On Sunday, May 17th, 2015 AMC television channel’s long-running show Mad Men will come to an end. I love Mad Men, and will be very sad to see it go. I’ve watched as much of the Mad Men Marathon as I possible could, and being ill comes in as a plus in that regard: I can sit and watch and not feel guilty about it.
But why was and is Mad Men so successful? Well, I’m not going to do internet research to find the answer to that question. I’m going to use me as the source: Mad Men is popular because it’s a detailed layer cake history lesson on an era that some of us grew up in and remember.
It also has good lessons for people who run their own small companies and I didn’t realize that until later, and indeed, while thinking about what I got out of the show and why it has been so successful.
In my case, as a black American, my story isn’t really told in Mad Men, but I was alive then, and wish that Matt Weiner had met me before he came up with the show idea. Of course, I can create my own show concept, but that’s beside the point.
See Mad Men is successful because it’s real – it is a true soap opera: it has characters we are interested in and dealing with situations we are familiar with. Don Draper’s flights of fantasy that cause him to miss work for days. His wife Betty’s desire to get laid by whatever handsome salesman knocks at her door as a way of dealing with a life of suburban drudgery. Draper’s getting every hot woman around. Pregnancies. Abortions. Robberies. Jealously. The list goes on. Those issues are timeless.
Over the years, we’ve seen our favorite characters handle these situations, and many others, sometimes with aplomb, other times, not. For me, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is my favorite on Mad Men other than Mr. Draper, and the reason is his philosophy of business, one not stated openly but can be pieced together: he seems to take it all in stride.
Take the one episode early in the series where he said to Draper: “So we lose a client and have some down time. That means we cut back. Let’s go find someone to fire.” now that may seem cold to you but to a person who runs his own business, it says a lot of things to me that I take as advice:
First, you can maintain your business if you change how much you spend from it.
Second, in order to keep your business, you have to cut back when less money comes in.
Third, it’s cool to have the freedom to have your own business and be able to do that.
And finally, some people don’t want to make such changes or run their own business and you’re not one of them.
I got a lot of good advice on running my business from a television character, but believe me, I needed to hear it. It came at a time when I was wondering if I should just junk my company and do something else. But when I heard Roger say the words I typed above, I changed my mind.
Or how about the time Roger said “Look. A lot of business is based on ‘I don’t like that guy.”
What I’ve learned is that part of the success of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price was accepting the ups and downs of business as part of life: taking it all in stride. Looking back, any one of a number of problems could have sunk SCDP, yet that didn’t happen at all.
What happened was the fits and starts and ups and downs all added up to one big place where Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price realizes the fate startup entrepreneurs dream of: they got acquired.
I can only hope.
I’ll miss Mad Men and it’s life lessons for business. But one other thing I can’t get out of my mind is that I saw John Slattery at the 2008 Leigh Steinberg Super Bowl Party in Arizona. That was just about the time Mad Men was getting going. John was sitting by himself. Not talking to anyone. I didn’t go over as I figured he wanted to be left alone.
I also didn’t know who he was at the time, but I did know I’d seen him before.
I wonder what he’s like now, after so many years of playing Roger Sterling on Mad Men. What did he get out of playing that role? Well, I suppose, one thing he landed was a level of success that approached Mr. Sterling’s, but I’d love to see if the same point of view that impacted me had some effect on him.