5 client lessons from ‘Mad Men’

Though the fictional account executives at Sterling Cooper focus on advertising campaigns, PR pros can glean knowledge from their successes and failures.


Don Draper and Peggy Olson might work at an advertising firm, but that doesn’t mean PR pros can’t apply the lessons they learn.

By the beginning of the show’s seventh and final season, Sterling Cooper (as it was originally known) had 83 clients in its portfolio, many of which—Cool Whip, Jaguar, Heinz Baked Beans, Clearasil, Kodak, Lucky Strike and Campbell’s Soup—are real brands that exist today.

Between the endless supply of office booze and relationship drama, the staff of Sterling Cooper has had to navigate client relationships, creative disputes and crisis situations.

Here are five client lessons PR and marketing pros can learn from “Mad Men”:

1. Listen to them.

“The day you sign a client is the day you start losing one,” Draper famously says.

Sterling Cooper’s loss of clients might have occurred because many account executives didn’t listen to them. From Menken’s department store to Heinz Baked Beans, Draper and Olson’s work was only as good as the client deemed it to be—and clients didn’t enjoy campaigns that didn’t keep their ideas in mind.

Perhaps you remember, too, the Hershey’s chocolate bar fiasco.

PR pros are hired for their knowledge and expertise, but you should know when it’s time to give advice, and when it’s time to listen.

This extends to more than just clients: Communications pros must also listen to their client’s audience, especially now that social media has made it so easy for people to voice opinions.

2. Know when enough is enough.

“You know what my father used to say?” Roger Sterling once asked. “‘Being with a client is like being in a marriage. Sometimes you get into it for the wrong reasons, and eventually they hit you in the face.'”

Though Sterling Cooper’s account executives, creative team and secretaries often went to great, sometimes even unethical, lengths to secure a client account or keep them happy, there comes a point when PR pros have to call it quits.

That point didn’t come when Ken Cosgrove lost an eye on the Chevy account, and it should have come before Joan Holloway secured the Jaguar Dealers Association account by sleeping with a member of the agency selection committee.

PR pros can cut down on bad client relationships by following PRSA’s Code of Ethics and establishing expectations—for both parties—before embarking on a campaign.

3. Loyalty goes a long way.

Though the account execs at Sterling Cooper didn’t seem to think any length was too far to go for the right client, they didn’t have a problem being unfaithful to gain a more lucrative account or to save the firm’s skin.

When Lucky Strike dumped the firm, Draper penned a letter in The New York Times saying he was relieved not to be advertising tobacco any longer. The stunt gave Sterling Cooper quite a bit of buzz, but Draper had to grovel to quite a few future clients.

PR pros should be up front about potential client conflicts and remember the Golden Rule: Do unto [your clients] as you would have them do unto you.

The rule can be applied to employees as well. Not only does a company’s loyalty and general treatment of its staff decrease turnover rate, but it saves brand managers from problems with angry former employees.

After all, as Ken Cosgrove said when he made the swift transition from employee to client, some people are “very hard to please.”

4. Have a crisis plan in place.

When an American Airlines jet crashed in a “Mad Men” episode, Draper ordered all Mohawk Airlines ads to be pulled to avoid a reputational crisis by association.

PR pros realize that crises don’t always result from internal mistakes. Instead, it’s essential that you stay vigilant and recognize trends and events that might affect your client’s brand.

Crisis situations should be thought of when creating campaigns, too. Campbell and Olson’s decision to stage a PR stunt and pay two actresses to fight over a Sugarberry ham gave them a slogan (“Our ham’s worth fighting for”) but came at a cost of an additional $280—bail and hush money after one of the actresses pressed charges.

In similar manner, many brands have suffered backlash for an ill-advised campaign or tweet. Preparing for the worst possible situation can save brands from a firestorm.

5. Form strong partnerships.

When Draper and competitor Ted Chaough realize neither of their firms will get the Chevrolet account because the brand executives want a large agency, the two men put aside their differences and partner up to become stronger.

The partnership wins them the account and several future clients, though working together is often rocky.

PR pros don’t have to force their firm to merge with others to gain strength in outside knowledge, ideas and expertise, however.

Attend conferences to boost areas in communications where you are weak, and join networking events to create relationships with other PR professionals who can continue to teach you—or possibly help you with a future client.

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