With Mad Men back on our screens, let’s look back at TV’s greatest drama and see what gems of wisdom we can apply to our own marketing.

Mad Men tells the story of some New York advertising people and their partners in the 1960s. Their business is a success but their personal lives are disastrous. Top of the pile is Don Draper, suave, sophisticated, fake- a man who has made his way to the top through a combination of huge natural talent and dogged self interest. Other protagonists include his business partners Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell, both in advertising because of their inherited money and connections.

Much of the tension in their advertising agency is the same as can be found in any office- the war of attrition between the creative entrepreneurial types and those who want to run a steady business. Both Roger and Pete recognise that they need Don’s creativity. “That is a very sensitive piece of horseflesh. He shouldn’t be rattled!” says Pete.

In fact their appreciation of him is in inverse proportion to his contempt for them, even though businesses need people who have the ability to attract and schmooze clients. Don is a loner whose arrogance about his creative work and inability to be a team player mean he could never be a successful leader.

They may recognise his genius but neither Roger nor Pete actually understand what Don does. Roger says to him, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.” In Pete’s eyes, advertising is “all about what it looks like” which reflects the common view that marketing is a lie dressed up in tinsel.

Living Like There’s No Tomorrow

When Don reached his inevitable breakdown in Mad Men, the more traditional businesspeople in the company couldn’t wait to take advantage and get rid of him. The sort of mavericks who inspire customers and clients often have to watch their backs when the safety-first bean counters move in. Perhaps the most famous example in the real business world is the time Apple fired Steve Jobs.

What makes Don a success in advertising? He has learnt what makes human beings tick. However the way he learned it- as a child brought up in a brothel- has made him cynical about life. This cynicism seems to be the key to his character. “There is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent,” he proclaims. “You’re born alone and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, ’cause there isn’t one,” he explains on a different occasion. To underline the point, “It’s your life – you don’t know where it’s going but you know it ends badly.”

What makes Don’s character so interesting is that his cynicism is tinged with a sadness that comes from the disappointment of knowing what life could be like in an ideal world, a theme that goes back to Adam and Eve gaining knowledge at the loss of Eden. He remains true to himself and tries to be honourable despite his view of the world.

This existential view of life grew rapidly in the fifties and sixties and is now probably the dominant view, whether conscious or not, of people in Western society. The older Roger Sterling, with his humorous quips in every situation, is even more cynical than Don but more amoral, with no time for Don’s angst ridden philosophy, “Your kind with your gloomy thoughts and your worries, you’re all busy licking some imaginary wound.”

The Greatest Thing You Have Working For You

Regarding advertising, Don may be supremely cynical but his insights are invaluable to anyone wanting to market their business. For Don, exploiting the need for something lost or missing is key. His famous description of the Kodak photo slide carousel hinges on nostalgia, namely the need for “a place where we know we are loved.”

Similarly, he observes that teenagers are “mourning for their childhood more than they’re anticipating their future, because they don’t know it yet, but they don’t want to die.”

Conversely, he opines, “The most important idea in advertising is ‘new’. It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.” The link between these apparently contradictory needs is in Don’s comment, “We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”

“What is happiness?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” He makes people seem pretty desperate in their existential world. It’s a matter of opinion whether, as Don believes, “People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone.”

Taking the polar opposite view to Pete’s on the nature of advertising, Don says, “The greatest thing you have working for you is not the photo you take or the picture you paint: it’s the imagination of the consumer. They have no budget, they have no time limit, and if you can get into that space, your ad can run all day.” This could be the mantra of any of us in marketing.

How does Don get into that space? He tells a story. His ex-wife Betty calls him a “gifted storyteller.” Anyone who wants to succeed in business needs to tell a compelling story that engages the customer. Don uses his skill just as much when pitching to clients. And of course he uses it as a weapon when seducing women, where he adds to his armoury good looks and sharp suits.

Being With A Client Is Like Being In A Marriage

Don’s cynicism extends to his love life in Mad Men. “What you call love was invented by guys like me… to sell nylons.” Other characters disagree. Joan Holloway says, “I want love, and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement.” Then again, she’s a manager, not a creative.

Having said that, it is clear that Don needs love and even realises it, it’s just that his cynicism prevents him giving of himself in the way that’s necessary in order to receive it. Anna Draper makes an insightful comment on Don’s character, “The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.”

Instead he either manipulates the women he seduces or indulges in shallow sexual encounters. Although his relationships end because of his constant yearning for something different, he always feels the guilt and regret of someone with human feelings.

His inability to sacrifice himself, even in his own self interest, makes him liable to betray his women and his colleagues. Despite his need for connection, he is neither a team player nor a good husband. One of Don’s qualities as a hero is his unwillingness to compromise but this is not a good trait in relationships, whether business or personal. At one stage in Mad Men, he loses the agency an account worth $1 million by telling the truth.

The inevitable failure of Don Draper’s personal relationships in Mad Men reflects a view expressed more than once about clients. Roger observes wryly, “Being with a client is like being in a marriage. Sometimes you get into it for the wrong reasons, and eventually they hit you in the face.” Don himself comments, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing him.” An experience with which all businesspeople will be familiar.

Don has one relationship that endures despite some rocky moments- Peggy Olson, his workplace colleague and protégé. He says to her, “The way that [people] saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable.”

How many times have businesspeople felt they have more in common with a work colleague than their spouse? Of course, in Don’s case, he marries his secretary and that works out as badly for him, as does pretty much everything else this flawed genius touches in his personal life.

Don Draper’s complexity makes him one of the most interesting characters ever to appear in a TV drama. He is both admirable and disgusting, honest and deceitful, honourable and disloyal. Ultimately he is a flawed hero, which may be the best we can aspire to be in the modern business world.

I hope he finds peace but I fear that it will ‘end badly’ for him.

Mad Men can be seen on Sky Atlantic on Thursdays at 10pm.

This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn