If you’re watching with the eyes of an entrepreneur, the true star of Mad Men isn’t really Don Draper, Joan Holloway, or Peggy Olson. It’s not even the 1960s. The true star of Mad Men is the advertising firm itself.
Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster, and it’s hard to think of a television show that has dramatized that better than Mad Men. Over the course of six seasons, viewers have watched the firm’s partners battle for business, come to blows, grow big, get acquired, fall apart, relaunch as a start-up, lose key clients, gain even better clients–and most recently, merge with a rival.
Your business life may not come with quite as many cocktails, or quite as much sex. But when it comes to what it takes to build a business and keep it humming, the show has demonstrated some key lessons of entrepreneurship.
1. It’s not who you know. It’s who you get to know.
So, you’ve filled out your LinkedIn profile completely and you go to industry meetings with a stack of business cards? That’s nice.
Don first got hired at the agency after meeting Roger, engineering a daytime bender, and then showing up the next day to convince Roger he’d offered Don a job but had been too drunk to remember doing it. That’s some aggressive networking.
More recently, Sterling used a fling with an airline stewardess (that’s what they were called then), who tipped him off on midwestern executives flying to New York to interview advertising agencies. He hops on airplane trips to meet and befriend them–all in the name of drumming up business.
That kind of networking is probably the second-most important impact on the fictional agency’s success. Its account executives are willing to do almost anything to meet decision-makers, develop rapport, and keep them happy.
2. Customers don’t know what they want until you show them.
If networking was the second-most important lesson, this is the most important.
Whatever you call the firm (its post-merger name hasn’t been revealed as of this writing), much of its success in early seasons was due to creative director Draper’s ability to see beyond what clients and customers said they wanted, and understand instead what they truly needed.
In a famous episode from Season 1, he saw that the cool thing about the then-brand-new slide projector wasn’t its technology, but the fact that customers longed to connect with their pasts. (The scene where he pitches the client is worth watching.)
That kind of empathy requires truly understanding the client–maybe even better than the client understands him or herself.
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