6 Business Ideas We Learned From Mad Men

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For those of you who binged all 92 episodes of Mad Men like we did, you’ll probably agree that hidden among the dubious lies and sordid affairs were some pretty intriguing business ideas. So good, that in fact this year Heinz rolled out an ad in New York City that was created for the TV show.

Here are a few business lessons we’ve picked out from the slickers on Mad Men.

1. Advertising is about making people happy

One of the first things we ever hear Don Draper espouse - advertising, good advertising, is about eliciting an emotional response from viewers. It’s about making people see themselves becoming a (better, happier, more interesting) person by using your services. As the copywriters demonstrate, turning a good ad campaign into a great one takes really understanding how people in your market think and being open to learning about them. Few buying decisions are completely rational, and understanding psychology is an important step in making people-centered products and services.

2. Get someone different from you on your team

Let’s be real - Peggy Olson was one of the best characters on the show. She was tough, creative, ambitious, but also caring and level-headed. She was a woman playing a man’s game and spent seasons building up respect on Madison Avenue. She also came in with new ideas and insight about women that most of the big-shot copywriters were completely oblivious to. While they were trying to advertise lipstick and tampons to women, none of the other writers had any personal experience with the products.

Peggy, plus other characters like Dawn Chambers and Michael Ginsberg, are hired either as a token minority or with great hesitance (or both). However, despite the fact that their peers underestimate them, they prove to be invaluable employees that bring new perspectives.

For those running businesses, it is much easier to hire people that look like you, or that know “how the industry works”. But that mindset can hold you back, as Mad Men (and real life) shows.

3. Reward your employees for taking initiative

Peggy Olson is a barrier-breaker when it comes to working her way up the chain on Madison Avenue - but it wouldn’t have happened if co-founder of Sterling Cooper, Roger Sterling, hadn’t given her the chance to run with her idea. Peggy had managed to get an account on her own (when no one expected her to, and when it was going nowhere before she stepped in). However, once she gets the account she is expected to sit on the sidelines and let the old boy’s club do the rest.

That’s a surefire way to lose talent. If an employee shows potential by taking initiative, taking a risk and following it through, know that they’re an employee worth mentoring and fostering. Rewarding proactivity can come in many ways, but keeping an organisation fluid so high performers can actually move up is something that too many large companies with embedded hierarchies lack. Creating a culture in the workplace where people are encouraged to think up new ideas and are rewarded for trying them out helps incentivise performance.

4. Creativity doesn’t cut it - you have to test, too.

Some of the more amusing scenes in Mad Men come from focus groups, in which we see groups of people testing out products and the ad agency watching to see what clicks. The idea of testing out your products, website and marketing campaigns on groups outside your immediate circle is crucial.

Today, we have loads of ways we can get information on what people like to buy. Consumer research and industry surveys, data from social media and audience insights, and yes - the good old focus group.

5. Don’t make the customer do the research

One of Draper’s most compelling features as an ad-man is the fact that he does the work for the client and for the customer. Instead of asking what his clients want, he gives them options based on what he thinks they want and what he knows he can do. Taking a pro-active approach at every level, rather than waiting for your customers to tell you what they are looking for, is an important business development technique.

Showing that you know everything there is to know about your business and industry builds trust. By demonstrating to your customers that you’re the expert, and that you can define for them what’s important in your field, you’re allowing the customer or client to go along with what you suggest for them.

That doesn’t mean you can get arrogant and think you know better than your customers or clients to the point where you ignore them -- it’s important to really listen to their feedback and take it into account, otherwise you could miss out on important product developments and opportunities.

6. Simplify choice

One of the early campaigns in Mad Men is for Belle Jolie lipstick. After a few major setbacks for Sterling Cooper, Belle Jolie decides to cut down their huge range of a million shades of lipstick into just a handful - then encouraging women to turn that lipstick into their own by “marking their man”. Although a lipstick campaign about marking a man wouldn’t fly so much these days, the idea behind it actually pulls weight.

Giving us fewer options to choose from allows us to convince ourselves we actually have made a rational decision. For example, in a study done for a jam company, when there were 24 jams put out in a grocery store for samples, more people came to look. However, when they narrowed it down to just 6 jams for tasting, way more people actually bought.

Most best-selling companies offer a simple, direct product line with only a few choices. Sure, Apple could make sixteen different phones. Instead, they have about three on the market at any one time, and encourage users to customise it and personalise it.

When customers are overloaded with choice, they can easily get overwhelmed because they’re not sure exactly what to do. Keeping a product line simple, but with plenty of possibility for user customisation, is what sells.

Elkfox helps online commerce companies grow and develop. Talk to us today about how to improve your marketing, website and digital services - or how to make a Mad Men breakfast (a cigarette and neat scotch at 10am, with misogyny on the side).

* All images from Mad Men