Fantasy & Foreshadowing: Creative director risks all to turn lost account into found business as well as changing the conversation about his agency.
October 13, 2010
The latest episode of Mad Men (Blowing Smoke) had Don Draper taking drastic measures to try and stir up new business. Having lost half their billings with the unfair departure of Lucky Strike cigarettes, Don decides to compose a full-page ad in the New York Times denouncing the cigarette industry and declaring his agency tobacco free from here on in. He cleverly titled it “Why I’m quitting tobacco.”
Was this a noble position against a proven killer? Perhaps, but it’s not why Don wrote the letter. As he freely admitted to his mostly shocked and pissed off agency, he created the provocative ad to provoke new business. Yes, they would be smiting a golden goose but, as Don saw it, the agency “had to do something.” Disowning Big Tobacco gave the agency sudden buzz whereas previously they appeared to be sinking.
Don’s action comprises everything I enjoy about his enigmatic character, not to mention the show. Like a lot of you, my praise of Mad Men runs deep and in many directions but let’s stick with its canny depiction of the advertising business and Don’s vainglorious letter to the Times.
I love –I mean LOVE- that he took this action. The fact that he did so without consulting his partners makes it even more delicious. Of course he knew they would never support his kamikaze tactic. What rational ad executive would? After all, the agency is loaded with tobacco experience. “Quitting cigarettes” totally dumps on all of it.
But he does so anyway.
His intuition told him the agency needed a miracle. And everybody knows where those come from: the creative department and Don Draper. It is a stunning play call, turning a dire situation into, well, something else. But at least no one is talking about lost accounts anymore.
Underlying Don’s letter/ad is also the element of revenge. As his secretary points out, he’s getting back at the one who dumped him. Don’s defects of character are what make him such a compelling anti-hero. When his letter triggers mass layoffs (including a woman he really likes), his reaction is priceless: he hadn’t thought of that. He’s sorry but it does not change the way he feels about what he’s done. Instead of pissing and moaning like everyone else at the agency, at least he “did something.” Don is dirty Harry with a typewriter.
Matthew Weiner’s advisers are doing a brilliant job. The knowledge about our business isn’t more or less correct; it’s spot on. Prescient even. Consider again, Don’s letter to the Times. Public relations have become a huge component and sometimes competitor of advertising. In my opinion, Don’s letter/ad is as brilliant a PR stunt as Crispin Porter’s much-ballyhooed Whopper Sacrifice campaign. It is also the ultimate new business tactic, a shot in the dark only the bravest of agencies would ever take, like CP&B, for example. Not even Don’s own agency would’ve condoned it. Which is why he acts alone.
We will have to wait and see if the scheme works, maybe even as long as next season. Something tells me the risk will pay off for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And pay off big.
Even if it doesn’t (it will) the “Blowing Smoke” episode still made me giddy. That’s because I’m a creative. And creativity is about risk and reward. It is intuitive. It is inspired. It is the result of one lonely man using his creative chops to save everyone’s ass.
What’s your fantasy?
Here’s the full text of Don Draper’s open letter to the New York Times featured in the Mad Men” episode “Blowing Smoke”:
Why I’m Quitting Tobacco. Recently, my advertising agency ended a long relationship with Lucky Strike Cigarettes – and I’m relieved. For over 25 years, we devoted ourselves to peddling a product for which good work is irrelevant – because people can’t stop themselves from buying it. A product that never improves, causes illness and makes people unhappy. But there was money in it, a lot of money. In fact, our entire business depended on it. We knew it wasn’t good for us, but we couldn’t stop. And then, when Lucky Strike moved their business elsewhere, I realized here was my chance to be someone who could sleep at night – because I know what I’m selling doesn’t kill my customers. So as of today, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will no longer take tobacco accounts. We know it’s going to be hard. If you’re interested in cigarette work, here’s a list of agencies that do it well: BVDO, Leo Burnett, McCann Erickson, Cutler Gleason and Chaough and Benton & Bowles. As for us, we welcome all other business because we’re certain that our best work is still ahead of us.
Donald F. Draper
Creative Director, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce