Can Teach Us About Advertising Today

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Hit AMC drama Mad Men has risen to pop culture icon status not just through its engaging characters and its representation of advertising’s “golden age.” It can also be looked at as a philosophical primer for modern advertising. Sure, traditional mediums like print, TV, and radio advertising are falling to the wayside in favor of options like pay per click, mobile ads, and pre-roll videos—but the core of any successful advertising agency lies in client relationships, creative thinking, and identification of high-impact opportunities.

Sit back and pour yourself a drink. Here are some contemporary lessons we can glean from the successes and failures of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP):

Know your audience. Know your market.

Mad Men fans will remember some of Don Draper’s famous creative pitches, like “How do you say Hamburger in Farsi? Hilton,” or, “Finally, something beautiful you can truly own,” for Jaguar. Before he even steps into the board room, we know that Don and his team took careful time and thought to figure out his clients’ target audiences—through their motivations and desires—and the market opportunities at that time.

In the case of Hilton, national hotel chains hadn’t yet dominated the international market, and Don had formulated that frequent travelers would buy into a familiar brand offering: “The comfort of home in exotic locations.” With Jaguar, he uncovered the human desire to attain one of the world’s seemingly unattainable beauties. Both pitches capitalized on opportunity and need, and would have made for great campaigns in real life.

Perhaps the technology and types of advertising channels have changed, but this art of digging deep into your market and target audience has not. An essential part of any online advertising campaign is fitting the message to your audience and knowing where your product has the greatest opportunity to succeed. Moral of the story? Do your research before you open your wallet, and you’ll get more out of your advertising dollar.

Trust and loyalty are crucial.

This might sound counterintuitive considering we’re talking about some of the most untrustworthy characters on television today. But consider this: in much of the series, ad reps rely heavily on client loyalty for the long-term benefit of the agency.

When SCDP is faced with the difficult decision of choosing between representing long-time client Heinz Beans and new prospect Heinz Ketchup, the Beans executives demand the agency steer clear of the ketchup business, calling them the “Coca Cola of condiments.” Don notes the importance of appeasing that loyal customer: “Sometimes you’ve got to dance with the one who brung ya.”

Cross-industry studies show that keeping an existing customer costs 90 percent less than acquiring a new one. Even the most successful companies today are constantly evaluating the value that their agencies bring to the table. Pleasing your most loyal, high-impact clients pays off—no beans about it.

Account service isn’t dead.

One running thread throughout the series, as Roger Sterling puts it, is “the client is always right—and who cares if they are wrong, because they pay the bill.”

Consider the infamous Viet Cong crisis that Peggy Olsen overcomes in season six: Her client had produced a Super Bowl commercial for Koss headphones featuring the slogan “Lend Me Your Ears.” But when a comedian jokes about American soldiers mutilating Viet Cong soldiers’ ears in Vietnam on the Johnny Carson show, Peggy must scrap the campaign and create a new one—on New Years Eve.

Information moves fast in the information age, opening up myriad opportunities for conflicts of interest or viral news stories that can doom an otherwise thoughtful ad campaign.

According to U.S. News & World Report, 82 percent of customers leave one business for another because of a service-related issue—advertising professionals today must be ready to please the client, even under the most trying circumstances.

Get creative.

Perhaps the most iconic and memorable of Don Draper’s pitches is “It’s Toasted,” as presented to Lucky Strike cigarettes as an antidote for the increased awareness of the health risks of smoking. The SCDP reps identified the public perception of their client—that its product is bad for you—and re-framed it by using healthful rhetoric, without explicitly mentioning the core issue.

Creativity in advertising is all about using the information available to find unexpected solutions that put your client in a positive light. Does your client have an online reputation to manage, be it through negative reviews, press, or social media? Chances are its competitors are having the same issues—take this as an opportunity to “toast” a negative into a positive.

Take risks.

Mad Men is full of characters taking calculated risks—and netting tangible rewards (sometimes). If you’re a fan of the show, you’re probably aware that the aforementioned relationship with Lucky Strike did eventually come to an end. And perhaps Don Draper’s boldest risk to-date was taking out a full-page newspaper ad titled “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” after SCDP was fired by the cigarette giant. Don, in the form of an open letter, framed the split as a choice that the agency made because of the health risks associated with cigarette smoking.

The risk? SCDP would never represent a cigarette company again.

The reward? Brands that identify with healthful causes and agree with the moral undertone of his letter may turn to SCDP over its competitors.

While the open letter caught the other partners by surprise, this is one example of a risk that paid off—the firm would subsequently be contacted by several brands who admired an agency with a firm moral compass.

In today’s advertising world, catching an audience’s attention is perhaps harder than ever—89 percent of all ads go unnoticed, 7 percent are disliked, and only 3 percent are liked. Ad agencies today should be shooting to fall within that 10 percent “noticed” category, and taking risks is your ticket there.

Don’t assume—measure!

Measurement of advertising success (or failure) is perhaps as important today as it has ever been. Brands that are serious about consistently improving their campaigns must test, measure, evaluate, and refine their campaigns based on objective data to yield tangible results.

While click-through rates and ROI figures aren’t exactly fixtures in the Mad Men universe, consumer psychology is. When SCDP hires psychological consultant Dr. Faye Miller to lead focus groups, she is greeted with skepticism by the firm’s executives and is laughed off by the “old boy network.”

Eventually, they realize that her insights provide valuable data on consumer sentiment, specifically, that brand name recognition can be just as powerful as a clever slogan. Always be open to new ways of confirming your hypotheses and measuring success, even if the concepts initially seem foreign to you.

Is Mad Men a period piece? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that the lessons we glean from it are dated. Platforms and strategies may evolve, but the core philosophies of advertising’s “golden age” remain the same: Know your audience; cultivate long-lasting client relationships; be creative and bold; and constantly re-evaluate your success and how you measure it. And don’t be afraid of an industry that evolves—as Don Draper once said, “Change is neither good or bad, it simply is.”

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