“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.” – Don Draper, Mad Men
Ah, that silver-tongued devil! In fifteen years, Mad Men’s Don Draper has climbed from Korean War deserter to partner at a swanky ad agency in the freewheeling sixties. He prowls Madison Avenue decked in tailored Brooks Brothers suits, feasting on Chicken Kiev at the five-star restaurants, with the finest scotch and smokes always within reach. He lives the dream: The high rise pad; The ex-trophy wife; the Cadillac Coupe de Ville; money, awards, security andhealth. He epitomizes the best and brightest at the twilight of advertising’s golden age.
Could he benefit from an MBA? How would Don Draper be different if his resume sported the most coveted degree of our time? Is he Harvard Business School material or more a Wharton-type of candidate?
After all, he may seem to have it all—or almost—but Draper’s world will soon be upended. Disaffected youth will lay siege to the social contract. Women and minorities will vie for their fair share. The culture will grow coarsened and cynical. And emerging mediums and demographics will splinter advertising messaging forever. In the office, the boys-will-be-boys culture of drinking, napping, and copping feels will inevitably result in pink slips (if not lawsuits).
Don Draper may be at the top of his profession now, but it can’t last. And that brings up an intriguing question: Would further education, particularly a MBA, help Don Draper get further ahead (even as he enters his forties)? Suspend your disbelief and look at Draper using these criteria:
Salesmanship: Sales is the most critical facet of business – and it’s here where Draper excels. After Korea, Draper honed his sales instincts peddling cars and furs to flesh-and-blood people. Unlike Ivy Leaguer Pete Campbell, who is steeped in theory, Draper never forgets the pitch is about people. He ignores fads, industry jargon, and convention. Instead, he forces clients, such as London Fog, to put themselves in their customers’ shoes. He shares stories, using analogies and metaphors to make their own products feel fresh and urgent to them. He can also pinpoint a single item – such as Lucky Strike cigarettes being “toasted” – to make a product stand out (even when it’s no different than competitors). And it’s this talent – the ability to understand and convey the underlying needs of the end user – that cannot be taught in a classroom.
Networking: Considering Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s finances, Don Draper should be polishing his resume. Certainly, he has a pristine reputation in advertising…but times change. His partners are dinosaurs who are growing increasingly out of touch with the industry and its culture. And their connections are slowly being replaced by a younger crop of executives. Eventually, Draper will need to switch industries. An MBA program would certainly help him build a larger network that might ease his inevitable transition.
Street Smarts: Draper symbolizes the classic question: Are book smarts or street smarts a better predictor of success? Draper makes a compelling case for the latter. He has deliberately branded himself a mystery. It gives him an aura, adding weight to his words and actions. When needed, Draper can easily connect with his clients and employees. Once he seals the deal, he drifts away again. As a result, Draper is a Rorschach, someone who can be what others want for a short time. It’s no different than the brands he builds. In his world, persona counts as much as persuasion. Of course, opportunism is nearly as important. Draper conned his way into Sterling Cooper by claiming a drunken Roger Sterling hired him. That’s probably not a tactic taught at Darden. In the end, it is result, not process, that’s remembered.
Ethics: If you’re looking for a character role model, it ain’t Draper. He cheated on his wife Betty and stole another man’s identity. Still, he seems to play by a loose code of ethics. When Draper inadvertently poaches an applicant’s idea, he hires him to make up for it. If a client wants him to implement a bad idea, such as marketing jai-alai, he doesn’t follow along just to keep the business. He walks away. Could B-school give Draper a clearer compass? Sure, but it is probably too late in life for him to change. If he does, it’ll probably stem from adversity rather than urging.
Personnel Management: “You want some respect? Go out and get it for yourself.” Those words epitomize Don Draper’s worldview, where he measures people strictly on talent and results. He expects the very best – and he doesn’t sugarcoat his opinions. In fact, he can be harsh and alienate people. In Don’s words, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” It’s his version of Andy Grove’s “Only the paranoid survive.” As a result, employees have to constantly raise their games to keep the business. And that can be exhausting.
Still, Draper employs strategies used by the best managers. He is hands-off, giving his people time and space to think and test. In fact, he’ll dump his own ideas if someone proposes better ones. Draper focuses on a client’s best interests, keeping his people working on the tactics while he manages the larger strategy. Despite these positives, Draper is often oblivious to his employees’ concerns. For example, he snaps, “That’s what the money is for!” when Peggy Olson observes that he never says ‘Thank you.’ Sometimes, he gives recognition, but it is usually short and private. An MBA management course might soften some of Don’s rough edges, particularly if he learns ways to make his people more productive.
Business Management: This is Draper’s Achilles heel. He may be courageous enough to launch a new agency. But he lacks the patience to handle the daily nuts-and-bolts. And he certainly couldn’t drop off the grid in California at a moment’s notice. His agency is already hobbled by Joan Holloway’s maternity leave, with the books being held together by “spit” in her absence. With aging partners and layoffs imminent, Don needs to take a more active role in his agency’s finances and operations. Unfortunately, his lack of education here makes him a liability. More than anywhere, this is where a MBA could help Don fill his experience gaps.
Personal Branding: Don Draper has this part down pat. Between his matinee looks and swagger, Draper understands that he is the package. People gravitate toward him and want to please him. He has the “it’ factor you can’t teach in school. But there is substance behind the style. An iconoclast, Draper relishes in challenging his customers’ thinking. He doesn’t subscribe to the notion that “he customer knows best.” Instead, he believes it is his job, as an outside expert, to provide ideas instead of validation. That’s what clients should expect from him, take it or leave it. Don lives in the moment. This mindset alone would make it difficult for Draper to stick around in an MBA program. The readings and discussions would just seem too abstract and irrelevant to him. They wouldn’t produce anything beyond the school walls.
The Bottom Line: Some people just aren’t out cut out for school. That certainly applies to Don Draper. Husband and father – and already wildly successful – it has been difficult picturing Don giving up two years in a MBA program, let along spending his evenings or weekends in an executive program. Even if he were accepted, Draper would probably duck out early, skip classes, or allow his mind would wander…likely to the redhead in the next row of desks.
Fact is, Draper doesn’t need a MBA to give him either confidence or freedom. The man can flat out sell. And there is always a place for someone like that. As history shows, his job – and place in society – will gradually change. Question is, will Draper have the tools to adapt – tools he could develop in an MBA program? I’m betting he can re-invent himself. Guess we’ll find out over the next three seasons.
Writer’s Note: Ever notice how Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne bears a striking resemblance to Roger Sterling? It must be the hair.