What Don Draper Knows That You Don’t
About Persuasion and Success

image of actor Jon Hamm as Don Draper

Every writer and marketer could learn a thing or two from Don Draper — the anti-hero of AMC’s hit series Mad Men, which is set in the swinging 60s world of advertising.

Born from dirt, Don is a verbal Superman who uses his unique outlook on life to articulate his way into influence, money, and creative success.

Isn’t that the recipe all us marketing raconteurs are looking for?

Don is marble-handsome, but his steely stare and flawless assembly of words are what allow him to own every conversation with an eyebrow’s worth of effort.

Learn to use your words as well as Don Draper, and you, too, can articulate your way into influence, money, and creative success.

Let’s start with some of Don’s thoughts, from advertising to what women truly want.

Advertising

Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is Okay. You are Okay.

Done well, advertising sends a whisper to your impulses — a primal wind at the back of your neck, suggesting where to go and what to do.

Flashy advertising works, but its half-life is dim. Make people feel something, especially happiness, and they will remember and act. Bonus points if your happiness solves their sadness.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels — around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.

We all long for the way we were. Even the most adventurous among us craves the sublime comfort of the familiar.

Many writers and marketers understand this human need, but Don tumbles the thought by reminding us that true nostalgia isn’t a deep longing for the past so much as an affectionate feeling for a future that feels like a friend.

Adaptability

If you don’t like the conversation, change it.

When Don’s firm, Sterling Cooper, loses their largest account — Lucky Strike Cigarettes — the partners and foot soldiers in the firm run around in circles.

Don turns the tables, proudly declaring his firm will only do business with those companies unwilling to put their consumers at risk. Not only does this save Sterling Cooper from being the laughing stock of Madison Avenue, it pushes them ahead of the trends.

Regret

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. If you listen, he’ll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going, and that he woke up. If you listen, he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect. And then he’ll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn’t perfect. We’re flawed, because we want so much more. We’re ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had.

People tend to dilute their regret or justify previous behavior. We are all slaves to habit, most of the time. When writers stoke the fires that make us feel remorse or reprieve, we are willing to answer with our wallets.

Writing

Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. You are the product. You — feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it.

Sex does sell, but it isn’t just the flesh. Sex also sells because of associated triggers; being loved, needed, wanted, satisfied. Great writers draw pictures with words, rendering memory permanent with a stroke of a key. It isn’t easy. Those writers who dig deepest strike the oil.

Creativity

Just think about it deeply, then forget it … then an idea will jump up in your face.

Any writer or creative type can relate to this.

How often have you struggled over the perfect sentence, argument, or string of dialogue? You can’t beat your muse into submission. Brilliance needs space to breathe.

Take a break from the unfinished page, and you will likely find that your idea has grown stronger in your mental absence.

Marketing

Big lightning bolt to the heart — you can’t eat, and you can’t work, and you run off and get married and make babies. The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. It was invented by men like me, to sell nylons.

That was Draper at his most cynical, but I don’t think he believes a word he’s saying. It’s just his way to justify cruel behavior, carelessly waged against his wife.

Yet it’s amazing to view as a fly on the wall. Don always thinks like a marketer, even when he’s only selling to himself.

Our Desires

Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe. Women have feelings about these women because men do. Because we want both, they want to be both. It’s about how they want to be seen by us, their husbands, their boyfriends, their friends’ husbands. Here’s the idea, very simply. The bra is called ‘the Harlequin.’ In fit and form, it should be your very best. It comes in black. And white. Jackie. Marilyn. Same incredible fit, two different women. And the beauty of it is, it’s the same woman. Same model.

Our desires aren’t consistent, yet it’s the inconsistency that makes us human.

How can anyone want two entirely different things at the same time? It doesn’t matter; smart marketers understand that basic human nature doesn’t change, so they highlight a solution rather than digging for an answer.

Success

Success comes from standing out, not fitting in.

Look around at the people you admire most. Whether online or off, those truly blazing their own trails and creating freedom for themselves are marching to their own beat.

An echo is never as steady or strong as the original shout. Be unique, and do what you do better than anyone else. The world will hear you.

What Women Truly Want

Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus. He either lives in your heart or he doesn’t. Every woman wants choices, but in the end, none wants to be one of a hundred in a box. She’s unique. She makes the choices and she’s chosen him. She wants to tell the world he’s mine. He belongs to me, not you. She marks her man with her lips. He’s her possession. You’ve given the gift of total ownership.

Even when selling lipstick, Don knows what makes us tick. For a woman in the early 60‘s, it was knowing she could be the lingering memory inside her man’s mind. A dozen colors are great, but a woman would open her wallet for the promise of possession.

Don’s brilliance with words does nothing to keep him from weaving a thick web of compulsive lies and regular infidelity.

That’s what makes Draper interesting — he’s the type of guy who sets and baits his own trap, and steps in with both feet. 

Don’t follow all of Don’s examples. (I wouldn’t recommend the Don Draper Guide to a Satisfying Marriage, for example.) But embracing his advertising insights will make you a better writer and marketer, and help you articulate your way into influence, money, and creative success.

About the Author: Sean Platt helps good writers make a great living. Get his free report, The 9 Mistakes Most Writers Make That Are Keeping Them Poor. Follow him on Twitter.


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Comments

  1. Who would have guessed such valuable marketing lessons could be learned from a TV show? But you do raise some great points, especially about tapping in to what people really want. The “why” is a very powerful marketing tool.

    • The TV show is (at least in part) about the marketing world, so the lessons are there in every scene. Show is gorgeous, beautifully written and acted, and well worth watching!

      • Wow – Agree with Nick, here. Mad Men has always been on my “to watch when I have spare time (aka – never…)” list, but I might have to bump it up if there’s going to be so much great marketing/writing/life wisdom being thrown around.

        Great post, Sean!

    • I agree with Nick. Thanks for your open mind tips on marketing.

  2. A great collection of ideas. I really like the point about ‘regret’ Really persuasive!

    Thanks Don! Thanks Sean! :-)

  3. Brilliant! Great post Sean – you just put me in the right mindset to tackle the days projects.

  4. What I love about “Change the conversation” is that it doesn’t just apply to copywriting or marketing or PR, it’s also some pretty damn good advice for life in general. Some of the least happy people I know are those who think there is only one, true, correct way to see every situation.

    What I LOVE about being a writer is often I can help my readers and audience see things in a new way that offers them a solution to their problems. All of us get stuck sometimes and by being that outsider who “changes the conversation”, I can offer them real value.

    • So true.

      I actually use the “Change the conversation” advice with my children all the time!

      And it’s so true about giving new perspective to old problems. How many times in your life have you listened to someone new, when they’re saying the same things people close to you have been saying forever? Simple human nature.

  5. Nice post Sean. I enjoy Mad Men as well. Do you think there is something to the fact that some
    e of lifes most successful people are also so messed up? Draper had one hell of a screwed up life but it gave him the perspective to succeed in advertising. I feel like I see this quite a bit in the real world too.

    • Yes and no.

      Certainly I think it makes for a better story. If Don wasn’t a mess personally, there’d be no hero’s journey and we wouldn’t be nearly as compelled to watch. And yes, many successful people pare messed up. So are many unsuccessful people. There are also plenty of massively successful people who are entirely together (as much as anyone can be).

      Just because some musicians make amazing music while under the influence doesn’t mean you’re required to be under the influence to make great music.

      • I don’t want to be anything like Don Draper. His ending is going to be him jumping of a tall building (Right after he pisses in pants after drinking too much alcohol)….

        There is no happiness for the cynics.

  6. Your quote “An echo is never as steady or strong as the original shout” really resonated with me.

    The people and companies that separate themselves in unique ways are the ones that (in many but not all examples) become successful.

    For example, Lady Gaga. She takes a nontraditional approach to her wardrobe selection and made it work for her. People like to see things that are different.

  7. Dana Reeves :

    Brilliant writing Sean! My friends thought I was nuts when I started watching Mad Men for the glimpses into marketing and advertising genius. :)

  8. My favorite Draper quote didn’t make this list. In fact, I had a few like that because I would’ve needed too much context to make them work. But it’s the quote from “The Suitcase” episode. The entire scene where Don starts with “That’s what the money is for!” and ends with “You’re a little early in your career to be counting ideas” is just flat out fantastic.

  9. Thanks Dana.

    And yeah, there are plenty of reasons to watch that show. The marketing genius is the bonus. :)

  10. Big thank you Sean. How many times I’ve listened to Draper’s sparkling, crisp and clinical insights while my inner work voice screamed “Stop! Write it Down! NOW!”. Glad it shouted loud enough for you to listen :).

    • I would totally watch that show with a notebook in hand, if it wasn’t supposed to be time when I’m with my wife and “not working.” Can’t blame me for keeping the brain on, though!

  11. Yetunde Ogundipe :

    Bravo! The show is like a goldmine…thanks for uncovering some more. I just wish I can give something back for all ur invaluable insights. As copywriter – the show has really helped me a lot, being that I discovered it when I newly joined my agency.

  12. Real-World Ad Man :

    Have you ever been accused of being off-brief when presenting your work? Then you don’t know *Planning.*

    If Copywriters bothered to learn about Planning, these Mad Men insights wouldn’t be such a big deal.

    I’m amazed at how many Copywriters think the term “Planning” means to organize plans for something. “Account Planning” or simply “Planning” is a funny advertising industry term that actually means “insight finding,” which is the art of seeing what makes people tick, what motivates them, and how to persuade them.

    Don Draper is a Creative Director who does off-the-cuff Planning for dramatic effect on the show, but in real life the Planning is done by someone hired specifically just to find these insights. The Planner’s product is the insight combined with strategy, or the creative brief. A good Planner will have a brief that naturally inspires the Creatives. But many smaller agencies don’t have Planners, so insights are often not so sharp. It’s the job of the Creatives then to fill in the gap.

    A good Copywriter can be clever, but a good Copywriter who also knows Planning will *conquer*. I suggest reading *Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning* by Jon Steel. You’ll be talking like Don Draper in no time.

    • Just ordered it from Amazon, though if I let loose any more Draperisms, might wife might ask me to sleep on the couch. :)

  13. Nice, Sean. My fav: “If you don’t like the conversation, change it.” ;-)

  14. Fantastic article! Nice to see I’m not the only one who likes to work TV references into his writing. :-)

    Gene Marks

  15. A brilliant analysis, very well done. I’m quite impressed.

  16. I like “If you don’t like the conversation, change it.” I’ve been trying to do that more in comments on blog posts for starters – used to be if I saw a trend in opinion that I didn’t like, I’d just leave. Now I just throw in the opposing two cents to see what happens. It’s great to see people start to change their tune when they see the discussion from a different perspective.

  17. thanks sean

  18. Can’t beat a show that quotes Frank O’hara. Nice post.

    “Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this.” is going up on my bulletin board.

  19. Sean,

    Yes, all good stuff, without a doubt. Brilliant thoughts, but – and I probably don’t even need to tell you this – Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and the show’s other fantastic writers, I feel, deserve at least a passing mention for supplying the dialogue, to give credit where credit is due and all.

    Fun post though, for sure!

    Best,

    Peter

  20. We want a copywriter like Peggy on our team and need a Joan to keep all the “girls” in line.
    A DD would not be too bad either.

    Great article!

    – Kelly

  21. Quite penetrating, i love the explanation of regeret and sucess most.

  22. Archan Mehta :

    Sean,

    Thank you for writing this fab post. We, your readers, really appreciate your contributions.

    Indeed, it is true that you can find marketing insights in a TV show, as you have mentioned. However, marketing insights can be gleaned from things outside of the media and entertainment industry as well.

    Morever, it is important to remember that glamour sells only to a niche audience. The vast majority of the human race does not know about Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy–after all, they are American icons.

    The vast majority of the human race are concerned only about “bread and butter” issues. Most people are struggling just to get by, living paycheck to paycheck–and those are the lucky ones. So, Lucky Strikes and Virginia Slims adverts would not sell to such a mass audience. Again, it is important to remember this is only a nice audience.

    I think marketing as a discipline has borrowed a lot from the field of pschology, that is, over the years. This is not always acknowledged by marketers, but I think it is true. Copywriters are the “hidden persuaders” who try to sell a product or service to a captive audience. They have learned a lot about human pyschology through sales pitches.

    Just playing the devil’s advocate here, so don’t hit me over the head with a soup ladle–at least not yet. In any case, I really enjoyed reading your article. The next thing on my agenda is to watch the TV episodes–you sold me on it.

    Cheers.

  23. Love this! One of my favorite lessons from Don Draper and Mad Men? Shut up. Put the pen down (or take your fingers off the keys) and STOP writing. Use fewer words. Let images tell your story. Stop being so literal. Use white space the way Mad Men uses long silences and pregnant pauses. I’ve thought a lot about what writers can learn from actors, TV, the movies (and in fact have a book coming out on the subject). I’m a writer, but I’m always looking for ways, other than words, to express ideas.

  24. Thanks for the article. I could picture the scenes of the show reading each quote. The Nostagia quote from the Kodak Carousel pitch remains one of the most powerful scenes of television I’ve seen in years.

  25. Great post Sean, been collecting the quotes for very long? My favorite is one of the shortest: “Success comes from standing out, not fitting in” – so simple, but so many (especially marketers) fail to grasp it..

    • Also my favorite Daniel… some people are trying hard to be someone else. What they are missing is the fact that every human being has its own potential and ability to develop and be proud of.

  26. Great post! I love when TV shows and movies are used in writing well. I’ve honestly never watched Mad Men before, its always just been on a ‘check out and maybe start watching later’ list for me. But these quotes seem rather funny, so I may just have to make time to start watching. If I need an excuse I can always just say its educational!

  27. The first time I watched the show I understood what love at first sight really was.

    The second time I learned many quotes, ideas, one-liners, and appreciated it even more.

    I’m watching it for the third time . . . just because. I cannot get enough of it. I believe that watching a TV show, especially if you’re in love with it, can build character and can teach you a lesson or two.

    I’m glad someone was able to value the lessons in the show, and eloquently put it in words for us writers to be inspired, and to learn a great lesson.

    Definitely re-reading this over and over and over.

  28. I simply love Mad Men.
    Don draper is a great character and there’s huge value to find in how he acts. Although it’s all acting, but there are still lessons to be learned.
    I especially resonated with the Nostalgia line. I recently went to Video Games Live which is a concert which tributes the greatest video games of our time, by playing famous tunes from the games. From mario brothers to metal gear solid. Oh I long for those days.