I know it seems like a stretch to compare a show that highlights the advertising industry in the 1960s with the innovative world of startups, but when you look past the smoke, misogyny, and general tomfoolery, Mad Men can teach us a lot about startups and entrepreneurship.
In honor of one of the greatest shows in television history, here are some startup life lessons from the team at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
You have to ask for what you want.
No one is just going to give you what you want, you have to ask for it and work your tail off to achieve it. Peggy Olson learned quickly that anything she wanted at Sterling Cooper, she had to ask for it. From her own office to a raise, she asked for just about everything. Sometimes the answer was “no” and sometimes it was “not right now”, but she still had to ask. Know your worth (or your company’s worth), prove yourself, be assertive and ask for what you want. You know who never asked for anything? Harry Crane, and he silenced himself out of a major exit and a bunch of money.
Learn the art of storytelling.
There’s a good pitch, and there’s a Don Draper pitch. No one could pitch like Don — except, arguably, Peggy, and what they did in every amazing pitch was tell a story. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling (remember the Heinz baked beans pitch?), do it with everything you have. And practice, practice, and practice some more. The best storytellers rehearse and the killer creative team at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are no exception.
Peggy Olson played an instrumental role in the transformation of the agency when she started writing copy in season one. It seems foolish today to think that an agency would try to sell products to women without even consulting one, and yet this happens all of the time. Jessica Alba, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of The Honest Company shared the story of the early days in her company during a keynote at SXSWi. In the discussion, she highlighted the doors that were shut in her face because the group of all male investors just “didn’t get it”. It wasn’t until their wives became pregnant that they understood the value of a company like hers. Unfortunately stories like this happen all the time, but folks are steadily catching on that including women on your team is a solid business move.
Be so good they can’t ignore you.
At the end of the first part of season 7 (thanks in part to some creative problem solving courtesy of Roger Sterling and the stellar reputation of the agency’s creative team) Sterling Cooper was primed for acquisition by advertising giant McCann Erickson. When the guys back at Sterling Cooper asked Roger why McCann would want to acquire them, Roger says “because we became so much of a threat they wanted to neutralize it with cash”. And that was a great place to be considering another deal was on the table that could end the agency entirely.
Always be innovating.
Don’t rest on your laurels. Sterling Cooper’s bread and butter was Lucky Strike cigarettes but as the tobacco industry started to decline rapidly, they had to change their game. The agency has been reluctant to embrace technology and time will tell how that affects the fictional advertising agency in Mad Men. But from a historical perspective, we already know what happened to advertising and media industry giants when they failed to innovate (just ask anyone, including this girl, who was looking for a job in advertising circa 2009).