Mad Men: Don Draper’s 10 Secrets of Career Success

Don Draper, the dashing lead character in the television series Mad Men, is a master in the art of re-invention. His story is taken to the extreme, as he architected his ascent from humble beginnings to the top of Madison Avenue in the 1960s.

Flash forward to today — a difficult economic environment with many vying for fewer upwardly mobile career slots.

What can be learned from Don’s skills and strategies?

Here’s an analysis — from my perch as talent advisor and former ad agency VP:

  • #1  Lack of Privilege. Don entered the world in the ultimate state of indignity. His mother was a prostitute who died giving birth to him. He was dumped on the wife of his cheating, abusive father — an unwelcome addition to the family and on-going reminder of the infidelity.  It didn’t discourage him, it propelled him.
  • #2  Visionary. Don was a have-not in a world of haves. Every life experience magnified the disadvantage of his childhood status and the allure of a better place.  He would escape to the dark of the cinema and fantasize living the life he observed on the bright silver screen. He had clarity, ambition and determination.
  • #3 Opportunistic. When his commanding officer was killed in the bunker, Don seized a lifeline by trading G.I. tags and undertaking a new identity. Wounded and in a state of delirium, he still had the grit and wherewithal to break out of the box of his reality and into the potential of his future. He lives his mantra, “Move forward.”
  • #4 HANDSOME! ! ! ! Women swoon over Don’s good looks. And guys consider him a man’s man. What a delightful and beneficial distraction as he’s striving to jump onto a new path to prosperity. Recipients of fibs and fakery along the way probably didn’t even notice, as they were no doubt dazzled by his considerable dazzle. Clearly it was an asset he was able to package and deploy.
  • #5 Core Talent.  Don is a gifted story-teller, as wife Betty notes when confronting him about his double life. His talent was born out of ignominy, desire for escape and the complexity of living a lie. He knows first-hand the desperation of want — an insight that would evolve as a secret competitive weapon.  He has the power to persuade.
  • #6 Savvy Targeting. Don is not adept with money or the mechanics of business. He knows how to sell and compel. Thus he chose a brilliant career track: the go-go world of advertising. It was the glamorous, highly-compensated Master of the Universe profession of its time and a growth field, to boot.
  • #7 Act and Dress the Part. To elevate into a new echelon, industry or company, you must embody the culture and nuances.  You have to fit in.  Don may have the private behavior of an alley cat, but in public he displays the patina of the elite.  He has impressive board room presence.   He is indignant at impolite behavior. ”Take off your hat,” he orders uncouth gents in the elevator.
  • #8 Massive Capacity to Hold Liquor. Who isn’t amazed at the proliferation of alcohol and womanizing depicted on the show? No wonder they called it the Swinging Sixties!  That said, Don is generally cool, credible and in control when on duty for Sterling Cooper business. No blithering or dialing drunk. An excellent lesson, always.
  • #9 Work Ethic. Despite the drinking and extracurricular activities, Don puts out the work — in spades. He is constantly jotting, thinking, researching. He gets out of bed in the middle of the night when his client Conrad Hilton beckons. The original 24/7 man, he also demands high performance of others.  When turning down copywriter Peggy Olsen for a raise, he tells her, “You’re good. Get better!”
  • #10 Supportive Sponsor. You can’t get from here to there all by yourself. Neither did Don. You need a network of support — at the top.  Ad agency owners Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling were good star-pickers. They took Don under their wings, nurtured, challenged and rewarded him. But they called in their chits when they needed him to sign an employment contract in order to win and retain key clients.
  • Bonus Boost:  The Better Half. Don was strategic and savvy in wooing a wife who would fit his future standing. Betty had breeding and Grace Kelly beauty.  She came from the Philadelphia Main Line, a Bryn Mawr alumna.  She knew how to ”keep help” and run a proper, tastefully-appointed home. She bore him a daughter — and two sons to carry on his made-up name.  With Betty, he had the complete package.

But it wasn’t enough for Don. Or was it too much? Maybe more than he deserved?

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  1. you omitted psychological damage:

    pathological narcissism characterized by a profound lack of empathy or guilt.

    "you're not good at relationships because you don't value them." roger sterling to don draper in season 3 finale.

  2. As usual a great column. You're a terrific writer. I am often struck by the similarities in the at work and at home styles of Don Draper and Tony Soprano.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Keene