Marketing Lessons from Mad Men

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I’ve only been watching Mad Men when it airs on TV here in India, so I know I’m late in. but I watched the episode Blowing Smoke last night, and it reminded me of why I like the show. Yes, the characterizations are great, the acting is brilliant, the story touches on the politics of the era and doesn’t shy away from the ickiness (like the sexual harassment every woman on the show seems subject to, in one way or another). But what I like most, what really makes me sit up and watch, is the ad-making and the display of marketing strategy.

When their biggest client Lucky Strike fires the agency and everyone’s floundering, Don Draper makes a move. He puts up an ad in the New York Times where he writes about tobacco and its hazards, and why the agency would no more work on tobacco accounts.

It’s a move so bold as to be crazy. The other partners are furious: tobacco is a big advertising spender, and even if Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce reversed its stand, no tobacco company would be stupid enough to come to them after publicly disparaged one of their clients.

Here are the three big marketing lessons this act exemplifies.

1. Use a kernel of truth.

Don’s act is cynical, no doubt about it (in fact, he’s smoking as he writes that hypocritical piece). It’s true that advertising tobacco is an ethical issue (even though Don seems to realize it rather late). It’s true that the agency has no tobacco accounts at the moment. And even though Don would pretend this move was all business, the fact that he’s just run into an old flame who’s now addicted to heroin makes you wonder how much meeting Midge affected him. At the least he realizes the dangers of addiction and works that into his pitch.

2. Make a stand.

One of my favorite marketing books is Ries and Trout’s Positioning, where the authors emphasize the importance of owning a position in the minds of your audience, a position no one else has. To put it in more prosaic terms, you can’t be all things to all people.

Not only would Don’s new strategy not work if the agency had any tobacco accounts at the moment, it wouldn’t work if the agency was willing to take on any tobacco work in the future. You can’t be anti-tobacco and pro-tobacco at the same time. Don was willing to take the risk, to mark out his corner.

3. Spin the message.

The ad is, as Don’s secretary brilliantly points out, a case of “He didn’t dump me, I dumped him.” Don took the worst thing that had happened to the agency and spun it to look like an ethical stand.

And that’s the essence of marketing: to take the truth and present it in the best possible light; to find the truths to highlight that support your message.

Now I don’t know how it’s going to work out yet (don’t tell me!), but I’m pretty sure this move will save the agency. This was a stroke of brilliance on Don’s part, and this is why I like to watch the character even though he spends most of his time being an overgrown spoilt baby.

What’s your favorite Mad Men moment?

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