Mad Men: 7 Musings for 7 Seasons

(Minor spoiler alert if you haven’t finished watching the series)

I’m sure other, better-qualified people have touched on some of these points, but nonetheless I had an urge to put my own thoughts out there.

  1. The white man’s pain. A film critic I admire (yes, that emotion is possible towards a film critic) once claimed that most Hollywood non-comedy films deal with the white American man‘s existential struggle to keep up with, and adapt to, changes in 20th-21st century American society, and to his diminishing importance in a de-patriaching society. In an era where top-notch TV (Mad Men, Sopranos…) competes head-on with Hollywood, I think we can add Don Draper and Tony Soprano to the likes of characters played by Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant, Michael Douglas, Bruce Willis and many others.
  2. Not a man, a brand. Don Draper copes a bit differently with this crisis than the aforementioned. Don isn’t exactly a man, he’s a brand. He is incredibly handsome and well-groomed on the outside. He is shallow (if not rotten, per his creator) on the inside — even slowly stripped of every meaningful asset (wives, kids, car, home…). He still sports the same clothes and the same haircut and the same facial expressions while everyone around him goes mod, turns hippie, grows facial hair. (Take a look at footage from season 1 — even considering age, Don is the one that has changed the least, by far.) But crucially, at every junction he understand instinctively how to tweak himself to fit the new reality and thrive in it, how to make people around him feel good that he’s around, doing whatever it is he does, spreading his brand equity. Just like we can’t always explain our loyalty to a brand, neither can the people around Don explain how they keep having him around. Even though he is just the same as always.
  3. The weight shifts. One of the most interesting transformations in the series was the shifting of the charisma and potential from alpha-male characters like Don and Roger in a testosterone-fueled Sterling-Cooper in season 1, to the newly-confident Peggy and entrepreneurial Joan, especially while Don is falling apart and Roger finally comes to terms with his age. A good summary of the progress of women in the workplace by 1970 — certainly far from where it should be (it still is), but nonetheless something to be proud of when looking back to 1960.
  4. Who can you trust? The 60’s. Political assassinations, the Soviet scare, the disaster of Vietnam, civil rights and racial unrest, women challenging the ages-old patriarchy, rock’n’roll, drugs, free love, generational rebellion… in the end, in such a fluid reality, the only things one can count on to still be there for you are the religion of consumerism, the Church of Madison Avenue, and the brands that they serve.
  5. Falling is actually cyclical. Number 2 and 3 bring me to the iconic opening theme of Mad Men (which has not changed in 8 years — a serious attestment to its artistic vision). The show’s last episode confirms that yes, Don is falling, but only to end up as usual, on his sofa, cigarette and tumbler in hand. This symbolizes his cycles of reinvention, the shedding his skin to come back with “new ideas, a new you”.
  6. How to be creative. There’s a LOT of talk about what creativity is and how one fosters and encourages it in a corporate environment. As the most creative professional in his ultra-competitive field, Don’s answer is to completely reject the corporate norms of working from 9-to-5, of methodical preparation, of playing office politics. His ideas come from naps on the office sofa, from serendipitious road trips, from unplanned and unannounced disappearances and from near-nervous breakdowns. In other words, the bad news for most businesses still today: his opinion is that inspired and inspiring creativity just cannot flourish in a ‘normal’ corporate environment. Drop the rules, or drop your expectations.
  7. Understanding business. Even with my 16+ years to date of business experience in both startups and corporates, Mad Men always managed to delight me with fresh and unexpected insights about the realities of businesses. Whether it’s the fact that you never really know anyone you work with until you travel together; or watching the evolution of the marketing profession from complete reliance of the client on the ad agency in the early seasons, to the modern corporate exec (Pete Campbell in this case); or how an entrepreneurial itch has to get scratched, even if it means walking away from a corporate career or a comfortable life of leisure (Joan Harris). A good and unexpected source of wisdom.

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Make your own mosaic

Getting and benefiting from advice is a bit like putting together a mosaic. Somehow, you need to take all those small pieces, in different colors, that seemingly have no connection to each other, figure out which ones are relevant for you, and the create a self-expressive, coherent piece that by aggregating those little pieces in the context of your life. Like many on here, I’ve received tons of big and little pieces of advice, some of it good and some bad. So instead of just one piece of advice, I thought of taking a meta approach. So here’s just a few career-oriented themes that emerge:

It’s a small world. Whether you work in a niche industry or a huge one, and whether your market is Liechtenstein or China, curiously, there will be many people whom you will meet several times along your career journey. So I make an effort to treat people with respect, and to not make things personal. If I fall out with someone, I just need to be prepared for a scenario where she is whispering on the ears of my potential customer, partner, investor or employer.

Keep people 80% happy. Especially in a cross-functional environment, objectives and interests won’t always overlap completely. You need to do what you need to do, and you don’t want to alienate people you might need to depend upon in the future. However, a healthy tension is, well, healthy, and just about 20% of discord can keep people engaged.

Better to ask forgiveness than permission. Well-known and widely-given advice, so I will only add that in my experience, this is a great shortcut to the aforementioned 80% happiness level.

Avoid group-anxiety. There’s no use in joining a group of several others who are actively freaking out about the exact same problem, like the famous meme showing seven construction managers standing above a hole in which one person is doing the actual digging. Either you take ownership to free up others, or find out what you can do to help in other channels, or just move on. Kind of related to the next one.

Don’t be where there is no/little added value. Pretty simple, really. This obviously applies to roles in which you’re not adding value, but also to situations where you’ve stopped or slowed down your learning. Fix it or move on. To me this is a narrow, functional derivative of Seneca’s famous quote in The Shortness of Life, “Life is long if you know how to use it.”

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