Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Mad Men: lessons from episode one

Despite dropping too many hints to everyone I know and I few people I do not, no one bought me Mad Men Series 1-3 for Christmas. A disappointment that could only be rectified by an overnight Amazon Prime delivery. Needs must (sigh). The 1950’s would have been as shocked by Amazon as we are at their bad boy attitudes.

The opening episode saw the heart-stoppingly suave Don Draper fretting about cigarette advertising. Readers Digest say that cigarettes might be bad for you. His Lucky Strike executives are coming in for a creative meeting. He has no idea what to do. Draper is in a fix.

He does two things that are instructive. Firstly, he talks to people about smoking; anyone, anywhere. Because he is Don Draper and he spends a lot of time in bars, he talks to the waiter who offers low-key but pertinent insights. Secondly, he talks to his scary research lady about her scary research.

In the meeting, when the client turns to hear his brilliant ideas, he still hasn’t got a clue what to suggest. He thinks the research is stupid, and the problem insolvable. Why would anyone buy something that might harm them?

Of course, we know the answer to the conundrum. People don’t care that cigarettes are dangerous. They just want to enjoy one of life’s pleasures; which Draper figures out just in time to keep the account. He lets every other cigarette be dangerous - Lucky Strike is the one that contains “toasted tobacco”.

As it turns out, the research was absolutely right and what Draper had discarded turned out to be the key to unlocking his creativity. Although Mad Men is fiction (or is it?) it is based on (some) real people and very real advertising and marketing issues. Which is perhaps what makes it so watchable.

Many great advertising and marketing people have pointed out that you need to understand both your product and your market in order to come up with a compelling proposition. Draper makes it look easy, Ogilvy admitted it was hard work and tedious. Both knew it was necessary.

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