Mad Men Made Me Do It: What Don Draper Taught Us About Marketing

Copywriting and marketing tips from Mad Men’s Don Draper and the Sterling Cooper Agency.

I have rewatched Mad Men – the American drama following the life of writing genius Don Draper and his job as a creative director at an ad agency – countless times. Each time I notice so many precious moments I was completely oblivious to last time.

In each of my rewatches, I really relish all of the goings-on at Sterling Cooper as I venture further into the world of copywriting myself.

It’s fascinating to watch the copywriters and creative team come up with new and compelling campaigns, with Don (as his many awards prove) and later his protégé Peggy clearly showing natural flair for writing.

So much so, their “Pass the Heinz” campaign was actually run by Heinz a few years ago. I was lucky enough to see one of the ads when walking the High Line on holiday in New York in 2017:

“Pass the Heinz”: The High Line, New York. March 2017

Temporarily pushing aside the blatant sexism, racism, and every other outdated issue the show covers – just for the purposes of this article – their adverts are often astute, consumer-focused and results-driven. It may well be set over 50 years ago, but the essentials then are still just as relevant today.

Make it simple, but significant.

We might not be trying to promote the telegram anymore, but the end goal hasn’t changed: we write to sell.

Here are 7 invaluable marketing lessons I have learnt from Mad Men:

  1. “The most important thing in advertising is ‘new’. It creates an itch.” 
    As a consumer, nothing is more exciting than trying something brand new. You become part of an exclusive group that have tried something many others haven’t. “New” implies “better” and immediately creates interest, so its use in writing shouldn’t be underestimated.
  2. “Just think about it deeply, and then forget it. An idea will jump up in your face.” 
    In my experience so far, it’s not quite that easy, but it definitely helps to take a step back when you’re struggling with your work. Sometimes we can get ourselves so worked up about getting it right the first time that we cloud our thought processes with stress. When I’m stuck with my writing I now make a point of closing my laptop or putting away my pen and paper for a while. I’ll force myself to take a long break and come back to it refreshed. I also find this concept really useful for editing my own work. If time constraints allow, I like to take a couple of days away from something before coming back to it fresh eyes, noticing mistakes that I glossed over before.
  3. “When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere. Just ask him.” 
    Although, let’s update his quote first to “Just ask them” to keep it inclusive. I’ve definitely made the mistake of not considering the “baggage” the reader or consumer brings with them, instead considering them as just another statistic on Google Analytics. Each person has an entire story that we don’t know about. We can make assumptions when writing, but I’m now learning that if I have the opportunity to find out about the customer, their challenges, their desires, I’ll take it. From this, I can create work that will evoke a stronger response. On social media for clients, I am now just asking fans what they’d like to see more of, and I’ve received some really insightful responses from surveys too.
  4. “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” 
    It’s the classic Don Draper quote, and for very good reason. For me, it suggests that when something isn’t working, try something different. With so many outlets to consider as a writer, each with different readerships – social media, blogs, print – it’s impossible to create a one-fits-all copy. I’m learning that what works well for one platform sometimes falls flat in others, and if that’s the case, I need to change it. It’s not worth continuing using something that clearly isn’t productive.
  5. “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” 
    To build on the previous point, I’m also learning that if something didn’t work, I need to forget about it. Learn from it, of course, but not get hung up on failure. I used to have a tendency to take criticism to heart, but now I’m starting to realise that I need to just get it out of my mind as dwelling on negativity won’t help me succeed on the next attempt.
  6. “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness,” and being told “You are okay.” 
    In a broader context, writing is based on evoking an emotional response from the reader, while advertising copy needs to reassure the consumer that they are making the right decision. After all, everything we do in life is for happiness and avoid risk. We emulate the behaviours of successful (or who are portrayed as successful and therefore happy, at least) people in order to enjoy the same successes. We write to sell products and services as catalysts to happiness and simplicity, and great writing in any area – whether to inform or persuade – can make that happiness attainable for the reader, even briefly.
  7. “I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colours in a box.” 
    Peggy’s emerging presence in the show showcases the idea that the fundamental goal of marketing is writing for that specific audience. And to write for that audience, you need to know that audience. She shows this even in the defining moment of her first foray into copywriting on the fictional Belle Jolie lipsticks campaign. This moment gave her a platform to emphasise that her opinion mattered too, as does the opinion of the consumer.

And finally, another important lesson Mad Men has taught me: How to make the perfect Old Fashioned. It’s all about the bitters and plenty of ice.