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I am sure you have heard about or watched the AMC show Mad Men. The show is set in the 1960s – it is about the lives of executives of a fictional Ad Agency called Sterling Cooper. The show has won numerous accolades for the cast and also depicting historical accuracies. For many who were not in the US during the 60s – this show is a great refresher. (I learned a lot about the 60s just by watching the show).

The show just concluded its final season a few months back. I have learned a great deal about Sales, Advertising, Career, Leadership,etc. from the show, and I want to share some of the key lessons in this post.

1. Every Master Was Once a Disaster 

Don Draper is definitely a genius Ad-man, and that is evident from his Lucky Strike Pitch from the very first episode. There are numerous pitches in the show where Don Draper just wows everybody with his expertise – 1. The Lucky Strike Pitch 2. The Carousel Pitch 3. The Lipstick Pitch

Absolute genius!! You would think.

But Don Draper did not start that way. Throughout the show, they show us Don’s history about his upbringing, his life in the military, his experience selling cars, and then selling fur coats – all the way to how he got his job at Sterling Cooper. He definitely did not start out as an expert or genius.

Pete Campbell is another great example of the show. In the first episode, I am sure you got the feeling that he was a self-absorbed prick who wasn’t as good as the projected himself to be. But fast-forward 7 seasons (10 years in the show) – he is an expert Account Manager in the Advertising world. He wins the coveted job as an Executive at Lear Jet, a job that gives him the opportunity to travel everywhere in a private jet, with all the prestige & money that comes with it.

And not to forget Peggy Olson – starting off as a secretary, then becoming the first woman copywriter at Sterling Cooper – to become a Creative Director (a fearless one) as the show progresses.

Too many times, we look at someone else’s success and we become envious. Worse we doubt ourselves ” I don’t think I can reach that position” “How can I become as good as that guy?” ” I am not sure if I have the stuff to be an executive”.

Every Master was once a disaster. Everyone started out as a beginner. Everyone started out at the bottom. There is no such thing as a born-leader or a born-salesman. Everyone is born a baby!! And we learn things as we progress through our careers and life.

Just give yourself time, with the effort & with the proper attitude you too can become a Master.

2. Never be Afraid to Be a Beginner Again

A Manager Training an Employee

Businesspeople planning on a glass wall

In the show, there are many events where Don Draper is forced to start all over again – a new job, a new company, a new marriage, a new city, etc. And every time he would do just that and eventually come out on top.

My favorite episode from Mad Men is Episode 13, Season 3 “Shut the Door and Have a Seat”. Everyone including Don is faced with a choice – either get purchased by a huge company (McCann in this case) & become another cog in the wheel OR quit now & strike out on your own. Well, they made it to Season 7 with that single decision.

If you are a career guy/gal, then you are definitely interested in maximizing your career opportunities, getting promoted, making more money, moving up the corporate ladder. Right?

In that case, be ready to embrace change. There will be times when you will have to adapt to new situations – a new job, a new team, a new boss, a new role. Every time you move up or are moving forward – you are starting off as a beginner. Don’t complain about this. Just embrace it and take maximum advantage of the opportunities that come your way.

3. Ask Boldly

I am sure you have heard this phrase over and over again “Ask and You Shall Receive”. Mad Men takes it a step further by implying “Ask Boldly and you can get anything you want”.

In Season 3, Peggy Olson, in her early days as a Copywriter was given a room which she had to share with a noisy Xerox machine. Peggy realizes something needs to be changed. So she goes to the big boss Roger Sterling and asks for a new office. Peggy had to sum up all her nerves to talk to Roger, and get herself a new office- and with the proper persuasion, she does. Roger gives her what she wants and he is thoroughly impressed.

In Season 5 of MAD MEN, Don & Roger approach Dow Chemical (a massive advertising prospect at that time) for their business. The client is initially very hesitant, Don very boldly lays out all the merits of using their agency. And we can see that over the later season’s Dow Chemical becomes a client. That all started with Don asking the client for their business and asking it boldly.

You may not be happy with our current situation. But that does not mean that you need to be contempt with that situation. If you want something changed, the responsibility is yours. It is up to you. Stop whining and do something about it.

A job offer, a raise, increased salary, new responsibilities, a new client, a promotion – everything is within reach (although not easy) and it is possible. You must ask boldly.

4. Your Reputation Matters

In Season 4, the newly formed Ad agency SCDP is a startup surviving in a hyper-competitive advertising world, and they are in serious trouble. One of their key account Lucky Strike calls it quits – they no longer want to do business with them. S*** hits the fan, and everything is in chaos- soon they are losing more clients, losing revenue, and have to eventually downsize. The future of the company is at stake.

Social Proof, Star Power, Subject Matter Expertise, Personal Branding – you can call it different names – it all boils down to this – Your Reputation Matters.

And in this modern hyper-connected world – it matters even more than before. People can quickly assess your knowledge, your expertise, and how good you really are within minutes (without even meeting you). And the better your reputation (in what you do) the more sought out you will be.

Whether you are a company or an individual, your reputation matters. And word always gets around. So guard your reputation like a sacred thing. If you are a good marketer strive to be a great one; If you are a great salesperson strive to be a master. The more valuable you become – the better job offers you will receive, the better opportunities start knocking on your door and of-course more money you will make.

Eventually, in Season 4of MAD MEN, SCDP does get good news. They have weathered the storm and eventually win a key car account Jaguar. And there fortunes also change with that win. We watch in the following seasons that they become a respected agency – winning more business, more reputation, etc. And the career(s) of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, and Pete Campbell also soars.

5. Become Indispensable

Let’s face the truth – we know that most of us are Expendable or Replaceable. If there is something I have learned from the recent recession – nobody is immune to being sacked or being downsized. It happens to everyone from a store clerk to the CEO. But can you insure against that? Can you make yourself Employable for Life?

Of course!!

In season 3, Sterling Cooper has been acquired. One of my favorite scenes is where the new owners of the company are suggesting a change in Leadership and Company Culture. The previous owners Bert, Roger, and especially Don are not happy with the change.

Don makes a stand. He makes it clear that he does not want to be part of such changes. And he makes his point. As a result, you notice that the new owners do not completely move ahead with their proposed changes.

Again in Season 7 when Don Draper is on the verge of being fired from his own company – Roger defends him by saying that Don can easily walk down the street and with his skills and reputation – work with another agency and win all their clients. Even though Don’s position was weak- he still carried more power because of his skills, expertise, client relationships, etc.

No matter what you do make yourself Indispensable. The more indispensable you are – the more options you have within your job, of-course the more money you make, the better negotiation power you have.

You don’t need to play mind-tricks or manipulate others- If all you do just becomes the best you can be, the harder it will be to replace you. Become irreplaceable, become indispensable and you will have a more secure & stronger career.

What are some of the lessons you learned from MAD MEN?

Written By
Nissar Ahamed is the Founder & CEO of CareerMetis.com. He is also the host of The Career Insider Podcast and the co-host of The C.A.R.E. Podcast

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