Lessons in work and life from AMC’s Mad Men


Let me be clear from the beginning, I love the AMC television series Mad Men. For me, it’s constantly battling for pole position alongside other TV masterpieces like HBO’s The Wire and The Sopranos – and more often than not taking the top spot. Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, intentionally decided to craft a series that departed from the breathless storytelling style that a network stablemate like Breaking Bad would come to typify. Mad Men does move very slowly, which for some is tedious, but this pace also gives the viewer a chance to ruminate on some of the finer details and undercurrents going on in the background of the overall plot. A certain look, a curious line of dialogue, a perfectly composed shot that says more than any well-crafted line ever could. It’s these minutiae which for me take Mad Men to another level, giving it an intrigue that continues to draw me back for a second – or tenth – watch.

So, what does this have to do with ‘lessons in work and life’? Well, the other part of Mad Men’s genius is that it’s simply much more than period drama about some flashy Madison Avenue advertising executives in the 1960s. True, on its surface it does appear to offer little of lasting value – it’s seemingly the trials and tribulations of a troubled yet obscenely rich and privileged generation living in one of the most prosperous eras of the 20th century (this assessment of course leaves aside the struggles of the African-American characters who fight for their civil rights throughout the entire series). But if you dig deeper, persevering with the slow-burn plot, you begin to uncover some valuable workplace truths that ring as true today as they did in the era in which Mad Men is set.


In season 1, episode 12, Pete Campbell a sneering junior account man, discovers that Don Draper, the mercurial creative advertising genius (and series lead character), is not who he says he is. Draper is found to have assumed the identity of his deceased commanding officer when both were caught up in an accident during the Korean War. Draper effectively becomes a deserter in order to escape the conflict and begin a new life as someone else. It’s revealed during Campbell’s discovery that the Don Draper we know is actually a man called Dick Whitman. Sensing an opportunity to further his standing within the company and get one over on his adversary, Campbell takes the career-ending information to firm director, Bert Cooper. Yet in the process of ratting-out Draper, Campbell is incredulous to find that Cooper does not care for who Draper may or may not be – “The Japanese have a saying: ‘A man is whatever room he is in’ and the man in this room is Donald Draper”. Upon asking Campbell to leave, Cooper gives permission for Draper to sack Campbell for his indiscretion but advises against this because “one never knows how loyalty is born”. Draper takes his advice, which pays off a number of different times throughout the series, to the point where both characters develop a grudging respect for one another. The scene demonstrates that while business is often cut-throat, without a sense of loyalty very few tend to go far. It’s the foundation on which all successful enterprises (and indeed relationships) are established, even those with rocky beginnings.

View the scene here.

Understanding value

 The first season’s finale provides viewers with one of the best scenes from the entire series. It’s not only some of the best three minutes of television ever put to film, but it’s also a masterclass demonstration in pitching and understanding a client’s value proposition. Kodak, a prospective client, have asked that the concept of the wheel be worked into a pitch for its latest product – a round loading device for slides that enable users to view numerous images without the need for manual changes. The Kodak representatives admit that this may prove a difficult task, as the wheel concept can hardly be considered a cutting-edge idea (especially in the space obsessed period of the early 1960s). Draper acknowledges this difficulty but then proceeds to direct the pitch in a wholly different direction, bringing the product into more relatable territory. Rather than the wheel, Don instead chooses to lead with the emotionally-charged idea of the carousel. The presentation ends with Kodak looking completely stunned – they believed they understood their product inside out but became too focused on its mechanical function, ultimately failing to capitalise on its true value.

View the scene here.

Not all business is good business

Granted, Don Draper isn’t a man to take life lessons from. That said, sometimes his judgement is better than most. In season 5 the firm is pitching for Jaguar, one man the agency must secure approval from his Herb Rennet, head of the dealer’s association. Rennet offers to support their bid to handle Jaguar’s advertising in exchange for a night with one of the agency’s staff, operations director Joan HollowayPete Campbell passes the proposition on to the company partners in a meeting, which sees Draper leave in anger. The other partners vote on whether to take up Rennet’s offer, acquiescing so long as Joan is also on board. She accepts in exchange for a 5 per cent voting partnership in the agency. Outvoted, Don has to work for the man in order to keep the Jaguar account, barely hiding his contempt for Rennet throughout. Rennet seizes on his ill-gotten power by deciding to humiliate Don, forcing him to take advertising tips from a teenager that works at one of Rennet’s garages. This proves the final straw for Don and he resigns the account on the spot, proving not all business is necessarily good business.

View the scene here.

Exercising good judgement

In season 3, while at a party Don chances upon an encounter with Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels. They share a few Old-Fashioned cocktails and discuss their modest beginnings; all the while Don is unaware that he is in the presence of a potentially huge client. Upon being invited to the presidential suite in Manhattan, Draper realises who he is dealing with. Hilton proceeds to ask for his advice about the hotel’s current creative advertising output, insisting the meeting is friendly in nature. Shrewdly realising that Hilton wants free consultancy simply because he is an important man, Don remarks “Connie, this is my profession, what do you do you want me to do?”. Shortly after this tense exchange, a formal pitch takes place at Don’s offices. Draper knows a contact as lucrative as this shouldn’t be allowed to capitalise on his talents merely because of prestige, business is business after all. The scene ultimately demonstrates the impact solid judgement has in the face of a power struggle – it also ends with one of the best metaphors uttered on television.

View the scene here.

Image credit: AMC

Keep up with the Magenta team online here: Twitter / Facebook / LinkedIn / Instagram 

Ben Keeley