Don Draper, Maverick Ad Man, Dead at 88

Don Draper, a copywriter and creative director whose ideas were some of the most thought-provoking and talked-about of the decades between the Sixties and Nineties, died Tuesday at his son’s home in Hudson, N.Y. He was 88.

The cause was cardiac arrest, according to his son, Robert Draper, who was his father’s caretaker during the last decade of his life.

“One of the world’s most-loved, most-hated and most-misunderstood advertising geniuses,” is how Peggy Olson-Levitt, former Worldwide Chief Creative Officer of McCann-Erickson, and one of Draper’s many protégés, described him. “I’d call him an enigma shrouded in mystery wrapped in a paradigm, but if I did he’d say, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Let’s just say he was complicated.”

Draper’s co-workers included AAF president Roger Sterling (deceased since 1982), Pete Campbell, chairman emeritus of the Omnicom Group, and Harry Crane, retired partner of the United Talent Agency. His students also included Stan Rizzo, creator of the “Hippie, Trippy, Dippy Daddy” syndicated comic strip, and celebrated screenwriter and director Michael Ginsberg, a former copywriter.

“Don drove me to be better, think harder and write better. He drove me crazy. And when I got crazy, I got famous,” said Ginsberg. “Don also taught me a character’s 'moral center' isn’t a solid core but an amorphous, gassy blob.”

Draper’s advertising work was memorable, hard to miss, and often polarizing. In the 1960s, he and a handful of advertising mavericks ushered in the “Big Idea” era of advertising. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce created iconic campaigns for clients including Kodak, R.J. Reynolds, Hilton Hotels, Nabisco Foods, and Peter Pan. 

In the 1970s, the agency (rebranded Draper-Campbell), created campaigns for Chrysler that had Ricardo Montalban memorably touting the Cordoba’s “rich, Corinthian leather.” They had the world singing, “There’s a fragrance and it’s here to stay and they call it Charlie.” And they reminded us that diehard Tareyton smokers, despite the Attorney General’s increasingly ominous claims, “would rather fight than switch."

“We made a lot of friends but pissed off a lot of people with our work back then,” Campbell said. “I think Don was happiest when he was pissing people off. It meant people noticed what we were doing.”

Draper-Campbell’s run ended in the early 1980s when it sold its interests to McCann-Erickson, which absorbed their clients and gradually retired the name. Campbell remained with the agency but Draper quit abruptly. “I refuse to be a name reduced to an initial reduced to a ghost and managed by idiots. So I quit.” So read his short-but-memorable companywide memo, announcing his decision.

Draper pursued other interests with typical relish and abandon. He briefly joined the car company of his friend John DeLorean as chief advertising officer before DMC met its infamous, untimely demise. He pursued commercial real estate interests with his fourth wife, Amanda, before their contentious divorce dissolved that business. He even briefly returned to his first career, as a furrier, opening a slew of high-end boutiques in major cities just as the fur business reached huge popularity in the late 1980s. Despite his success, Draper’s first love remained advertising.

“Dad made a fortune in the fur business but it bored him. When he saw the 'new' advertising being done in the late Eighties and early Nineties by shops like Fallon, Chiat/Day and Goodby, he wanted back in,” said Robert Draper. “There’s truth and edge to the best stuff they’re doing and he wanted to show the world he still had an edge.”

He abruptly sold the fur boutiques and launched Draper with a simple client-acquisition strategy: “Let’s pursue clients who refuse to be boring and who refuse to be ignored.”

The strategy worked, and Draper won numerous awards for brash, abrasive, and unforgettable campaigns for clients including Yugo, Seiko, Budweiser, Playtex, Sony and the Archdiocese of New York.

Draper was married and divorced five times. His daughter, socialite Sally Draper, and another son, Gene, predeceased him. 

Little is known of Draper’s early years, other than that he grew up in meager circumstances on a farm in rural Illinois. He served in the Korean Conflict and moved to New York City in 1954.

His wit and willingness to provoke never left him. When asked to speak to a group of young creatives at a conference in 2000, he followed a famous direct-marketing expert, who told the crowd that 'the big idea' era of advertising is dead. The future would be all direct selling and personally crafted messages.” 

Draper took the stage. “The best advice I can give you,” he told the young audience while pointing at the speaker who had preceded him, “is to forget everything that guy just told you.” Then he left.

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21 comments about "Don Draper, Maverick Ad Man, Dead at 88".
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  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 5, 2015 at 8:55 a.m.

    FAB FAB FAB !!!!!!!! Oh, Barbara Lippert, this one's for you.

  2. Jonathan Hutter from Independent, May 5, 2015 at 10:04 a.m.

    And they all lived happily ever after.

  3. Barbara Lippert from, May 5, 2015 at 1:40 p.m.

    Just great!!

  4. James Hering from The Richards Group, May 5, 2015 at 2:15 p.m.

    We need to start a petition for - "Mad Men TNG"

  5. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., May 5, 2015 at 4:58 p.m.

    Terrific, John.
    Don, we hardly knew ye...

  6. Chuck Lantz from, network, May 5, 2015 at 5 p.m.

    Excellent obit. I almost called a florist.

  7. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, May 5, 2015 at 7:57 p.m.

    Love this.

  8. Walter Sabo from SABO media, May 5, 2015 at 8:31 p.m.

    yes but as is usually the case, we needed more about sally.

  9. Dorothea Marcus from Weichert Realtors, May 5, 2015 at 9:51 p.m.

    well done!

  10. Dee Leone from Dee Leone Ink, May 6, 2015 at 12:02 a.m.

    John, this piece thrilled me. THRILLED me. Hoping the finale is as poignant and spot-on.

  11. Chuck Hildebrandt from Self, May 6, 2015 at 9:25 a.m.

    First rate writeup.

  12. Cynthia Amorese from JAL Enterprises NY, May 6, 2015 at 10:08 a.m.

    And Joan? 

  13. Ann Cannon from SDI Media, May 6, 2015 at 1:18 p.m.

    This is great! I think Sally deserves a little more than to become a socialite though...

  14. Michael Adler from Looking, May 6, 2015 at 2:47 p.m.

    I stopped watching the show a few years ago, I know boo me, but my life has been too busy to watch much TV.  I'll finish the show bing watching one of these days.  Anyway the Don Draper / Dick Whitman I know from the seasons I watched would never have made it to the ripe old age of 88.  This is the same guy that used scotch as aftershave right?  His heart would not have lasted that long.  That said loved the obit and the quotes from Don were spot on.

  15. Shari anne Brill from Shari Anne Brill Media Consulting, May 6, 2015 at 9:36 p.m.

    BRILLiantly written.  R.I.P. Don Draper.

  16. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, May 7, 2015 at 7:14 a.m.

    John, I have been writing regularly for Mediapost since 2004. I have a column due next week that I have been struggling to start, because I am lacking inspiration.  Not anymore :) -- what a fantastic piece of writing you just gave us.  Thank you.

  17. Nan Turner from University of California, Davis, May 7, 2015 at 5:01 p.m.

    When is the movie coming out?  Loved the article but only one point was missing......Dick Whitman..........I think when his obit is written it will be for Dick Whitman....

    any takers?

  18. Stephen Fechtor from Fechtor Advertising LLC, May 9, 2015 at 1:49 p.m.

    Great ad guys don't fade away.  They just die.

  19. Kevin Heney from Pivot Point Brands, May 12, 2015 at 6:38 p.m.

    How ever did his lungs and liver last that long? 

  20. John Immesoete from Epsilon, May 18, 2015 at 12:54 p.m.

    I’d like to thank everyone for reading my imagined Don Draper obituary and for the kind comments. I wanted Don to at least live a long and fascinating life, with many ups and downs and twists and turns. Maybe that’s why I allowed him to live to 88; like all of us who stick with advertising as a career, Don was, to me, a survivor.  I hope he enjoyed the journey.  To read an unabridged version of Don's obitutary follow this link: 

  21. Don Montgomery from WinGreen Marketing Systems, May 20, 2015 at 4:56 p.m.

    John, I really enjoyed this!  I wonder if you'll update it a little bit to reflect what we now know from the finale.