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Three Things Mad Men Can Teach Your Startup

As the sixth season of one of my favorite shows came to a close last weekend, I realized you can actually extract a few important lessons out of the drama of one of television's best shows. And, since we watched the fictitious Sterling Cooper advertising agency grow from a small, boutique firm to a top 30 Madison Avenue agency this season, I thought I would make a few observations about what Mad Men can teach startups.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em: In one pivotal episode this season, several different ad agencies were called to Detroit to compete for business on a new, top-secret new Chevrolet vehicle. In one of the best scenes of the season, the two creative leaders of two different agencies, Don Draper from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Ted Chaough from Cutler, Gleason and Chaough are having one last drink in the bar before giving their final presentations the next morning. In the course of the conversation, it becomes clear that Chevy is only interested in stealing the ideas from their smaller agencies and then giving the real contract to the more traditional, larger firms.

So, the two propose a plan – by joining forces the two agencies will pitch one idea together. They think they think this will give them a better chance of winning the business from the Cadillac of advertisers, General Motors. Their plan works, they get the deal with Chevrolet and the trajectories of their companies are changed forever. "They wanted our ideas and a big agency, so we gave them both," Ted says when informing his staff of the big news.

Sometimes there is strength in numbers. Sometimes it makes sense to combine the talents of one or more startups to increase your chances of success. And with failure rates for startups extremely high, each startup should always be asking themselves if they should join forces to increase their chances of winning that game-changing deal.

Open and Closed Doors: This season there seemed to be a lot of doorslamming. And, the slamming of the doors always seemed to involve management. While many of the meetings occurring behind closed doors should clearly have been done in private, it directly contrasts with the way the creatives in the agency work. Criticism should be delivered in private and some decisions must be made in small groups, but many times the most productive creativity requires groups of people bouncing ideas off each other.

When we see the creative team at work, they are always sitting around a table in a common space throwing out ideas, playing word association games and sampling the products they are working to advertise. Sometimes the best ideas are not hatched by a single person working in a room by himself, but by a group of people all contributing to the creative process. So, open those doors. Engage with your team and watch the good ideas flow.

Mad Men 2Borrowing Creative: In several episodes this season, viewers got small glimpses of the creative process in the 1960s advertising world. In one show, one of the protégés of the two creative directors, Peggy Olson, borrows a tactic from her mentor Don and writes a fictitious letter to the client. The hope is that by doing something related to, but different from, focusing on creating the next great advertising slogan, it will stir the creative juices and hopefully inspire greatness.

So, next time you get stuck on a problem that requires a creative solution, ask a co-worker or a mentor if they use any specific tricks or tactics to generate their big ideas. No matter how crazy they might sound, borrowing a creative strategy for your own startup just might yield the breakthrough you've been seeking. It's all about finding what works best for you.

So, if you were looking for business advice from a fictitious Madison Avenue advertising agency in the late 1960s, you certainly came to the right place.


Photo 1: Don Draper (Jon Ham), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) and Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) head into their pitch meeting with Chevy in Episode 6. Photo credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Photo 2: Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) tell Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) they have merged their agencies in Episode 6. Photo credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

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