Mad Men Lessons: Know Who You Are

April 8, 2013

Last night AMC fired off the opening salvo in the sixth season of Mad Men. The episode begins with Don Draper and his second wife Megan returning from an apparently transformational trip to Hawaii. I began thinking, as many viewers do, that at some point Don Draper will have that moment of clarity or some kind of moral epiphany. We’ve seen what could be considered multiple “rock bottoms” from Draper so the cleansing time spent in Hawaii (a trip subsidized by a client with commercial property on the Big Island) might be just the thing to clear his Scotch-filled head and put some distance between Manhattan and all of his transgressions. As we found out, this would not be the case. Draper, pure to form, is still having trouble adhering to marital vows and possibly might be losing his Midas touch creating winning ads for his clients.

The episode was not one of my favorites but does reintroduce an important theme. Know who you are. As disciples of Mad Men know, Don has always had an identity crisis. In fact, he had to create a new identity in order to escape the life and history from which he came. We know that the you cannot escape your past and this has been an interesting subtext for the show, providing lots of plot possibilities and Freudian explanations for Don’s erratic behavior. In business, it is important that you have a cultural identity as well as a clearly stated mission. It is hard to find businesses today that do not state and form policies around a specific vision. You need a road map and a way to gauge your success as a company beyond the simple measure of profitability to your budget goals. Typically a company will have a set of clearly stated “core values” that reinforce the culture and drive the mission.

Volano’s core values are simple. Learn. Complete your work. Take Pride in your work. Adapt. Have fun. These values are prominently displayed in our office and remind us of what it is we are here to do, which ultimately creates a more meaningful client relationship.

Back to Draper. Don seems to do his best work when he abandons the struggle for identity and focuses on his work. This may be counterintuitive to leading anything resembling a healthy life, but then again, we don’t tune into Mad Men in the hopes that Draper finds religion, starts watching his carb intake and takes his kids to Baby Maestro for some wholesome fun. Draper freezes in this search for identity. But he knows what his business is. Don Draper understands us and his target demographics better than he understands himself and in that weird contradiction, he knows his business. Draper is in the business of playing off of our emotional hang-ups to stuff. He knows that successful ads manipulate our emotions. Remember the Kodak Carousel scene? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suRDUFpsHus)

In business, you have to understand who your client is, what they want and how to create the product for them that they require, whether it’s advertising or software. This requires that you know who you are, your corporate identity. That is your compass. It has yet to be seen whether Don Draper will find his. Hopefully not.

Who am I?
Who am I?