If you’re unfamiliar, Don Draper is the closest thing to a superhero we marketers have.
He is the creative director of Sterling Cooper, a fictional advertising agency in the series Mad Men, a show based on the New York Madison Avenue advertising scene in the 1960s, (AKA the era where a man was more likely to land on the moon than talk about his feelings.)
Suave, daring, and debonair, Draper is known for his intensely captivating marketing pitches.
He’s creative, intelligent, and eternally intriguing – the absolute personification of an advertising genius.
And believe me when I tell you: there’s not a single marketing professional that doesn’t want to be him.
Unfortunately, there’s not much most of us can do to become Don Draper this late in life.
Devastating good looks, inherent charm, and raw talent just aren’t something you can teach.
But what we can do is break down what makes him so damn good at what he does.
So, today, let’s take a look at Don Draper’s unique approach to marketing so that we, too, can recreate his signature magic in our pitches.
The Human Condition
Like many flawed heroes, there’s a long list of things that are wrong with Don Draper.
But no one can contest that he has the most profound understanding of the human condition. And boy does he make use of it.
The character spends the majority of his life running from and ruthlessly suppressing every emotion that dares claw its way to the surface.
But, rather ironically, it’s this constant internal struggle and chaotic vulnerability that gives Don Draper the ability to tap into the emotions of the masses.
You see, a large part of consumerism is this endless need to seek external validation from material things. It helps us do exactly what Draper does with booze and women – run away from our problems.
“Happiness”, as he says, “is the smell of a new car”.
Draper understands that within all of us, there is a compulsive and eternal quest for happiness, one that is too powerful, even for the cynics who are aware of it, to overcome.
And it is this perpetual pursuit of fleeting joy that motivates us to grasp at anything that provides an escape.
Anything to help us cope – to ignore our pain just that little bit longer; to fear our future for that one moment less.
Don Draper doesn’t just understand this concept. He lives it every day.
And because he too, succumbs to its overwhelming power, he knows how to use it against us.
“You Feeling Something, That’s What Sells”
It wouldn’t be a proper Don Draper analysis piece if we didn’t study the most infamous example of Draper’s genius at work: the Kodak pitch.
Tasked with marketing Kodak’s newest “Wheel” slide projector, Draper’s powerful speech rebranding the product as the “Carousel”, is quite literally one for the ages. Universities around the world still teach it to their students today.
Contrived in its conception, the pitch focuses entirely on the exploitation of the fundamental components of the human experience.
It capitalizes on our need for love, affection, and intimacy as a means for creating a strong personal connection between the consumer and the product.
“Nostalgia….” he says. “It’s delicate but potent”.
The photos he shows in the pitch are of him and his own family, but the intense feeling of yearning he creates is universal.
Whether you’re the Kodak execs, Harry Crane, or a random viewer of the show like we are, it’s the faces of your loved ones that you see in the images. And the empath within you instantly begins to ache.
By looking within himself and exploiting his own vulnerability, Don Draper preys on yours.
And that’s the number one thing we, as marketers, need to remember: we are all human. And we are selling to humans.
We are both the product and the consumer. And we’d be fools to forget that for a single second.
Draper is no transcendent exception. Despite engineering the entire pitch himself, the speech works on him too, sending him home to wallow in his melancholy.
As Brandon Nowalk from AV Club puts it: “He’s both mastermind and mark, artist and salesman, conscious and unconscious. He can manipulate the market, but ultimately he’s just another green void within it.”
Only when we are courageous enough to embrace our inherent humanness and strip down to our most honest, vulnerable selves, can we create a pitch that forges a meaningful connection with our audience; one that speaks to their very soul in a way that nothing else has.
“Stop Writing for Other Writers”
Often, true power lies in simplicity.
“Make it simple, but significant”, Don Draper says.
As a writer, I tend to get caught up in lexical labyrinths, trying to find the most poetic or poignant way to phrase things.
And much like Kinsey in the clip below, I’ve learned the hard way that trying too hard to be smart or witty can suck the magic right out of your words.
From a starting point of labored puns about Native Americans, Draper manages to guide the above Mohawk Airlines pitch towards a far simpler, but far more significant “What did you bring me, Daddy?”
It’s astonishing how this elementary phrase is able to achieve so many levels of depth and meaning without so much as a single pretentious adjective, and without ever directly selling any feature of the airline itself to the audience.
This pitch is the perfect example of how language must be written in a way that speaks not to other writers, but to fellow consumers; or rather, fellow humans.
The way in which this simple phrase effortlessly achieves Draper’s signature emotional approach is nothing short of a masterpiece.
So marketers, listen up: when the going gets tough and you’re stuck in a rut, go back to the drawing board.
Start your process over and answer two questions, and two questions only.
What message are you trying to send, and how would you communicate it to a friend?
And just like that, more often than not, you’ll find that your pitch becomes infinitely more compelling.
“Success Comes From Standing Out, Not Fitting In”
Finally, in the spirit of keeping things simple: be bold.
Thanks to the existence of comprehensive analytics that cover every aspect of our marketing campaigns, now more than ever, we need to rediscover the importance of courage and creativity.
Boards and suits love predictable ROIs, and hate risk.
So, a lot of times, they’ll want you to tone down your ideas and dumb down your pitches (see the Life Cereal pitch below) in order to go with something safe.
That way, they can save money and reliably project revenues.
But if you aspire to achieve true Draperhood, know that it is your audacity to do what others dare not do that will allow you to achieve great things.
No matter who you’re pitching to, or what the product is, never let yourself slip into a purely clinical or analytical approach to marketing.
Sure, take calculated risks, but don’t let the numbers stifle your inspiration.
That’s not what (sober) Don Draper would do.
To create that coveted Draper magic, it seems that the formula is simple:
- Dig deep within yourself and uncover what moves you
- Use simple words and images to explain how you feel
- Be bold enough to “eat Life by the bowlful.”
And there you have it – a crash course in achieving a Don Draper marketing pitch.
It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to have to do a lot of introspection, find your weaknesses, and turn them into relatable works of art.
But once you grasp it, you’ll be unstoppable.
(PS: Bonus clip below. This one’s a joke but tell me Don Draper didn’t make you want to buy that suspended hula hoop!!!)