Business Lessons in Mad Men

June 24, 2013

Last night’s season finale of Mad Men was, by my estimation, a season redeemer. Spoiler alert…stop reading if you have yet to see it. The much discussed poster for Season 6 showing two Don Drapers seemed to be an obvious metaphor for the conflict Don had reconciling his true self and the self he had to sell to the world of advertising in exchange for success. Don cultivated a persona in the same way that he helped clients sell product. Much of this show is about Don’s struggle to come to terms with and understand who he is without compromising the good thing he has going with the ad agency. Therein lies the business lesson or, maybe more of a quandary. Is it possible to always be truthful and “moral” without compromising profitability in business? Don came clean last night and lost his job at SC&P.

Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) – Mad Men_Season 6, Episode 2_”The Doorway” – Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

To say that all companies operate amorally and only in strict adherence to the bottom line is intellectually lazy. It is possible to create a business plan aimed at turning a profit whose mission is to do good. This year at Big Omaha, Cindy Gallop of http://makelovenotporn.com/ is working on debunking damaging conventions and backward attitudes toward sex through her business and I believe her efforts will disrupt a billion dollar industry by changing the national conversation regarding sex. Other speakers challenged Google on their “do no harm” statement saying that was too low a bar and that businesses should strive to actually have a positive impact on business.

Back to Mad Men. One of the most powerful images in this dark series comes at the very end of the episode when Don takes his three kids out to see the remnants of the run-down brothel where he was raised as an orphan. The sun is shining and he exchanges looks with his oldest daughter, one of the most painfully disillusioned females in Don’s life. There is something cleansing and pure despite the crumbling Pennsylvania inner-city backdrop. Don is starting over and next year will be the final season of this culturally significant series. We know that advertising evolves into a numbers game of demographics, focus groups and analytics. We know that consumers have become more knowledgeable, with greater access to consumer reviews and information as well as more choices from which to buy. Buying itself is now something you can do in your pajamas while the coffee brews. The big question then is this; will consumers demand high ethical standards from the brands they love? At the end of the day, can companies really be compelled to act in a greater public interest if they can still sell their product regardless?