Ultimate PR Lessons From "Mad Men"

For eight years “Mad Men” has chronicled the golden age of American advertising and the rise of its most iconic agencies, but it also offered insights about public relations – the practice of PR more than the business itself. Here, then, in an homage to the show that’s kept us riveted throughout those years, are our favorite Sterling Cooper lessons and insights about public relations.

Perception is reality.
Perhaps because he’s reached lofty career heights by living a lie, Don is an expert on perception versus reality. Just as he has reinvented himself, he perpetually reshapes the agency, as in season four’s aptly named “Blowing Smoke.” When the agency is fired by Lucky Strike, Don moves to save its reputation by taking out a full-page newspaper ad to trumpet the fact that Sterling Cooper will no longer accept tobacco clients.  Talk about the ultimate spin!

News can trump paid advertising.
You knew that, of course. But it’s played up in a priceless, sitcommy way when Peggy cooks up a PR stunt to save the Sugarberry Ham account. She hires two actresses to stage a “food fight” over the last ham in a supermarket, and although the tussle turns violent and one actress ends up suing for assault, the agency does retain the business. Ironically, Don disapproves of the stunt, but the PR-savvy Peggy is the hero.

But earned media must be earned.
In the episode entitled “Public Relations,” Don utterly fails to charm a New York Times ad industry reporter who’s writing a profile on the hot young Creative Director, behaving instead like his typical witholding self. The result is a weak story about Don the cipher rather than the sparkling agency feature that SC hoped would propel its image.

Creativity is a meritocracy.
One of the best exchanges of the earlier seasons took place between Don and Peggy, when he dismisses the tagline she’s pitching. “That one’s yours,” she protests. “That doesn’t make it good,” he snaps. He’s right. In PR, as in advertising, even the top guy doesn’t nail it every time.

Great work doesn’t come cheap.
When in season three, Lane Pryce calls out Don and his team for excessive travel and office expenses, Don loses his temper. “You want to make money, start getting your nails dirty,” is not only about Lane and his own role at the agency. It’s also a reminder that, after a point, cost cuts are self-defeating in a creative service business. It’s the work, the quality of the service, and the relationships, that build an enduring business.

If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.
These were Don’s words to Peggy and they’re the favorite of most PR professionals because that’s what we strive to do. Even as uttered by a fictional character forty-plus years before the birth of social media, they’re a pretty fair summation of the challenge – and the power – of great PR.

Mad Men Enters The 70s And PR Looks Back

The final season of Mad Men advances the advertising and PR industries into the 70s along with fictional agency Sterling Cooper & Partners. The period is considered by many the decade of the “great shift.” America inches away from the public-spirited universalism of the 60s that birthed the Civil Rights movement toward the free-market economy that changed the face of business forever. 

Don and company would have likely had financial clients like the nascent KKR or Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, or even some tech startups like IBM or Atari.  The 70s also ushered in Richard Nixon and Watergate, which spawned an expansive, eager generation of young new journalists, and forever changed the way we “shorthand” any scandal.

And, in 1976, public relations pioneer Rex Harlow sought to define the field, using a grant to investigate 472 definitions of PR and breaking them into concepts. After analyzing his research, he came up with this comprehensive definition:

“Public relations is a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsible to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.”

From our vantage point in 2015, we offer evidence that the definition still holds today.

“Establish and maintain mutual lines of communication … between an organization and its publics.” With the advent of content development, self publishing, and open conversations via social media, this couldn’t be more true. The Public Relations Society of America, after an extensive process seeking to update its definition of public relations, came up with something very similar.

An outgrowth of the 24/7 news cycle is the ability to keep management on top of or even ahead of news. PR pros can act swiftly and responsibly to help clients become part of a story (as Crenshaw recently managed with client Retale and the Apple watch launch), or offer helpful opinion and commentary to further a position.

“Define and emphasize the responsibility of management to serve the public interest.” “No longer a nice-to-do, corporate social responsibility is now a reputational imperative…” according to an annual survey, and no company can afford to ignore a cause that has meaning to its constituency. For example, much of our work for a leading mattress company focused on providing new beds for returning veterans and disaster survivors.

“Help management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends.” Competition for media coverage has never been as fierce, so the savvy newsmakers are on trend or better yet, ahead of the trends. Crenshaw is helping Five Elements Robotics tell its story of creating Budgee, a personal robot for our aging population. Part of a burgeoning niche category,  Budgee is now gaining traction in key senior assistance and retail development trades.

“Use research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.” Research has always been the backbone of successful PR campaigns, and methods have only improved through the years. We would bring Harlow up to date here, adding research analytics tools to determine how PR campaigns impact a company’s bottom line. As for “ethical communications techniques?” There are innumerable instances of “bad behavior” in PR, resulting in public shamings our PR forebearers could have never imagined. Here’s hoping major lessons have been learned there.

5 Reasons Not To Ditch Your PR Agency And Go In-House

On the premiere episode of the final season of “Mad Men,” the ever-resourceful Joan tries to salvage the Butler Shoe account when she learns a new marketing head is bent on taking the advertising in-house, for reasons having more to do with his own ego than real business needs.

Realizing she’s in over her head, Joan meets with a university professor for a crash course on marketing and comes away with some effective arguments that help forestall the move.

Wouldn’t it be great for life to imitate art when a company is weighing that same decision – for less-than-sound reasons – with a PR account?  To save you the time of meeting with a  professor, here are five reasons why (sometimes) clients shouldn’t ditch their PR agency to go in-house.

PR agencies usually have the media relationships. Building trusting relationships with journalists takes time and effort and no one person can “own” all the beats. In an agency, many of the PR pros already have longstanding relationships are constantly building new ones. This doesn’t mean 100% guaranteed coverage, but it does cut through a lot of media red tape to get quicker responses and more meaningful feedback.

The PR firm can change as your account does. Agencies can allocate and re-allocate resources with the account requirements. Depending on the size of the campaign, there may be lots of legwork required. That means more staff and greater overhead. But when you hire an agency, they already have, or can muster, the manpower to carry out all the necessary tasks. Additionally, if a client has an insurmountable issue with an in-house hire, it could mean termination and starting over. In a good agency partnership, a personality conflict can be managed by changing the staff rotation.

A PR team is (relatively) objective. In a large, bureaucratic organization, it’s easy to get caught up in the corporate convention of doing things a given way because that’s how it’s always been done. Even in a smaller company, like a technology start-up, you can suffer from drinking too much of the corporate Kool-Aid. An objective point of view about the market opportunity, the company’s reputation, and its PR potential is very valuable.

PR agencies won’t stick to “safe” ideas. And when it comes to creative product, you don’t want them to! A good PR partner will push for risky ideas or strategies that may fly in the face of convention, or that in-house staffers might be too timid or reluctant to broach – yet, often with strong results.

PR agencies make the internal folks look good. Again, it is the nature of PR firms to constantly think of ways to delight their clients and also find ways to make the client the hero in the process. Make a good match with a firm and expect to reap benefits beyond great PR work.

Better Brand-Building Through Cultural Archetypes?

On this past week’s episode of “Mad Men”, Ted Chaough, while trying to dream up campaign ideas for a margarine, riffs on the notion that various category brands can be viewed through the lens of the very popular, very silly 60s-era sitcom, “Gilligan’s Island”.

The notion is that the seven ship passengers stranded on a desert island after what was to have been (sing along if you know the lyrics) “a three-hour tour,” embody archetypes that endure across time, cultures and disciplines like PR, marketing, and advertising.

Ad/marketing wisdom holds that twelve archetypes are useful in brand-building, helping creatives define the personality and character of a brand. Here is a look at a few of the types through some of today’s cultural icons and hot products. See if it helps you write your next PR proposal!

The Hero or Explorer is someone who will have a major impact on the world or help people be all they can be – Rick Grimes on “The Walking Dead” is your basic archetypal hero. A brand like Nike, with its glorification of the athlete and the nobility of competition, is often thought of as a “hero” brand.

The Innocent or Jester is exemplified by that which offers a simple solution to a problem and is associated with goodness, morality, simplicity, nostalgia or childhood. Brands like Dove Soap and Ben & Jerry fit the mold, and Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory” is a terrific example of an Innocent.

The Sage is distinguished by traits like truth, intelligence, and analysis. It has wealth of knowledge and an urge to share it. This archetype screams Carrie (Claire Danes) on “Homeland”, perhaps minus the bipolar aspects. It evokes brands like PBS or possibly even Google.

The Magician makes things happen. It makes dreams come true but can also be a bit of a manipulator, given its passionate and charismatic ways. Magician archetypes include Walter White on “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men”’s own Don Draper. Magical brands might be anything from Apple or perhaps Disney.

The Lover archetype, is no surprise, physically and emotionally attractive, passionate and helps people have a good time – put Victoria’s Secret and Godiva Chocolate there and think Sophia Vergera of “Modern Family” as the TV embodiment.

Recognize any of your clients in the archetypes?

A PR Agency’s Take On Mad Men

As the season winds down on one of my favorite shows (that just happens to focus on an industry close to my own) it’s fun to look at what the show got “right” about our world of agencies and clients. Granted, the season isn’t over yet – the agency could sink a big fish client as Don wants, or be happy with their mid-size roster for awhile or even resign Jaguar, what with all its unpleasant associations (namely unsavory sex and suicide), but I think there were some key themes that resonate with today’s mad men and women.

Show don’t tell, all the better to sell

This little axiom proved out during the season most memorably as Don and pretty new wife Megan used their wit and banter to demonstrate to potential client Heinz the agency’ skill in getting housewives to buy more baked beans. During what appears to be just normal chatter between themselves and the Heinz head and his wife, Megan skillfully cues Don to talk colorfully about their own family dinners and, voila, the personal touch sells better than any boards and copy could.

There will always be bad bosses

New copywriter Ginsberg begins to gain real traction as a creative force and even stands up to Don pushing a campaign idea for new client Sno-Cone. Don, feeling old, threatened, jealous or all of the above, demonstrates the worst creative director qualities by leaving Ginsberg’s work in the cab. He pitches only his own idea (featuring a devil, not subtle symbolism!) and closing the deal. Ginsberg never knows about this bad boss behavior but Don later tells Ginsberg “I never think about you at all.” Ouch, bad boss, very bad boss.

Women need to know their worth

It is the mid-60’s on the show, and women have made great strides in the business world but are still treated as 2nd-class citizens (or in Joan’s case, as “chattel!”) Peggy spent much of the season chafing at a perceived (actual?) relegation to solely “female brands” and the knowledge that although she could belt them back with the boys, she wasn’t competing on the pay scale. When she dips one tiny toe into the job market, she is amply rewarded by a great competitive offer and she jumps. Although Don tries to counter, it seems desperate and emboldens Peggy all the more to move to a better work environment. Sadly, this women’s wage gap is still true, with the recent failure of the Paycheck Fairness Act, so the 60s are not dead!

How To Be Creative Under Pressure

An episode of “Mad Men” featured Don Draper and Peggy Olson wrestling with a tough creative challenge – how to dream up a breakthrough campaign for Samsonite. Don dismisses a celebrity pitchman as a “lazy” strategy, then criticizes Peggy’s next round of ideas as variations on a theme – a boring one.

At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a booze-soaked all-nighter always seems to result in a clever campaign idea. But what about creative heavy lifting in the real world? Though I personally work better when the pressure’s on (like most agency people), a looming deadline, coupled with Draper-like feedback, can be a real creativity-killer. And, unlike our advertising colleagues, PR pros have to unpack ideas that are not only brand-relevant, but inherently newsworthy. How to work against the clock when everything seems like so much useless baggage?

To gain inspiration, I spoke to some of the most creative professionals I know and searched my own background for the most reliable lessons for producing under pressure.

Let it flow. You can sometimes unblock your thoughts by going back to the drawing board and dreaming up as many quick ideas as you can, – including stupid, impractical, nonsensical, or crazy concepts. One creative I used to work with would start each session with the preamble, “Okay, let’s think about ideas that will get us fired.” It removes the fear of rejection or of seeming stupid – both enemies of invention.

Don’t panic. Fear chills creative thinking, of course. If panic strikes, I start a “write-around” (prepare everything but the centerpiece idea) to gain control over the assignment, then return to the brainstorm process. Others walk around the block, do something else for a while, or even have a drink. (But beware the effects of the “Mad Men”-style three-martini lunch on the creative process, as recounted here.)

Keep on plugging. I’m a firm believer in the inspiration/perspiration rule. Keep at it, in the form of frequent creative sessions, punctuated by breaks and fresh participants where possible. Every hour brings you closer to a workable idea.

Keep it simple. Rather than shooting for the next Old Spice viral phenomenon, focus on a simple idea, well packaged and executed. Simplicity is the soul of creative problem-solving.

Get some fresh brains on the case. It’s easy to lose your objectivity – not to mention your enthusiasm – for a creative task, so send in the outfield if you can. When I’m stuck after hours, I ask my husband to be a sounding board. Sometimes an outside perspective is helpful, sometimes it’s not. But anything beats listening to your own thoughts.

Get visual. Use white boards, inspiration panels, color, shapes, or images to get your thoughts going. I know copywriters who swear by mind maps. I’m too text-oriented to find them very useful, but many creatives do.

Change your environment. When I”m stuck, I find it surprisingly helpful to change positions, walk into another room,  or even rearrange my office. It’s a metaphor for changing your viewpoint, and it sometimes does exactly that.

Sleep. I’m amazed at how often physical factors like fatigue come up as thought-stoppers in conversations with people who make a living selling their ideas. The mind-body connection is powerful, which is probably why I always feel more creative in the morning, and why some people swear by catnaps.

Play. Do a crossword puzzle, play a board or word association game, or role play. It unleashes the imagination and helps you think laterally, which is the key to solving creative problems.

Psych yourself. A marathon runner friend once told me that, when the going gets tough, he tells himself how tired all the other runners are getting, a reminder that mental strength can make the difference. This applies in business too. While the competition’s sleeping, you’re still working. There’s no advantage like perseverance.

Top Five Agency Lessons From “Mad Men”

I’m a mad fan of “Mad Men.” But I confess it’s not the soap-opera-esque personal life of ad man Don Draper that had me hooked all season. It’s life at Sterling Cooper, the fictional, but true-to-life agency. From the client meetings and internal politicking, to the bon mots of insouciant principal Roger Sterling, “Mad Men” is…well, pitch-perfect. Several episodes (like the department store client meeting from Season 1) mirrored experiences I had at major PR firms in the nineties. The more things change…

So, what can we learn from “Mad Men”? I’ve been taking notes during Season 3, right up to the killer finale that aired last night. The series, with its great writing and inside-baseball knowledge of the agency biz, offers some surprisingly up-to-date wisdom for just about anyone in a creative services firm, whether advertising, PR, or other. Here are some of my favorite nuggets from Season 3. SPOILER WARNING: This post contains references to the major reveal of “Mad Men”‘s finale, so read no further if it’s still on your DVR list. (But, if you’re clever, you saw it coming.)

#1. Relationships are everything. We saw the importance of personal chemistry throughout this season, but John Slattery’s Roger Sterling had the best line. After Pete missteps with the Admiral TV client by pressing his idea to target African Americans, an infuriated Sterling shouts, “I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you that half the time this business comes down to ‘I don’t like that guy.'” Couldn’t have said it better.

What’s more, intra-agency relationships are the lifeblood of the business. Don learns that the hard way in the last episode, when he realizes he must mend his relationship with Roger if his plan to start a new firm has a chance of working. Then, he has to hammer out a new, more equitable relationship with Peggy, by admitting her value to him.

#2. Never underappreciate the account guy. (Because, relationships are everything.) When I started work at Grey Advertising’s PR unit, I originally dismissed the account post as being for drones. The typical ad agency structure is unlike that of most PR firms, where account people often have strategic, creative and media roles. With Creative dreaming up campaigns, Media Buying handling the schedules, Strategic Services on research, etc., I thought the Account Directors were glorified client hand-holders. I was wrong.

As Draper himself confesses after his bumpy relationship with client Conrad Hilton ends, “I can run Creative, but I’m not an account guy.” It’s harder than it looks, folks. The keeper of the client relationship deserves not only respect, but as much appreciation as we can give.

#3. Never let them see you sweat. This one’s counterintuitive on the surface. But, another great agency truism is uttered by Lane Pryce, the delightful overseer-cum-bean counter for British holding company PPL, which has acquired Sterling Cooper. Pryce breaks the news to Pete that his rival Ken Cosgrove will be promoted over him. He explains that Pete’s done a fine job of meeting his clients’ needs, but that Cosgrove “has the rare gift of making them feel as if they haven’t any needs.” To me, this is about staying ahead of your clients. Anticipating is critical.

#4. For those in the idea business, creativity is a meritocracy. One of the best exchanges this season takes place between Draper and Peggy, when he dismisses the tagline she’s pitching as flat. “That one’s yours,” she protests. “That doesn’t make it good,” he snaps. He’s right. Even the Boy Genius Creative Director doesn’t nail it every time.

#5. Great work – not cost-cutting – leads to profits over the long term. When, in an earlier episode, Don and his colleague are called on the carpet about their travel expenses, Don loses his temper with Pryce, saying, “You want to make money, start getting your nails dirty…think of the men’s morale, not your own.” It’s another reminder that, after a point, cost cuts are self-defeating in a service business. It’s the work, the quality of the service, and the relationships, that build an enduring business.

For more “Mad Men” analysis in general terms, check out my favorite blogs by Salon, Time‘s James Poniewozik, and MediaPost’s “Mad Blog” by the terrific Dorothy Parker, which usually posts mid-week.