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.