The critically acclaimed AMC series Mad Men has been hailed by some as the most exciting show on television where nothing happens.
Sure, we’re treated with interesting characters, but there are no mysteries, no car chases, no exciting action sequences. It’s just a show about an advertising agency.
In the very first episode, Don Draper, the series lead, starts the show in the bed of an estranged woman in New York City but ends it kissing his wife and kids goodnight in the quiet suburbs of Ossining.
It’s surprising, yet not sensational.
In many regards, the show mimics the life of a modern-day copywriter. We fumble about spewing creative prowess, and although some of our work is surprising (hopefully in a positive manner), most days are not sensational. It’s a grind of a job. Output to an end, but with no end in sight.
In an ode to the show, we’ve decided to cover some of the most influential marketing and copywriting themes across its seven seasons. The show certainly has moral and societal faults, and some of the subject matter is controversial, but we’re going to focus on copywriting themes that still apply to the industry today.
Is Marketing an Art or a Science?
The very first of these is grounded in the modern phrase that marketing is both an art and a science. While the broader sense of this statement is true, it often serves as a false start for modern marketing teams.
Today, we have the luxury of real-time data that can account for the performance of our content and the preferences of our readers. And while this science is instrumental in the development of a strategy and structure to our marketing campaigns, it’s still just a jumping-off point. We still need to jump–to take a subjective leap of faith using our creative intuition–before an idea can become the art needed to execute a strategy.
This concept comes full circle in episodes six and eight of season one. The Belle Jolie Cosmetic Company comes to Sterling Cooper (the agency that employs Donald Draper) looking for a new advertising campaign for their line of lipstick. The strategy of the day for cosmetic companies was variety. Supply the shopper with hundreds of color options and they will choose at least one.
This is when Peggy Olson gets her first break as a copywriter. She’s Draper’s secretary, and as one of the women in the office, she’s invited to join the testing group for the lipstick in episode six. In a flurry, the other ladies swamp the color options, and Peggy is the last to pick through the box. Instead of picking up a remaining shade, she opts not to try any lipstick. At the end of the test, she’s asked why she didn’t participate.
“I didn’t get the one I liked. Someone took my color,” Peggy says. “I’m very particular…I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box.”
This revelation leads to Peggy getting a crack at the copy that Draper pitches to the client: “Belle Jolie: Mark Your Man.”
When it’s time to pitch to the client, Don uses Peggy’s observation as a selling point for a new strategy. Instead of telling the client what they want to hear, and what they think they know to be true, Draper tells them something very different but also true. Isn’t the core of any good marketing campaign? Tell your audience something they know to be true but have never heard.
The client is hesitant. This strategy is the opposite of the hundreds-of-options methodology used in the past. But of course, Draper convinces them.
“You’ve already tried your plan, and you’re number four. You’ve enlisted my expertise, and you’ve rejected it to go on the way you’ve been going…Every woman wants choices, but in the end, none want to be one of a hundred in a box. She’s unique. She makes the choices, and she’s chosen him…She marks her man with her lips. He is her possession. You’ve given every girl that wears your lipstick the gift of total ownership.”
After the client agrees and departs the conference room, he shakes hands with Draper and says, “Nice work. I think you may be right about this.”
“Well we’ll never know, will we?” Draper adds.
“It’s not a science Hugh, We’ll do our best.”
Add a notch to the win column for Mad Men.
Marketing is an Art Lead by Science
As much as we’ve heard that marketing is an art and a science, we must remember that it’s not purely a science. Not even close.
Marketing and copywriting are an art led by science. And that distinction means all the difference.
It can never truly be just an art because there is too much data available, even in Draper’s day, to simply ignore and not use. There need to be objective facts that lead us to the drawing board. Once at the board, art takes over. And then, a truly crucial step must be taken: a leap of faith.
The most subjective part of our anatomy is called into action: our gut.
We have the data, and we have the art, but we still need to hit run. We like it, so we go with it. We think it’ll work, so we give it a try. What could be more artistic and less scientific than intuition?
We like to think of this as creativity in a box.
Let’s assume all the data we’ve collected: target personas, market research, analytics from past campaigns, and feedback from the customer front line. When we combine these points, and the return on investment (ROI) goals for a campaign, very clear guardrails present themselves.
Inside the box, anything goes. As long as it stays in the box, we can be as creative as we want. We can tell clients they are wrong, that their idea of variety is different from the freshest or the most persuasive idea of the day.
After the pitch, Draper goes back to his office with his male colleagues, buzzes an anxiously awaiting Peggy on the intercom, and invites her into the office.
She enters, and they offer her a drink.
“You may be a copywriter after all,” Freddy Rumsin, a fellow copywriter, adds.
Although Draper’s comment about advertising not being a science was never alluded to again throughout the series, it’s an important one for modern marketers to heed.
It’s easy to fall victim to paralysis by analysis and take far too few leaps of faith. The leap is scary. But it’s important to remember that both courage and cowardice are simply branches on the tree of fear. We choose in the scary moments to either act or cower.
If you’re interested in growing, learning, and connecting with a community of like-minded copywriters, join The Copywriter Exchange for FREE. We may not be able to get you copywriting gig at a Madison Avenue agency, but we can help you find the balance between art and science and propel your copywriting career into the 21st century.
David J Ebner is the President of Content Workshop and an advisor to Copywriter Exchange. Before all of that, he was a freelance copywriter. David is the author of Kingmakers: A Content Marketing Story, a book designed to help writers leap into the content marketing world.