Risk Taking in Business – Mad Men Style

June 3, 2013
scene from Mad men

Last night’s Mad Men episode juxtaposed nicely the surreal, drug addled psyche of Don Draper in the context of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, another “am I really seeing this happen?” moment that actually happened. This was a heady head trip of an episode. However, through the hashish haze a business lesson yet emerges; Take Risks. There are a few examples here that show the characters of SCDP (soon to be Sterling Cooper & Partners or SC&P – are they figuratively preparing us for the killing off of Don?) taking calculated risks to develop business.

Joan pulls a fast one on Peggy to help her land the Avon account, business that Pete Campbell had been unsuccessfully trying to acquire. This is a move that could almost certainly cost Joan her job unless she actually takes Avon beyond a positive meeting and into an active account. I’ve rooted for Joan since early on in the show. She represents a high caliber employee hitting her head on the sixties glass ceiling while lesser men rise in the ranks. Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler are also taking risks in assigning accounts that could split the firm and weaken their pre-merger rival, Don. Big payoffs, big drawbacks…Don can usually small an ambush.

The decision to take risks can have payoffs beyond financial ones as demonstrated by fellow heartland entrepreneur turned angel investor Karen Linder in this morning’s Omaha World Herald column by Erin Grace – Read More.
It can also come with drawbacks if timed poorly. I wrote last week about the perils of innovation when execution suffers as a result of disproportionate focus on creating. Risk in business should be calculated to mitigate as many debilitating factors as possible. Linder took extraordinary risk but she involved herself in a business in which she was a subject matter expert. She did not get into investing in small upstarts who would not otherwise get funding through traditional means until she had the experience starting, growing and selling her own business.

Mad Men characters take as many horrible risks as they do calculated ones. The big question hanging over this series is whether or not Don, Roger and the old guard can adapt and change while the nation’s culture seismically shifts. Good Ad Men can’t simply react to the changes. And today it is not enough to simply anticipate the changes. Product marketing and sales need to cause the changes in society to earn the high praise of innovation. Risk is at the core of this change.