Would Don Draper Be Relevant Today?

Don Draper and his ex, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair.

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.

Don Draper as technology entrepreneur.

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 the Mad Men characters would be doing today?

This article originally appeared in MediaPost.

  • http://audaciousgroup.com Mark Wills

    Matt – This is a great piece.

    Today’s communications business requires the same enduring skills that Draper perfectly personified back in those halcyon days.

    We’re storytellers and we tell our stories in order to sell. This means earning our consumers’ attention with insightful and emotionally compelling narrative, which captures their hearts and minds.

    And, lest we forget, the mysterious and wonderful creative process is a means to an end, not the end in itself. The end is – and always will be – selling. We sell. We sell ideas and concepts, which in turn sell the products and services we’re representing.

    Love him or loath him, Don Draper is the consummate salesman. This was at the heart of it then and remains at the heart of it today. Pure advertising men are dead. Long live the skills of advertising men.

    • http://www.the-makegood.com Matt Straz

      Thanks, Mark. Ogilvy himself would be proud of your comment about selling. I often wonder what he would make of the new technology platforms like Google and Facebook in terms of advertising.