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Strategic Planning and Management Insights

Important Business Strategy Lessons from Emmy Winning Mad Men

[fa icon="calendar"] October 31 / by Jason Heckl

Set in 1960’s New York City, AMC’s Mad Men features Sterling Cooper, a fictional advertising agency on Madison Avenue, while detailing the everyday lives of its members at work and at home. A winner of several Emmys and Golden Globes, the show is widely praised as historically authentic, well written and stylistically appealing.

While giving viewers a taste of what business is like from every corner of the office, Mad Men focuses on Don Draper, a talented creative director with a troubled past and Peggy Olsen, an ambitious secretary turned copywriting chief.


The plot explores the shifting moods and social conventions of the 1960's- including presidential campaigns, war and human rights, and weaves them into the characters’ daily business environment. Meanwhile in the office, each character is plagued by the effects of alcoholism, sexual banter and social immobility. 

In today’s business environment that includes the internet and its array of outcomes, Mad Men’s world of typewriters and smoking in the office may seem distant. However, each episode includes interactions that are relevant today, along with classic, proven business lessons that have stood the test of time:

On Loyalty

In the beginning, Sterling Cooper carried Mohawk Airlines as a client. Mohawk routinely admired the creative work, paid their bills on time and were a pleasure to work with. Eventually, on recommendation from the new and externally sourced head of accounts, Sterling Cooper fired Mohawk as a client for a chance to pitch American Airlines. American’s potential billings were 7 times that of Mohawk’s, but Sterling Cooper never ended up winning the business. In the end, the firm threw away a loyal client for a wink from someone else. 

Although loyalty to current clients is important, it may be even more so to earn the loyalty of your hard-working and talented employees. To learn more about holding onto your most valuable employees: Keeping your employees longer, happier and more engaged.


On Handling a Crisis

In the 1960’s, tobacco companies spent millions on advertising and saw steady sales numbers, making them the best type of client in the ad industry. Lucky Strike Cigarettes was a longtime client of Sterling Cooper. Eventually, a Lucky Strike senior executive shares the company’s plan to leave the agency with the account manager at a cocktail bar. Before the word spread, Don decides to get in front of the crisis- taking out a full page ad in the New York Times announcing Sterling Cooper is breaking up with the tobacco industry. The move showed conviction on behalf of the firm, and would eventually earn them other clients in light of the highly publicized connection between smoking and cancer.

In most organizations, a crisis usually isn’t so dramatic or publicized. Instead, they’ll be disguised as risks that have the potential to change your industry or business in the future. To learn more about combating those risks: Assessing your plan for risk.


On Nurturing Talent

Peggy Olson started her career at Sterling Cooper as Don’s personal secretary. There was a female secretary for every man with an office at Sterling Cooper, and nobody ever manages to climb the ladder- except for Peggy. When participating in a focus group early on in the series, Peggy impressed the creative team when she provided valuable insight for a makeup account. From then on, she gradually earned more accounts and would become the first woman with her own office. She would eventually be promoted to copy chief- head of the copywriters (there are a lot) because of her skill and ability to outwork everyone else. 

Nurturing top talent is a key to the longevity of your organization and the reputation it obtains. However, the process of finding top talent starts before the hiring process. Ultimately, it will come down to being a desirable place to work. The best talent will be attracted to the values your organization demonstrates. To learn more: How to define your organizational values.


On Culture

In the first season, the culture at Sterling Cooper was individualistic and fearless- ready to challenge any competitor and pitch any business. It was this attitude that earned them a reputation of hard workers mixed with great creative. However, things would change in season 2 when the firm is bought and eventually merged with a larger British advertising firm. The firm was no longer the scrappy upstart it once was. It wouldn’t be until the end of the series when the founders break off from the British firm to start out fresh and restore the culture that had made them successful in the first place.

Whether you can define it or not, every organization has a culture. Sometimes it’s the little things, while sometimes it’s vibrant and visible from outside. To learn more about the impact of culture: Benefit from an open and respectful culture.


On Networking

Without the use of the internet or mobile phones, the characters in Mad Men rely on lunches, parties and even funerals for networking opportunities. On the wedding day of his boss and former secretary, Don makes acquaintance with an older man at the open bar. Although he was unaware at the time, this man would represent one of the biggest business opportunities the firm would ever see. Weeks later, Don is surprised by a call from the mysterious man from the wedding. The man was Conrad Hilton, and the firm would eventually earn the business of the Hilton hotel chain.


On Embracing New Technology

Early on, the head of the television department recommends buying a computer for the office, mentioning the potential competitive advantage and positive PR to be had. At the time, a computer was no small purchase and required its very own space. When the firm decides to bring in the computer, it is given a permanent home in the old creative lounge.  This is a symbolic moment in the story line- the computer competing with the humans, and literally taking space away from them. Although a tough pill to swallow at first, the computer is able to earn the firm a leg up on the competition and TV networks, allowing them to execute targeted media buys based on data.

In today’s business environment, new technologies are created and adapted by organizations at a constant rate. In order to avoid being overwhelmed and surpassed by the pace of technological change, it’s important to consider technology in your organization’s strategic plan. For more info on how to stay on top of your tech: Tech resolutions for your business.


On Strategic Planning

The management team from Mad Men is dedicated to strategic planning, and demonstrate their commitment when throughout the series when the firm is up, down, falling apart or being merged with. The team likes to keep their circle small, and usually limits strategic meetings to just the partners. They meet with regularity to discuss and plan for everything from day-to-day operations to the long term vision.

The importance of strategic planning cannot be overstated, regardless of your organization’s size, structure or industry. Whether you team meets weekly, quarterly or yearly, having the intention to plan for the future is always a step in the right direction. Having a dedicated strategy session can be stressful for some - especially when key members of your management team are stepping away from running the organization for hours or days. For more information on how to best prepare for your strategy session: Planning a Strategy Session? Read this First.

If you’re able to look past the omnipresent themes of alcoholism, sexism and general rambunctiousness that existed in a 1960’s New York City office building, there are time-tested business strategy lessons that shine through. No matter the era, there is always something to learn.


Need to develop or evaluate your strategic plan?
Find out why working with a facilitator can help you maximize the value of your next strategy meeting:


Topics: Business strategy

Jason Heckl

Written by Jason Heckl

Jason is the digital marketing specialist and part of the client partnership team at SME Strategy. He has experience in web design, social media and content marketing. He spends his time engaging with community members, writing web content and working with analytics.

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