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

Don and his muse

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


9 Responses to “Fantasy & Foreshadowing: Creative director risks all to turn lost account into found business as well as changing the conversation about his agency.”

  1. ECD said

    Great. And spot on. Draper had a great line to Peggy in one of the early episodes:

    “Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You- FEELING something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it.”

    It’s true. I gasped when I heard that, because I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it yet there it was. My entire career has been filled with some people wishing and praying to get rid of the bratty creative department altogether. Oh, they would love it. Because that department is such a pain in the ass. Because they can be as much a liability as they can be breadwinners. People spend hours, years, even careers trying to decipher the ‘formula’ of creativity so they can do so. It’s laughable how many blogs and twitterers are utterly obsessed with it. You’ll even find weaker creative directors who undermine their own department and roles, hoping to at least stand out that way.

    But that’s the thing – if you pare everyone else away, you’re left with the person who has the idea and can make it. The person who has the insight and spark, and can communicate it in an unexpected way. Yes, many roles are amazing in their own regard, but creative is at the heart of this business. The moment you think you’ve perfected a formula, that you’ve gotten it down to a science, something amazing and creative and ‘wrong’ will smack you and the industry and marketing in the head.

    Because that’s what it’s supposed to do. Every day.

  2. tracy said

    ECD, I was just remembering that episode as I read this. I was watching it with our CD who just seized on “they can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it.”

  3. tracy said

    I am constantly reminded of the old “cutting off your nose to spite your face” expression.

    Daily, we interact with clients and others — in publishing a local magazine, especially — who undermine their own efforts out of some sort of personal pride. Even when you allow them “outs” and ways to believe an idea is their own (sadly, a method I learned growing up with horses and dogs).

    With some small amount of humility — even if not directly acknowledged — so much could be accomplished. There are those who would just rather have the ground sink beneath them or let an opportunity pass by.

  4. SRP said

    Look what my colleague, Will Payovich found: 1965 ad by Emerson Foote condemning cigarette advertising.

  5. […] Postaer and his contributors sum up the episode insightfully on his Gods of Advertising blog. Check out Jon Steinberg’s post too plus loads of comment and geeky analysis over at the […]

  6. […] SCDP loses their biggest account, Lucky Strike cigarettes, and everything starts to fall apart. So Don Draper, in all his sneaky, arrogant brilliance, takes out a full-page ad in the New York Times to explain why he’s glad he doesn’t advertise for tobacco anymore. You can read the letter here. […]

  7. […] Recently, I was watching reruns of AMC’s incredible drama “Mad Men,” which for those of you who do not know, is about 1960′s Madison Avenue advertising executives. In this particular episode, protagonist Don Draper’s firm has suffered a $7M falling-out with Lucky Strike cigarettes, which causes many of their clients to flee in fear of collapse. True to his motto (“If you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation”), Draper writes a scathing letter to the New York Times, explaining why he is done with tobacco, and how his firm will no longer accept any related business (for a full summary of the situation and a transcription of the letter, visit Gods of Advertising). […]

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