So I'm watching the season premiere of Mad Men and Don Draper is hanging out late at night alone in the bar of the Royal Hawaiian hotel, and I keep waiting for Don to get up and go bang a waitress because Don Draper is the world's classiest sleazebag, but no. Instead, he befriends a drunken sailor and ends up being the best man at the sailor's beachside wedding, all while staring off into the distance and looking crazy thoughtful because that's how Jon Hamm rolls. Draper, a man whose very existence is an elaborate sales job, has an epiphany on that beach about the hotel he's staying in. When he meets with the client back in New York, he explains that you become a different person when you stay at the Royal Hawaiian. You enter a different state of consciousness, and you don't miss what you left behind. You're not you anymore. You disappear. That's all pretty solid thinking. I know most advertising is terrible, but that doesn't mean someone out there didn't put some insight into it.
And then Don shows them the ad, and it sucks.
He shows them just one measly print ad with a dude's footprints on a beach and a headline that says, "Hawaii. The jumping off point."
Granted, it's not a finished ad. Advertising people love to hold "tissue" sessions with clients, where they present skeletal ideas to the client as a way of essentially stalling... to buy more time to prepare actual WORK. But despite that pre-condition, it's still underwhelming. The client isn't thrilled with it, and why would they be? Don Draper had a cool insight about their hotel and then gave them barely anything. The visual is cliched. The headline's clumsy. Is it a headline? Is it a tagline? The fuck is it? What's the next ad?
I worked in advertising for ten years and the fun of watching Mad Men is seeing all the ways in which the series rings true for anyone who's ever been in the field: the eye-rolling from creatives when their first round of ideas are rejected, the frustration Kinsey expresses when he forgets a brilliant idea in a drunken haze and can't will it back into his skull, the moron clients who take EVERYTHING literally, and the breathtaking insecurity that overshadows the entire advertising industry—the sense that, deep inside, these people know that nothing they're doing matters. All of that is there.
And in the character of Don Draper, the series accurately portrays a very specific kind of creative director that advertising professionals are painfully familiar with: hard to pin down, difficult to please, rarely effusive with praise. Don acts like a lot of creative geniuses. And he has insights into the human condition similar to those of a lot of creative geniuses. But is his WORK genius? I went through some of his portfolio in attempt to figure it out.
One of the problems with accurately gauging Draper's talents—apart from the fact that this is a TV show we're talking about and NONE OF THIS IS REAL—is that you have to grade his work relative to its era. I know advertising sucks, but I assure it sucks far less NOW than it did 50 years ago. It wouldn't have been realistic on the show's part for Draper to be coming up with Apple's "1984" or anything crazy like that.
Still, even in 1967, it's pretty lame to show up to a secret meeting with Heinz ketchup and show them three ads that all have the same line: PASS THE HEINZ.
(In fact, the idea of not showing the product in the ad at all was the exact same idea Don had a week earlier with Royal Hawaiian... ZOMG HE'S TRYING TO ERASE HIS OWN LIFE.)
Draper had Rizzo (who is awesome) turn around the presentation boards to show three different food items in need of ketchup, with that line over them. A week before, Peggy shat on her underlings for giving her uninspired work by telling them that it was the same idea, just different executions. This happens a lot in advertising because it's remarkably difficult to create little spinoff ads that don't feel repetitive. Yet there was Draper trying to sell Heinz three of the same thing.
And that's one of the few times Don Draper bothered to show a client more than one ad. Most of the time, Draper shows a client one ad with one headline and when they bitch about the ad, he acts as if they just rejected Shakespeare. DO YOU PEOPLE NOT RECOGNIZE GENIUS WHEN YOU SEE IT?! For Belle Joile lipstick, he offers only one line ("Mark Your Man").
For Bethlehem Steel, he offers one extremely basic headline formula ("New York, brought to you by Bethlehem Steel Company").
He gets the Jaguar business based on one headline from Ginsberg ("At last, something beautiful you can truly own"), and the headline isn't even that good. He gets headlines and taglines confused. The THOUGHTS behind the ads are interesting. Draper's always really good at telling you WHY he dreamt up that shitty ad. But the ad itself is usually lifeless.
A lot of agencies may present just one idea in a new business pitch, but sometimes they try two or more. And if they're working on a regular account, they usually give the client options. Don Draper NEVER gives his clients options. Even when he's working with an existing client, he always gives them just one idea, sometimes even one ad. He's selling the certainty of vision. He's telling the client there's no other possible solution, which makes him an arrogant fucker, especially when he's offering incomplete ideas. Sometimes he makes the ad and runs it without even telling anyone, as he did with his "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco" letter. That was his finest ad, and it makes perfect sense that it wasn't presented as an ad at all, and that it was selling Don Draper's integrity.
When an ad agency pitches a new business, an "idea" usually means a full campaign. There's a tagline. There's a series of headlines to go with it. Maybe a TV ad. All of it fits under a single thought, often expressed in the tagline (Example: "Michelin, because so much is riding on your tires"). All of it is of a unified design. A good campaign idea produces ads that are of a whole but can also stand on their own. Each ad is its own little interesting spin on the main idea (for one of the great historic examples of this, check out Altoids). They're fleshed out. That's a big term people use in advertising. Everything should be "fleshed out."
Don Draper rarely, if ever, presents fully fleshed out ideas. He pours a drink, gives a cool speech, and then turns over one rinky-dink ad. No wonder clients are never blown away. Even his big presentation to Hilton, in which he posits that "Hilton" is the same is any language, shows off a bunch of variations of the same execution. How do you say ice water in Italian? Hilton. How do you say fresh towels in Farsi? Hilton. How do you say hamburger in Japanese? Hilton. Yes yes, we get it. Hilton's the answer to everything. WE WANT THE MOON, DON, YOU PIG.
But "Mad Men" wouldn't be a successful show if you thought that Don was a fucking hack every time you watched. What Draper excels at is selling the idea of his genius, of charming you into seeing more in a shitty lipstick ad than you thought was there, or getting you to cry when he christens a wheel of photo slides a "carousel."
Given how carefully made "Mad Men" is, it was probably a deliberate ploy by Matthew Weiner to make Don Draper a professional fraud—someone who has the building blocks of brilliant ideas but not the resolve to make anything useful out of them ("You only like the beginnings of things"). He takes you out for a nice dinner and fingerbangs your wife and gets you to see what he wants you to see. And it's only after that little bit of song-and-dance do many clients realize that they've been given something incomplete... that they've been tricked into wanting something they didn't really want... that it was all so hollow.
If Don Draper were a better man, a whole man, he would probably be a true genius. He would come up with the idea AND blow it out into real advertising, the way a great adman would. He wouldn't have to sell you his bullshit. But he rarely, if ever does that. In the end he's a man whose life, and whose talents, are destined to remain incomplete. Don Draper is only good at advertising when the product he's selling is Don Draper.