Would Don Draper Be Relevant Today?

My evening commute from Manhattan back to Connecticut often takes me by Y&R, the storied New York ad agency that has been located at 285 Madison Avenue for nearly a century. It was at this same agency where Draper Daniels, the real life inspiration for television's "Mad Men" Don Draper character, got his first job in advertising as a copywriter in the 1940s. And it's no wonder "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner used Daniels as a model for his Draper. The broad-shouldered Daniels certainly embodied the part of a suave, creative genius.

My trip up Madison Avenue and down memory lane recently got me to thinking: Would the character that Draper Daniels inspired be relevant in today's advertising industry? Could Don Draper's ability to move people with words and images translate to a world of computerized ad exchanges, pay-per-click campaigns and restrictive HR policies?

As I entered Grand Central Terminal and boarded my commuter train, retracing the steps that thousands of admen had taken over the years, it occurred to me that Don Draper would, in fact, have a place in advertising today. The only difference is that it wouldn't be at an agency.



Today's Draper would be an entrepreneur, probably launching a New York-based technology startup. He'd be using his power of persuasion to convince venture capitalists to give him millions of dollars so he could start his own company. Once he had the money, he would talk others into leaving their well-paying jobs and joining his nascent startup. And after he got the software built, he would cajole prospective clients into trying his product.

The skills of an adman and entrepreneur are quite similar. The job in both cases is to sell the promise of something, if not the thing itself. In a popular viral video distributed last week, clips from an episode where Draper pitches a carousel slide projector for Kodak were repurposed to promote Facebook's new timeline feature. It's absolutely plausible that, as a modern-day entrepreneur ,Draper would make a similar pitch. In fact, pitches like this happen every day in venture capital boardrooms throughout the city.

What about the other "Mad Men" characters? Would they be relevant in our world? I believe that they would. Peggy would still be writing copy for clients, except now the copy would be in the form of descriptions for Google AdWords campaigns. The buxom Joan might have started off as a planner at some digital agency and then jumped to the sell side, pitching banner ads for a popular website. Pete would still be a creep, working for some shady affiliate marketing company. The smooth-talking Roger Sterling would be head of sales for one of the big networks and Bert Cooper, ever-idiosyncratic, would be making a fortune as a venture capitalist.

Only Harry Crane, the media guy, would have the same job: running a TV buying group and negotiating upfront deals each May. That's one part of the advertising landscape that has remained largely intact.

While the technology revolution of the past decade has erased almost every trace of advertising's creative revolution and the real Mad Men that spawned it, if you look closely enough you'll see the same kinds of characters are around today.

Times change, but people do not.

What do you think? Would the Mad Men have a role in our world today?

5 comments about "Would Don Draper Be Relevant Today? ".
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  1. Aaron Goldman from Mediaocean, October 3, 2011 at 3:16 p.m.

    Don Draper uncovered rich audience insights and created messages that resonated with people on a deep emotional level. There will always be a need for that in advertising.

    That said, in today's world of media fragmentation and 2-way communication, creatives like Draper no longer hold all the juice within the agencies. The media and research departments are just as important. And the technology and analytics groups (which didn't exist at Sterling Cooper) also play big roles.

    So if today's "restrictive HR policies" didn't bring Draper down (not to mention all that drinking and smoking!) an equal focus on context vs. creative may have.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 3, 2011 at 3:17 p.m.

    Joan would never be on the streets or not for long, hating the way she would be treated by her manager since that is her power seat. She would be some type of office manager or in-house management of some type. I see the other characters in the biz, but not in the capacities you mention either. You may want to catch up with Dorothy Parker of MediaPost who does one bang up job with her synopsis of the individual episodes during the run.

  3. Arnold Waldstein from Waldstein Consulting, October 3, 2011 at 6:06 p.m.

    Good question...not sure I agree with where you are going with it.

    Pitching to a room full of people, even one2afew and finding an image, like an Apple billboard that speaks to the world without words, with one image are not the same.

    I believe that the passion behind both are similar. I believe that the understanding of people's behavioral response to capabilities are key. But different communications media require different approaches.

    Entrepreneurial excellence is not the same as marketing thinking. They both need to exist.

  4. Robert Vitrano from Naked Pizza, October 3, 2011 at 6:46 p.m.

    The lousy answer is "it depends." Straddling the agency and start-up world (in the entrepreneurial laboratory of post-Katrina New Orleans), I've found that many things translate, but many do not. There are interesting hybrids like Anomaly, KB&P's VC and Consigliere. It's also quite different for the so-called digital natives like a former employee from Trumpet who has launched several start-ups (most recently a terrific concept called Skillshare backed by Union Square Ventures) that draw heavily on his understanding of markets, messaging, communications tools and most importantly, the ability to build engaged communities within a sustainable economic framework. Andy Spade and Eric Ryan at Method are other exceptional examples of Drapers who made the leap. To over-generalize, the world of "lean startup" is well suited to the more digitally-inclined in the industry as concepts of agile development and rapid prototyping translate most directly to the wear-all-hats, proof-of-concept, zero-based budgeting world of the entrepreneur. I'm afraid some of the more valuable aspects of the legacy agency business are perhaps incomplete for the post-recession world of start-ups. But that doesn't those brilliant minds any less valuable.
    Robbie Vitrano, co-founder Naked Pizza, Trumpet & Idea Village

  5. Mitch Drew from Mitch Drew Media, October 3, 2011 at 7:11 p.m.

    In March 2010 I posted this on my blog. “The end of the AD MEN as soon on MAD MEN” and I still stand by what I wrote. It’s a more complex world and advertising has less of an influence in a world of two-way communication. I still think that the world needs a few Don Draper types to sell the sizzle and the excitement that goes along with an advertising strategy. Sometimes we forget that advertising is designed to create an emotion and you in this fast moving world of Twitter and BBM….it’s hard to break through to the heart of the consumer.

    Mitch Drew

    Here is a link to the post:

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